The Olivier Messiaen Centennial

What do singer Bjork and Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood have in common? Probably a number of things in the world of alternative and progressive rock music. But their unexpected nexus is a passion for the intricate, thorny, yet ravishing sonorities of the music of Olivier Messiaen.

There is tremendous interest in Messiaen’s music now as this is, along with Elliott Carter, an even more demanding modern classical composer, his centennial year. The difference between these titans of 20th century music is that Messiaen is no longer with us, having died in 1992, while Elliott Carter is not only very much alive and living in NYC, but seems to be at a still high water mark of his creative tide. I want to write about him in a future piece but since Carter may outlive some of us here, I’d like to say a little right now about his fellow centenarian.

I had a difficult time listening to Messiaen’s music for many years. But in early spring of 2000 I was filming the feature Antitrust, living in an apartment in downtown Vancouver. Easter Sunday arrived early that year and I recall being intoxicated by the beauty of the cherry trees in full bloom everywhere in the city’s central core. It was raining on a March afternoon as I was walking in the late, failing light toward the iconic Anglican cathedral at the corner of Burrard and Georgia Sts. I was going to the church to hear a performance of Messiaen’s canonical work “The Quartet for the End of Time”. And I did hear it that evening, performed by candlelight, in the centuries old timbered nave. It changed forever my whole orientation toward modernist music and made me as much an acolyte of Messiaen’s music as that of the two pop stars cited above.  Maybe even more so.

While the composition itself is secular, a case can be made that all of Messiaen’s music is deeply religious. He was a lifelong devout Catholic. The instrumentation of this work is unusual for a piano quartet in that that the usual viola part is written for a clarinet. And in this change lies the dramatic story of its composition and first performance in a prisoner of war camp.

Messiaen, a French soldier, was captured by the Germans on June 25, 1940 and interred in a POW camp near the town of Gorlitz-Moys in Silesia. The camp, Stalag VIII-A was a work camp, not a concentration camp, and being Catholic, it was likely that, though he would suffer privation, Messiaen would not be exterminated. Such was not the fate, however, of a whole generation of German and Austrian Jewish composers such as Viktor Ullman and Erwin Schulhoff, who were branded “degenerate” by the Nazis and who were exterminated or died in the camps.

Soon after Messiaen’s capture, it came to the attention of a German officer in Stalag VIII-A, Karl Albert Brull, a passionate music lover, (I know it’s almost a movie cliché—but it IS true) that a highly regarded French composer was among the prisoners. There were also a number of professional musicians held at the camp. Messiaen, a mesmerizing pianist, was allowed to compose and to play with fellow prisoners to provide entertainment for the Germans and maintain morale in the camp. Messiaen composed and rehearsed “Quartet for the End of Time” in a few months. It was first performed before the camp on January 15, 1941. Here is more information about its history and musical structure:

Wikipedia entry

And here is a video of the fifth movement.  This movement is for cello and piano. Not all movements are scored for full quartet. The third is for solo clarinet. The camerawork in this excerpt is mediocre but the performance is luminous.

There is a detailed account of the genesis, composition and premiere of this seminal modernist work in Rebecca Rischin’s fascinating book, from her doctoral dissertation, The End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. link

Her account of camp life reads like a WWII thriller, well sort of. I had contacted Ms. Rischin about the possibility of optioning her book and doing an adaptation for a feature film—an angle on WWII not likely to be explored by a major studio. But then reality set in and I had to ask myself if I were willing to devote the next three years of my life in a struggle to get something this arcane made as “entertainment”. I sensibly demurred. I had gone down that road a decade before with Ron Hansen’s transcendent novel of cloistered religious life Mariette in Ecstasy. But the rigors of that experience nearly had ruined my desire to continue as a filmmaker. I loved Messiaen’s music too much to think about polluting it with commerce.

Olivier Messiaen was also a brilliant organist who composed some of his most powerful work for this instrument. He was resident organist at Trinite Church in central Paris for well over half a century. As a student there in the early sixties, my wife, Carol Littleton, often would listen to Messiaen improvise above in the organ loft, while below, rapt listeners filled the nave of the church, moving in and out quietly so as not to disrupt the mood of the resplendent music.

You can see and hear a wondrous Youtube video of Messiaen improvising at Trinite.

It begins simply, quietly and sustains this mood until the blissful final chord. If you feel as if you are sometimes hearing birdsong, it is not your imagination. Messiaen was a devoted ornithologist and naturalist. During his frequent outings he transcribed thousands of birdsongs into his notebooks and used them as thematic material in his work.

The recently departed LA Phil music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, discusses the thrall of Messiaen and its profound effect on him in this video:

In 1972, music patroness Alice Tully commissioned Messiaen to write a grand work for performance in the concert hall bearing her name in NYC. The commission was to be in celebration of the American bi-centennial. Messiaen came to the US and visited the West. He became mesmerized by the grandeur of natural architecture in several parks, esp. Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah. A mountain was even named after him.

The 12 movement work he composed is called “From the Canyons to the Stars” and it has a revered place in Messiaens’s oeuvre much as Dvorak’s American masterpiece, “Symphony from the New World,” has in the compositions of the Bohemian master.

The transcendent eighth movement “The Resurrected and the Song of the Star Aldebaran” (as well as a helpful text intro to it) can be found here on the NPR website:

NPR article

One final note about Messiaen and his centennial. In October and November of 2008 the resident music director of Saint Thomas Church in midtown Manhattan, John Scott, played a series of six concerts of Messiaen’s complete music for solo organ. The church, at the corner of 5th Avenue and 53rd St., is on the same block as that cathedral of modernist art, MOMA. You can imagine you can hear Messiaen’s complex organ chords wafting through the museum galleries filled with paintings of Kandinsky and Mondrian. Kandinsky especially was a great believer of synaesthesia, the belief that the sensations of one sense intersect and conflate with another sense. Messiaen expounded a theory of the colors of musical tone and Kandinsky believed his improvisation paintings were visual embodiments of music.

I was in NYC much of the time of this organ series and was able to hear most of the concerts. The beauty of that organ is deeply embedded in my musical consciousness, much like the cinematic colors of an abstractionist  and visually musical filmmaker like Oskar Fischinger, John Whitney or Stan Brackage.  But that is another story.



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