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Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art and Literature

Edited by Christopher Dingle and Nigel Simeone

Includes 9 b&w illustrations and 76 music examples

Ashgate, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-7546-5297-7

Book Review by Aleksander Szram

Those who are interested in the music of Olivier Messiaen are blessed in being able to turn to a great number of superb books. My favourites include the Messiaen Companion from Faber (edited by Peter Hill,) and Messiaen by Robert Sherlaw-Johnson, now sadly out-of-print.

This new addition, Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art and Literature, comprises sixteen chapters by sixteen different writers, one being Messiaen himself. The topics cover a vast range of the composer’s music and interests, rarely overlapping in their content. With such a book, one is able to read the chapters in any order, and so I was able to dip in and out according to my fancy. It is an excellent collection, but certainly on the ‘further reading’ list, and not suitable as a first introduction to the composer.

Having recently performed the Trois Petites Liturgies in Italy, and not being able to find very much to read about it, I was delighted to see a chapter by the young pianist Matthew Schellhorn on this magnificent work. It is a superb essay, assessing the extent of Stravinsky’s influence on Messiaen’s composition. I remember seeing Schellhorn play a couple of the Vingt Regards to Yvonne Loriod at a public masterclass at the Guildhall School of Music back in 1999. He played extremely well, and she was very complimentary.

I then turned to Philip Weller’s translation of L’Ame en bourgeon - the poetry written by Messiaen’s mother during her pregnancy, in which she prophesied that her son would be a  musician, among other things. Was Messiaen’s mother incredibly prescient, or was it a case of self-fulfilled prophecy? I am not a literary critic, and not able to comment on the poetry in detail, but coming to this chapter as a performer/academic I was deeply moved by the imagery and atmosphere created.

Père Jean-Rodolphe Kars’ chapter, The works of Olivier Messiaen and the Catholic liturgy, clarifies a matter only alluded to in other Messiaen literature, namely the precise relationship that Messiaen’s compositions enjoy with the practical setting of the liturgy. Many people are aware of Messiaen’s intense Catholicism, but are unaware of how his music directly relates to scripture and liturgy. In only ten pages of text, Kars is able to impart a great wealth of specific detail, giving very precise examples of this relationship. Also very inspiring from a performer’s point of view, is Kars’ description of how Messiaen  experienced music in relation to his faith - how his synaesthesia was embraced as a revelatory experience. His fascination with birdsong was also viewed as an extension of faith. My Catholic upbringing certainly helped me to understand the finer points of comparison made between scripture quoted by Messiaen, and the subsequent manifestations of meaning in his oeuvre explained by Kars. A greater understanding of the scriptural context latent in some of Messiaen’s markings will surely enhance a performer’s understanding of the imagery behind the music. Kars argues that Messiaen’s music deserves a bigger role in liturgucal practice, and that it should be more formally recognised as a part of Catholic worship. He also proposes an explanation of Messiaen’s dualistic artisanal and epiphanic approach, (in my mind an interesting point of comparison with Liszt.) A quoted extract from a 1995 speech by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, commenting on the status of the organ in Catholic worship, was fascinating, and I am very grateful to have been introduced to it. Kars is uniquely qualified to comment on this particular aspect of Messiaen’s work,  - an incredibly talented pianist who was a Leeds finalist, and winner of the 1968 Messiaen Piano Competition, before having, in his own words “a very strong experience of God and a true interior encounter with Christ.” He subsequently retired from concert life and took holy orders. Richard Marxson, Senior Fellow of Cello at Trinity College of Music and a former colleague of Kars at the Paris Conservatoire, has often spoken to me about the latter’s incredible playing.

The record of realism in Messiaen’s bird style by Robert Fallon, contains research and prose of the very highest calibre. It is impressively, almost virtuosically cross-referenced, with enough further reading to last a lifetime. Messiaen’s motivations concerning birdsong are persuasively matched to his theological beliefs, neatly linking to Kars’ similar contentions.

The chapter on Messiaen and Cocteau by Stephen Broad comprises a forensic examination of the composer’s writings, revealing new and interesting patterns. Broad’s investigation into the relationship between these two figures raises important issues concerning changes made between the first and second editions of Claude Samuel’s interviews with the composer. If other textual alterations have created similar changes in meaning, then Messiaen scholars will be kept busy for some time.

Edward Forman’s thorough exploration of the genesis of the Vingt Regards presents vital information for those studying/performing the cycle. Many interesting speculative points are made, and I, for one, wonder whether Michel Ciry’s alternative compositions will be researched for a new performance.

Messiaen and Dutilleux, by Caroline Potter, reads as a simple, comparative list when placed next to the other, more inspired chapters. It contains useful information, but it is unimaginatively presented.

Jacques Tchamkerten provides a fascinating history and commentary on the Ondes Martenot. It is a good introduction for the complete novice, but also informative to those who already know about this magical instrument.

Peter Hill’s chapter on the Quatre Etudes de Rhythme constitutes a great example for young musicologists who struggle to find the right style of prose to describe recordings. It is often difficult to discuss interpretative differences between a selection of recordings of the same piece without lapsing into subjective comment, and this is largely avoided here. I  am perplexed that Hill did not choose to listen to the recordings ‘blind’, especially as one of the  recordings was his own. Would this not have been more interesting? I’m sure he had a good reason for his chosen strategy, but I feel that he should have stated this at the outset. Perhaps he felt that he knew the recordings too well not to recognise them, yet at times it feels ever so slightly awkward when he comments on his own interpretation in comparison to the others. (Hill is, of course, aware of these problems, but the problems remain.) There is an excellent progression of thought in this chapter, (contrasting markedly with Potter’s chapter on Messiaen and Dutilleux) and Hill provides a stimulating, thought-provoking read. Issues for a further essay are raised by the fact that Messiaen’s recordings were on 78s, with the limits of technology affecting his interpretations. Then there is the matter of comparing Messiaen’s recording to Yvonne Loriod’s very different interpretation which the composer supervised. Very important points are made regarding the divergence of performance practice from the composer’s legacy that I feel applies to many other Twentieth Century piano composers. The most important, difficult question that remains? Messiaen the composer and Messiaen the pianist - when the two are in conflict, how do we reach a conclusion?

Messiaen’s Chords by Allen Forte: Having been obliged to undertake pitch-class theory lessons in preparation for my Doctoral degree, I have a prickly relationship with this particular school of analysis (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Set_theory_%28music%29).  Sometimes this approach can be very illuminating, but often it completely misses the point. It is great for producing ‘data’, thus giving music theorists something to do with their time, but it often does not help in the preparation of a performance. My personal feeling is that music exists primarily to be performed and listened to, and that theory must always serve the greater understanding of this, not it’s own machinations. So it was with an unwilling hand that I turned the page and began this chapter, written by the doyenne of musical set theory... and it was to my great surprise that I quite enjoyed it, and found some of it extremely helpful! It is the densest chapter of the book of course, but very readable in comparison to most music theory tomes. The opening of the Quatour pour la Fin du Temps is VERY cogently explained, and certainly of great use to performers.

Gareth Healey provides a stimulating discussion of the composer’s literary inspirations in Messiaen - bibliophile. These inspirations cover a variety of both fiction and non-fiction works, and include Rilke, Poe, Bertrand and Wells among others. Healey comments on Messiaen’s admiration of both Surrealism and Symbolism, and includes a substantial discourse on Messiaen’s concepts of time and duration (a topic also dealt with in the next chapter.)

Observations on time in Olivier Messiaen’s “Traité” by Andrew Shenton is a welcome dissertation for those who have read the composer’s writings and feel that some of the philosophical subtleties flew over their heads. Shenton points to Messiaen’s notion of eternity - an ‘all-encompassing simultaneity’ (p.177-8,) - as being derived from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. This is a concept that I find stimulating, and leads me to argue with the following contention on p.187:

‘Lastly, how can this section of the Traité be used to understand his music? Apart from giving a broad overview of the place of musical time in the physical, psychological and theological worlds, it does not have a great impact upon our understanding or appreciation of his music. Nor should it - the rest of the Traité provides a wealth of information about the music and this chapter merely sets the stage for the writing that follows.’

Having read Shenton’s chapter, I find my appreciation of Messiaen’s music altered. The understanding of time and duration as separate entities seems to be a contention that underlies the structural effect of much of Messiaen’s music. I would argue that this issue does have a great impact on both the understanding and appreciation of his compositions. As an example, passages of an extremely slow tempo - such as the first of the Vingt Regards, or the last movement of the Quatour pour la Fin du Temps - are perhaps best explained by this concept of ‘all-encompassing simultaneity.’

The life and works of Jean Lurçat. This chapter constitutes Messiaen’s introductory lecture given as a new member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which he gave on the tapestry-maker and artist Lurçat. As Nigel Simeone points out, we learn much about Messiaen’s outlook as a creator through reading his comments on Lurçat, who despite working in a different medium, seemed to have much in common with the composer. Messiaen was drawn towards the birds in Lurçat’s tapestries, as well as his structured use of colour. Messiaen provides a poetic and resonant image when he likens a butterfly to a non-retrogradable rhythm.

Nigel Simeone’s chapter detailing the story of how Turangalila almost, and then eventually did become a ballet is a fairly interesting one, and does not outstay its welcome at ten pages long. I was left imagining a parallel universe where Messiaen had followed-up his proposed total serialist ballet... it might have lead to some interesting mixed-media art forms.

The book is completed by Christopher Dingle's survey of sources and background material pertaining to Saint François d’Assise. Again, an prior acquaintance with the subject matter is necessary to appreciate the points made. It is such a pity that this great work of art is so seldom staged, although understandable when one considers the vast costs that it surely demands.

Aleksander Szram