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Olivier Messiaen, Visionary

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • December 28, 2008

The French composer Olivier Messiaen is walking through a tangled field of wildflowers outside Paris, listening. It’s shortly after dawn, and a cold sun is just starting to break through a line of far-off trees. Suddenly a trilling cry comes through the air.  “That’s a song thrush,” he says, pulling out a pad of music paper and jotting down the melody in quick, decisive strokes of a pencil.  “One of the best singers -- perhaps the most beautiful singer -- in France.”

Olivier Messiaen with studentsThe scene (from “The Crystal Liturgy,” a recent documentary on Messiaen) is revealing. One of the most innovative, multifaceted and utterly unique composers of the 20th Century, Messiaen drew deeply from nature, famously transcribing bird songs from all over the world and building works of astonishing power and beauty from them.  But he was also a profound Catholic who explored mysticism and sexuality through music, a sensualist who perceived sounds as radiant colors, and a musician of limitless curiosity who drew on influences from ancient Japanese gagagku music to medieval isorhythms, to develop one of the most distinctive musical voices of the century.

“Messiaen’s impact on music in the 20th century has been colossal,” says Peter Hill of the University of Sheffield, a pianist and scholar who co-authored the definitive biography of the composer. “And interest in his work is spreading like wildfire.  It’s become a kind of global phenomenon, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to go away.”

Not during 2008, at any rate.  This year marks the centenary of Messiaen’s birth, and there’s been a steady crescendo of his music around the world, from near-countless performances of the well-known “Quartet for the End of Time” to rarely heard masterpieces like the opera “St. Francis of Assisi.” Some of the performances have verged on the spectacular – the epic “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum” was even played outdoors this summer, as the composer intended, at the Meije glacier in France – and virtually his entire oeuvre is being released on weighty, multiple-CD sets.  And in the District this fall, a series of concerts will showcase some of the Messiaen’s most stunning works.

“I knew this year would be busy,” says Hill.  “But it’s really gotten quite crazy.”

The composer in 1945Despite the surge of interest, Messiaen remains what he was for most of his life – an intriguing but relentlessly elusive figure.  Born on December 10, 1908, his life appeared almost numbingly ordinary. Mild mannered, drab and somewhat fashion-challenged in appearance, he lived in near-Spartan simplicity with his wife (the pianist Yvonne Loriod), teaching at the Paris Conservatory (where his students included Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen and other luminaries of postwar music) and serving as the organist at the Église de la Trinité in Paris from 1931 until his death in 1992. 

But the bland exterior concealed a musician of extraordinary originality and depth – qualities that first became apparent during World War II when, after being captured by the Germans in 1940, he was interned in a prisoner of war camp in the Silesian town of Gorlitz. Working under arduous conditions, he wrote one of the most searching works of the 20th century, the  “Quartet for the End of Time,” and gave it a near-mythic premiere in the freezing camp on January 15, 1941 before an audience of hundreds of his fellow prisoners.

The work had little in common with the raging, mournful anti-war works being written by other modernist composers at the time. With its echoes of Balinese gamelan music, evocations of birds awakening and a rhythms deliberately designed to stop forward movement, the Quartet was a confounding work – sensual, otherworldly, deeply spiritual and intensely moving. It sent – and still sends – shock waves through modern music, and quickly achieved almost iconic status; it’s now thought to be the most-performed piece of 20th century chamber music in the world.

Messiaen notating bird callsAnd there was more to come.  After his release, Messiaen returned to Paris and continued to write, exploring exotic sources from Hindu chants to antique Greek modes.  But the result was no mere pastiche.  Messiaen filtered his eclectic tastes through what he called “the marvelous aspects of the [Catholic] faith,” and a series of remarkable works began to pour out: “Visions de l’amen” (1943), “Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus” (1944), the song cycle “Harawi” (1944), and the sprawling, ten-movement “Turangalila-Symphonie” (1946-48) – a work of almost lurid color and sensuality that used chord clusters, exotic percussion and the rare, wailing sound of the Ondes Martenot.

Messiaen, in fact, was a visionary in a literal sense.  He perceived sounds as distinct colors, and wrote as if he were painting with them.  The theories and orthodoxies of the serialist movement that dominated postwar music held little appeal for him. “I’m modal, tonal, serial – as you like,” he once told an interviewer. “In fact, I’m colorful. And when you think you hear a series of tones, even triads, you’re wrong.  Those are colors.”

But increasingly important in his music was Messiaen’s interest in the natural world.  He began collecting bird songs in Paris, becoming a self-described “passionate ornithologist,” and using the transcriptions as material for his music. A riveting 1952 work for flute and piano work called “Le Merle Noir” (The Blackbird) was quickly followed by larger works, including 1953’s "Réveil des oiseaux" (Awakening of the birds) for orchestra, “Oiseaux exotiques” (Exotic birds) from 1955-56, and “Catalogue d'oiseaux” (Catalog of the birds) from 1958 – works that continue to grow in popularity.

“Nature has retained a purity, an exuberance, a freshness we have lost,” he once observed. “Nature never displays anything in bad taste; you’ll never find a mistake in lighting or coloration or, in bird songs, an error in rhythm, melody, or counterpoint.”

And that philosophy, says Hill, may be part of what keeps drawing new audiences to Messiaen.

“The great nature poet that is Messiaen is something that’s very much in tune with the ideals of the modern world,” he says. “It has a great appeal to audiences who are looking for a kind of idealism beyond everyday life. He was a very universal, eclectic musician who nonetheless managed to keep his personal voice.  And there’s enormous interest among young performers in taking up his music.”


Posted on Sunday, December 28, 2008 at 04:17PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments1 Comment

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Reader Comments (1)

Nothing beats the blaze of sunshine (E major with added sixth) at the end of 'Dieu parmi nous' from La nativité du Seigneur... just incredible. The vision is so wedded to the harmonic language that, despite its density, it's impossible not to be enthralled. I never tire of playing that piece.
May 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGavin Plumley

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