I am developing an interest, maybe even a bit of a love affair, with the great composer Olivier Messiaen.
Listening to his work invites to the ear both a melancholy stripped bare as well as a beauty of intricate formality. One can sense the abiding Catholic faith that infused his life and creativity; perhaps in the contrary manner in which art is sometimes brought to bear, it was the ancient faith that gave to his music its utterly modern new-ness.
Strangely, it is possible to hear, quite clearly, underneath the fact of Messiaen’s genius as a composer and musicologist, that he was an ornithologist as well. The song of winged creatures, the song of instrumentation: he studied, he lived and deeply knew, the worlds of both, and brought them together in myriad ways in his music. He even wonderfully wrote an entire series for piano called “Catalogue d’oiseaux.”
He entered the Paris Conservatoire as a child, and so trained within the same lineage that brought forth Debussy and Satie. He wrote a tremendously influential book of music theory entitled, charmingly and with clear humility, “La technique de mon langage musical,” or, “The Technique of My Musical Language.”
From what I can understand, which is despairingly very little, he upset the entire canon of the traditional chromatic scale, and introduced a way of composing that was inherently self-limiting and also managed to touch on the infinite, in both the pragmatics of composition and the sense of the spiritual. A purposeful paradox, of sorts. Amazing.
Meeting Messiaen, for me, is like courtship. I have started out with some smaller piano works, and a few gorgeous songs recorded by Dawn Upshaw. Hesitant and manageable, rather like arranging to see a potential lover for drinks.
Now, the progression to love. I have begun listening to, and of course not understanding, Messiaen’s masterful, odd, and heartwrenching work “Quatuor pour la fin du temps,” or “Quartet for the end of time.” He famously wrote this work while imprisoned by the Nazis after the fall of Paris in 1940. He wrote for the only instruments available within the prison walls: cello, violin, piano, and (so strangely) clarinet. The first performance of this piece had as its audience the inmates and guards of the camp. This fact alone, when discovered, makes one freeze: despair, gratitude, the terrible requisite of resilience.
Perhaps the quieter I become, the more open I am, and the more I listen and study, this piece will reveal itself to me. Just as a lover, once impossibly removed, comes closer, closer, closer, until… union.
Messiaen was for the entirety of his adult life the organist at the Eglise de la Sainte-Trinite in Paris. I cannot wait for my next visit to that city: I will be sure to sit silently in the church, and imagine the man, his head filled with birdsong, god-song, human-song, perched in readiness at the great organ, lifting his hands to play as a bird lifts its wings to flight.
My baby daughter has been listening to the great Quartet as well – not that she has much choice, given her mama’s stubborn tastes. Yesterday something rather amazing happened: we were watching a performance of the Quartet and there came into her eye a unique and excited liveliness, as if she, too, in her own infant manner, was discovering something new to observe, absorb, and, later, to love.