As I head to New Jersey to say goodbye to yet another dear friend who has only days to live, the soundtrack in my head is music that speaks to that dimensionality, the one where very little makes logical, rational sense.
Olivier Messiaen’s music has held me in its power for most of my life. An article in today’s New York Times about 100th-birthday tributes being held around the world, and just reading about him and his music brought me comfort.
A few excerpts:
Originality may be overrated in the arts. All creators emulate the masters and borrow from one another. Big deal! The composer and critic Virgil Thomson routinely debunked what he called the “game of influences,” which he considered “about as profitable a study as who caught cold from whom when they were standing in the same draft.”
But the French modernist master Olivier Messiaen, who died in 1992 at 83, was truly an original. No other music sounds quite like his, with its mystical allure, ecstatic energy and elusive harmonic language, grounded yet ethereal. Rhythmically his pieces slip suddenly from timeless contemplation to riotous agitation then back again, sometimes by the measure. In the introduction to his 1985 book on Messiaen the critic Paul Griffiths calls him “the first great composer whose works exist entirely after, and to a large degree apart from, the great Western tradition.”
And this one, regarding his relationship with color, was compelling:
To Messiaen certain modes had certain colors: not just aural colors but visual ones. Throughout his life he experienced powerful sensory correlations between sound and color. As Mr. Robertson explained in a talk before the performance of the “Turangalila Symphony,” when Messiaen saw a rainbow, he literally heard a celestial harmony. In speaking about this Messiaen could seem a little peculiar.
Discussing the first transposition of his Mode 2 in a series of interviews with the critic Claude Samuel, Messiaen defined it as “blue-violet rocks speckled with little gray cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold red, ruby and stars of mauve, black and white.”
“Blue-violet,” he added, “is dominant.” Naturally.
Regarding the spiritual component of his work:
But the dimension of Messiaen’s music that may most set it apart derives from his spiritual life. His faith was innocent, not intellectual. As a child he loved the plays of Shakespeare, especially their “super-fairy-tale” aspects, he said. In the stories of the Catholic faith, as he told Mr. Samuel, he found the “attraction of the marvelous” he had coveted in Shakespeare, but “multiplied a hundredfold, a thousandfold.” For him the Christian stories were not theatrical fiction but true.
Messiaen espoused a theology of glory, transcendence and eternity. Religious subjects permeate his works, though not the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus. His embrace of the wondrousness of faith is reflected in the essence of his compositions. There is a notable lack of development in his music, a denial of “normal harmonic impetus,” as Mr. Griffiths puts it in his Messiaen book. Instead his pieces seem almost spatial, like a series of musical blocks with juxtaposed panels that variously induce feelings of ecstasy, agitation, contemplation or mystery.
Finally, this personal encounter by Anthony Tommasini:
My only encounter with Messiaen came during his visit to the New England Conservatory in Boston in 1986. I will never forget the enthralling performance he and Ms. Loriod gave of “Visions de l’Amen,” an audacious, wildly joyful and technically formidable work for two pianos.
Taking questions from the audience, Messiaen was visibly moved when a young man asked, “Does a listener have to have had a spiritual experience to appreciate your music?”
“Not at all,” Messiaen answered. But, he added, “it would be the highest compliment to me as a composer if you had a spiritual experience because of hearing my music.”
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