Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Olivier Messiaen

The following article I wrote is taken from Quo Vadis, a Catholic periodical written by the students and faculty of Regina Coeli Academy. Reproduced with the permission of Quo Vadis.

Many of the Catholics spearheading a full return to the Tridentine Mass in America have started to meet during the summer at a Sacred Music Colloquium. This year they're meeting at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The Colloquium, on its website at, points out that "[A]s Pope Benedict XVI and the Second Vatican Council have emphasized, [Gregorian chant] is integral to Catholic liturgical life and should be heard and experienced with wide participation in every parish." The weekend is spent educating congregants, choirmasters, and organists to read, become facile with, and themselves to be able to teach Gregorian chant to their respective parishes.

But, the average layman attending the conference will be in for a totally unexpected ride. After having heard the sublime and accessible (or so he might think) Gregorian chant during the Mass on Sunday morning, he may hear this piece, or one like it, for the postlude. The chords strike us as dissonant, ominous, jarring, angular, formless, arbitrary—all of which are nice for the background while Voldemort is doing damage with his magic wand, but what are they doing here, you ask, in liturgy? And what does this piece have to do with its title, "Dieu parmi nous", which is "God with us"?

Meet Olivier Messiaen. I'm 17 and he died the year I was born. He's recent. Messiaen (if you want to learn how to pronounce it, I recommend Mrs. Thompson's excellent French class) was a modern Classical composer. But I seriously doubt this is Classical music the likes of which you've heard before. In fact, I bet you haven't heard this kind of music anywhere before. Messiaen is unprecedented. There's no one like him. He's right there, teaching Pierre Boulez, hanging out with Schoenberg and Webern, and being one of the most popular modern Classical composers (which isn't saying much). Yet there's one strange thing about him that makes him totally different from everyone around him.

Messiaen claimed that his audience didn't really understand his music. And he wasn't just being your typical pouty artist complaining about how misunderstood he is. He said his audience didn't really understand his music because they didn't have even a basic grasp of Catholic theology. Yes, that's right, Olivier Messiaen was a devout Roman Catholic. "The illumination of the theological truths of the Catholic faith is the first aspect of my work, the noblest, and no doubt the most useful and valuable".

Nor was he (at least, by the end of his life) an overly-mystical, pagan-mixed, post-modern liberal Catholic who uses religion as an excuse to look more profound. (I'm thinking of someone like John Tavener, an English composer who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy...that is, before he converted to Hinduism.) Messiaen was a Thomas-Aquinas-saturated composer. His music, he claimed, dripped with Catholic theology and no secular audience could put a towel on it to dry it off. Of course, many of his (secular) friends, wet blankets that they were, liked calling his music "mystical". But he corrected them. He said his output was, "above all theological (and not mystical as the majority of my audience think)".

So, then, why does his music sound so strange? Why so surreal? And, if he thought his music really was an illumination of Catholic doctrine, how come he seems to be confusing the matter more with his really weird music? I can't claim to have a great answer to any of these questions. But I could draw a helpful analogy, perhaps. Messiaen understands something essential about theology—it's not always comfortable. In that way, he's a lot like another Catholic Thomistic writer, Flannery O'Connor. And, like with her, I'll warn you at the outset. Enter this strange world of theology-soaked art with caution. Those who have a strong, Medieval understanding of the world as a sacramental place know that you can't walk away from a visible means of invisible grace without being radically changed. The same holds true for the music of Messiaen.

This is Messiaen's Chorale of the Holy Mountain from his work "The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ". It's for a huge choir and a huge orchestra. You'll notice right off the bat that Messiaen has a bunch of strange sounding chords that always resolve to a gorgeous E major chord at the end of every phrase (with two exceptions, when it resolves to an F sharp minor seventh chord, also stunningly beautiful.) It will sound very weird to you at first. But picture what's going on here—the Transfiguration happens on top of a mountain. Music about a mountain should feel very immense and wide. And Messiaen still retains a sharp focus and clarity throughout the entire chorale, sort of like the air at high altitudes. If you think of this as Howard Shore's soundtrack to Lord of the Rings (it does bear some similarities), it might make more sense.

Slightly edgier is this piece "Candor est lucis aeternae" from the same work. Here Messiaen is concentrating on "candor", which is a bright-sounding and bright-meaning word. If you listen closely (which you must, if you want to get anything out of this music), you'll hear the altos in the background singing the words. Everything else is an exuberant and dizzying frenzy of shininess. If you saw the old BBC Tailor of Gloucester with Ian Holmes, this may remind you of Christmas.

Now, why am I doing all this? Am I or are those crazies at the Sacred Music Colloquium suggesting that a return to Gregorian Chant and Palestrina entails the use of this kind of stuff? Messiaen may have been a Catholic, you say, but that doesn't excuse him from writing some ugly music.

Well, anyone who has read Shakespeare and certainly anyone who likes reading Shakespeare will tell you that you can't read Shakespeare and get it in the first 15 minutes. I had trouble keeping awake through the majority of MacBeth. And it's supposed to be riveting. But, of course, those who like Shakespeare, myself included, know it's an acquired taste. Like blue cheese. Like Messiaen. You have to read lots of Shakespeare and take it on faith that it's worth your time. Messiaen is obviously not as reputed as Shakespeare, but I'd still say he's worth your time. This music won't make sense to you the first time you listen to it, most likely. Okay. It didn't to me either. Keep trying. It's rewarding.

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