Saturday, September 4, 2010

Messiaen and Suffering

I am reading (or, more accurately, trying to read, being interrupted by many distractions of a loud nature) a review of several new books on the great French composer Olivier Messiaen that were published in 2008, his centennial year.  The article is by Messiaen scholar Robert Fallon, and appears in the new issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society (to which, unfortunately, I can't link here). Messiaen was noted, among other things, for his expansion of his mystical Catholic theology into his musical lexicon and for his use of bird song in his compositions.

Messiaen's widow, the organist Yvonne Loriod, is quoted by Fallon as saying that her husband "was a man who suffered greatly," which causes Fallon to muse over the fact that, since

many of [Messiaen's] works can be read as autobiography, the notable lack of anguish in his music at first seems puzzling.  But I suspect an answer lies in Messiaen's favorite biblical passage, the Last Supper discourses in John 14-17, where Jesus tells his disciples:  "You will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy" (John 16:20).  Messiaen, it seems, followed his faith and turned his grief into joy, which he expressed musically through ecstatic dances, tenderhearted melodies, and jubilant birdsong.  "In Saint François [d'Assise, his only opera]," he said, "there is a tight imbrication between sorrow and joy.  But where sorrow is present, where it is greatest, I have always placed the song of a bird."

Here is one of the movements of Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus (Twenty Gazes upon the Infant Jesus) for solo piano, no. IX:  "Première Communion de la Vierge."

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