Olivier Messiaen: Mysticism & Modernity

Olivier Messiaen at the organ of "La Trinite" circa 1940.

Olivier Messiaen at the organ of "La Trinite" circa 1940.

Olivier Messiaen is a French composer who lived from 1908 to 1992. He began teaching himself to compose and play piano at the age of seven and soon demanded operatic scores as gifts for Christmas. At eleven, he entered the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris as one of its youngest students, and excelled as both an instrumentalist and composer. After graduating, he was appointed as the principal organist of Église de la Sainte-Trinité (The Church of the Holy Trinity, or "La Trinité") in Paris in 1931. A devout Catholic his entire life, Messiaen held this post for over 60 years. Along with his works for orchestra and solo piano, Messiaen's compositions for organ represent a major portion of his creative output. Regardless of instrumentation, however, nearly all of Messiaen's music is explicitly religious, or devotional.

Still, if I asked you to describe what you imagine Messiaen's sacred music sounded like, you would almost certainly describe something that sounds nothing at all like Messiaen's music. That's because the vast majority of people have - very literally - never heard anything like it.

Try listening to this representative example of Messiaen's organ music in full (also available on YouTube, here). It is the shortest movement from Messiaen's Livre d'orgue ("Organ Book," 1951), and lasts just under two minutes.

Jarring, abrasive, and perplexing are seemingly pejorative, but often accurate descriptions of Messiaen's music. To most new listeners, it sounds cacophonous.

But is it?

I recently took my girlfriend to a performance of Messiaen's La nativité du seigneur ("The Nativity of the Lord," 1935)at The Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California. The Nativity is one of Messiaen's first major works for organ and is composed of nine movements, or "meditations," on the birth of Jesus. Many of the movement's titles suggest aspects of the nativity as it is popularly depicted ("The Virgin and Child,", "The Shepherds," and "The Magi"), while others suggest broader theological concepts ("Eternal Designs," "The Word," and "God Among Us"). A typical performance of the entire piece lasts about an hour.

It was her last night in town before flying to Portland, Oregon for the holidays and we decided to make an evening of it. We met for dinner at Agave Uptown around the corner from the concert, and over the best black beans and rice I've ever had in my life, I cautioned her that while this was probably programmed as a holiday concert of sorts, the music would be quite a bit different from what she was imagining. Still, I assured her that if she really hated it, we could leave after twenty minutes.

Cathedral of Christ the Light (Oakland, California) on the evening of Jonathan Dimmock's performance, with organ pipes visible on the left and right.

Cathedral of Christ the Light is a visually stunning specimen of modern architecture, and while neither of us are religious, Catholic churches hold a particular interest for me. I once attended Latin Mass almost every evening for six months at St. Margaret Mary in Oakland back in 2008, and recently, during the filming and editing of the music video for "Heaven Help Me," I began attending again. Coincidentally, my girlfriend and I had also recently observed the solar eclipse (or what little we could see of it through the cloud-cover) standing in the plaza outside of the Cathedral last August.

For those reasons, the Cathedral had been on my mind, and turning to Google to learn its name finally...

Simply put, most Western music is created using common chords which have intuitive and predictable tendencies of movement (or, change) within familiar keys, either major or minor, usually. This organizing principle is what gives popular music in particular its "catchy" quality. It satisfies musical expectations we are conditioned to have, and often aren't even aware of. Yet, in the same way an unexpected plot twist can inject drama into an otherwise predictable movie, thoughtful deviations from these musical expectations can add excitement to a new piece of music. Stray too far from the familiar, though, and listeners will follow your music as well as they would a foreign film without subtitles.

Like any language, music is "intelligible" to the extent that it conforms to common usage

Still, Messiaen intentionally composed using his own, unique musical system and language, and whether or not we perceive it, his work is some of the most purposefully structured and organized music ever composed.

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At the outbreak of World War II, Messiaen was drafted into the French army as a medical auxiliary. In 1940, he was captured and imprisoned in a German prisoner-of-war camp. It was there he composed his most famous work, Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the End of Time," 1940-41). The unorthodox quartet is scored for the only instruments that were available to Messiaen at the camp (clarinet, violin, cello, and piano), and was first performed for an audience of fellow prisoners and guards in the Winter of 1941. The Quartet is Messiaen's musical interpretation of the Apocalypse as depicted in the Book of Revelation. For him, living to see the end of time would have meant not only witnessing the destruction of the world as we know it, but in a broader, theological sense, living to see the inevitable triumph of Good over Evil. The Quartet is now widely considered to be a masterpiece of 20th century music, and is almost certainly the most frequently recorded and performed work of Messiaen's to date.

Olivier Messiaen via Google Images. Source unknown.

Olivier Messiaen via Google Images. Source unknown.

In a 2006 interview with The Onion A.V. Club, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening was quoted as saying, "I would prefer to listen to a French classical composer like Olivier Messiaen than to the pop hits of the day."

Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine: “[A]work of tinsel, false magnificence and pseudo-mysticism, this work with dirty nails and clammy hands, with bloated complexion and unhealthy flab, replete with noxious matter, looking about anxiously like an angel wearing lipstick.” - Claude Rostand

My faith is the grand drama of my life.
— Olivier Messiaen