Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Music of Olivier Messiaen, Part 1

I am ashamed to admit that, until recently, I had only the vaguest knowledge of the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908 - 1992). I have known about him for a long time as one of the first things I did when discovering classical music was read all the books I could find and the first library I went to, a tiny municipal one, had a couple of histories of music in the 20th century. Messiaen, of course, figured prominently. But for some reason, I never heard much of his music apart from a couple of the piano pieces and the Quartet for the End of Time, which has to be one of the greatest titles ever for a piece of music. But I am not alone, of course, performances of Messiaen are not thick on the ground here in North America. I was talking yesterday to a violinist friend of mine about perhaps Messiaen's greatest work, the Turangalîla-Symphonie and, though she has played in symphony orchestras for nearly fifty years, she has not only never been part of a performance, she has never even heard the piece!

So, as part of my own self-education project in Olivier Messiaen, I am going to do a few posts on him and his music as it is my feeling that Messiaen, along with Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, is emerging as one of the great composers of the 20th century. Let's start with a photo. This is Messiaen reviewing a score alongside his erstwhile piano student, later second wife and long time interpreter, Yvonne Loriod:


My own encounter with Messiaen starts in the easternmost town of Germany, Görlitz, right on the border with Poland. By sheer accident one day while visiting with my ex-wife's family, who live near Dresden, I failed to get off the train when I should have and ended up in Görlitz, at that time a dreary industrial town--considerably prettier now. During the Second World War, just to the south of Görlitz (and not mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the town) was the site of Stalag VIII-A, a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp whose most famous prisoner was Olivier Messiaen, captured, along with many other Frenchmen, during the Battle of France in 1940. While there Messiaen composed his Quartet for the End of Time. It was written for the odd combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano simply because these were the only instruments (and players) available. The piece was actually premiered in the camp on January 15, 1941. Outdoors, in the rain, to an audience of 400 prisoners and guards.

Messiaen, as we learn from the magisterial work by Richard Taruskin, the Oxford History of Western Music, was a remarkably unusual figure. He is almost the only composer in recent centuries to have been a full-time church musician. For more than forty years he was the regular Sunday organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité, one of the largest churches in Paris. Probably the last important composer previously to be a working church musician was J. S. Bach. Messiaen was also a brilliant theorist and teacher. Unlike many composers he wrote in great detail about exactly how he composed his music (as opposed to, for example, Stravinsky who tended to lie about how he worked and Shostakovich who never discussed it at all). Every artist chooses his predecessors and the ones that influenced Messiaen were first of all the Russians, particularly the maximalizing and spiritual influence of Scriabin. This also revealed itself in the use of the octatonic scale, a typical Russian mode. I will be devoting a separate post to the theoretical structure of Messiaen's music.

Two other important influences in terms not of aspiration but of technique were Indian music, specifically the rhythmic modes, and Medieval music. Messiaen seems to have re-invented the isorhythmic motet without realizing it. Taruskin calls Messiaen, not a mystic, despite the deep religious nature of his music, but a scholastic because, like Thomas Aquinas, Messiaen strove to demonstrate revealed truths in rational discourse. While achieving great ambiguity through complexity, Messiaen's music is precisely and intricately constructed as I think we will see later on.

One final influence or perhaps inspiration, was birdsong. The Wikipedia article refers to Messiaen as a "French composer, organist and ornithologist" and, like his teacher Dukas, he was fascinated with the song of birds who are often portrayed in European myths and legends as prophetic creatures. Many pieces by Messiaen contain stylized birdsong and he wrote one, the gargantuan Catalogue d'oiseaux, two and a half hours of music for solo piano in seven books, entirely devoted to birdsong.

That gives you a bit of an introduction to Messiaen, not only a very important composer, but also one of the most significant teachers of composition in the 20th century. Let's end with the Catalogue d'oiseaux performed by Yvonne Loriod, probably the piece they are perusing in the above photo.


12 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

Wonderful! I can't wait to get back to this tomorrow. My own introduction to Messiaen happened when I was received into the Church at Easter in 1976-- the organist performed his L'Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle after the end of the Easter Mass. I'd never heard such music before in my life, to tell the truth; can only imagine how much preparation she devoted to that eleven minutes!

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, Messiaen is anything but easy to play!

Ken Fasano said...

Messiaen! What a huge subject!! To grasp such a large subject, one needs to start in 1928 with his Préludes for piano, in which the student Messiaen, though still influenced by Debussy and Ravel, has clearly found his own voice; then to the most famous music of the 1940s, the Quartet and Turangalila; but then the Modes de valeurs et d'intensité, which was of great influence on his students; to his Francis of Assisi opera. One needs to make mention of all his students: Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, the spectral composers, all the way to George Benjamin. Thank you for posting this!

Bryan Townsend said...

Ken, I am very tempted to ask you if you would like to do a guest post on Messiaen? But if not, then perhaps you could fill in if I miss some important aspects. I was going to do something this morning, but my Internet was down. My next post on Messiaen will focus on his theoretical writings about his compositional technique.

Ken Fasano said...

Sure, Bryan, I'd be glad to. Let me know what you'd like to do yourself, then I can do something else. One thing that is kind of significant that Messiaen's famous treatise "Technique de mon langage musical" is from 1944 and reflects his musical language in 1944. By 1949, he, Boulez, and his 1920-s generation students were writing much different music!

Bryan Townsend said...

That was exactly what I was going to do the next post on. Let me see what I can come up with.

Bryan Townsend said...

Or maybe you could do a post on the musical language as it sounds like your cup of tea? Why don't you do something and send it to me via emai:

bryantown@gmail.com

Christine Lacroix said...

Did you know that a 'loriot' in French is an 'oriole'? Since you were talking about birds, at first I thought you were joking with us about Madame Loriod.

Christine Lacroix said...

Found this in the Wikipedia you referenced about the first performance of his Quatuor pour la fin du temps:

The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards.[1] Messiaen later recalled: "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."[2]

For some reason that brought tears to my eyes.

Bryan Townsend said...

Non, je ne savais pas! I never joke around here at the Music Salon. That was certainly the most dramatic music premiere in all of history! But I must confess that in graduate school, in a seminar on 20th century music, the professor was telling this story in a very fulsome way and when he ended by describing the warm reaction of the listeners I couldn't resist commenting: "Yeah, but, "captive audience."

cnb said...

I have a great love for Messiaen and his music, especially his organ music and his wonderful opera on the life of St Francis of Assisi. I look forward to reading this series of posts.

When I was in Paris a few years ago I actually went to his church and was lucky enough to hear the organ being played (by the current organist).

A few years back I did a post on my own blog on Messiaen and birdsong. You could find it here: https://cburrell.wordpress.com/2008/05/09/messiaen-and-bird-song/

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, cnb! Your post looks interesting. I will read all of it and will likely link to it in the body of an upcoming post.