Olivier Messiaen at 100

"He who sings well, prays twice", said Saint Augustine (and we must not forget that caveat, who sings well!). Music and prayer are closely inter-twined in the great world religions and no one in the twentieth century so inextricably linked the two than the composer and organist, Olivier Messiaen, whose centenary we celebrate this year. A few years ago when I was interviewed on a program for the Australian Broadcasting Company, the host insisted I choose a piece of music for background and that we would discuss, among other things, why I chose it. I did not hesitate to choose Messiaen’s Quartuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) which was originally composed in and premiered at Stalag VIII A, a German prison camp where Messiaen was interred in the early years of World War II. A piece for piano, violin, cello and clarinet (for these were the only instruments available at the camp), the title refers to the Apocalypse but also slyly evokes Messiaen’s subtle rhythmic shifts on musical tempo. A brief re-cap of Messiaen’s major works shows just how this genuinely mystical, deeply devout Catholic brought music to prayer and prayer to music. Consider some of the following major Messiaen works: The Ascension; Ecstasies of a Soul Before the Glory of God; The Nativity of the Lord; Visions of the Amen; Vingt Regard sur L’Enfant Jesus; Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence; The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ; Meditations on the Mystery of the Trinity; Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum. (This latter commissioned by the French government to commemorate the war dead of World War’s I and II). Few musical events so touched me as the American premiere of Messiaen’s tableau opera, Saint Francis, in San Francisco in 2002. In one of the opera’s scenes, an angel plays heavenly music to the saint who gasps that one more note of this celestial song would force him to sever soul from body. The angel tells the saint (citing Aquinas): "God dazzles us by an excess of truth. Music carries us to God in default of truth." Messiaen, himself, once said that music serves for us as a conduit to the ineffable. On his centenary, concert halls and music festivals will surely amply celebrate this religious and musical genius. But I hope churches (and the church) also lifts up his gift to the twentieth century. For almost sixty years Messiaen served as the principal organist at the church of La Trinite in Paris. He was catholic with a small c too. His ten part Turangalila Symphony was influenced by Hindu melodic songs. After a visit to Japan, Messiaen wrote a tribute to Japanese music in his musical haikus. He also drew on the Indonesian gamelan. If Jesus suggested that his followers consider the birds of the air, Messiaen took this advice to heart by becoming a world-accomplished ornithologist and captured the distinct bird-song music of at least 250 different bird species in his various musical works (not surprisingly, one of the rapturous parts of the opera, Saint Francis, is the section where Francis communes with the birds). In a study of the spirituality of the new post-baby boomer seekers, Robert Wuthnow (Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist) argues that music, for many, is indeed a conduit toward the ineffable God. In our churches, then, Messiaen deserves, no less than in the concert halls, a tribute this year (Perhaps, aptly, through his organ music) for the way he helped bridge so many gaps. As one scholar once put, Messiaen pursued four dramatic tasks in his life: teaching birdsong to urban dwellers; linking color to music (Messiaen had a gift of synesthesia); showing how his modern musical rhythms were closely attuned to the rhythm of nature (consider his musical tribute to Bryce canyon which led Utah to name a nearby mountain, Mount Messiaen); his communicating the mysteries of Christ to non-believers. Most of all, local parishes might give a nod to someone whose music carries us to God in default, at times, of good sermons. John Coleman, S.J.
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9 years 4 months ago
Thank you for this fine tribute to Messiaen. I happened to read it while taking a break from practicing a couple of pieces from 'La Nativite.' Like many organists, I am playing a number of Messiaen works this anniversary year. What you need to mention, however, is that many -perhaps most- people find Messiaen's music difficult or even unpleasant. I've long been aware that the fastest way to clear out a church is to play a few bars of Messiaen. "What in God's name was that?", a cleaning woman once asked me. Messiaen's pieces need to be approached meditatively as you would religious icons. They required focused attention. But for the uninitiated, guidance is required. Knowing what the composer is representing, such as the whirlwind and the voice of God in 'le Verbe,' is helpful to reap rewards. I suggest, therefore, placing explanatory notes in bulletins or worship aids if we feature this music within the liturgical setting.

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