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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why Messaien doesn't raise my spirits

By Norman Lebrecht / September 10, 2008

I knew I was wrong about Messiaen one night in the old Czechoslovakia when, counting off the 100 minutes of Des Canyons aux Etoiles, I became aware that everyone around me was rigid with concentration.

Discounting novelty value - modernism with a spiritual and ecological message was unheard of behind the Iron Curtain - this was more than just a response to glimpses of freedom. Ears all around me were out on stalks and my scepticism at the work’s simplistic view of landscape was blown away by an explosive ovation.

There could be no doubt that Olivier Messiaen was a composer who spoke heart to heart, even if he left mine unmoved. Much as I appreciated his exquisite simulation of natural sounds, I refused to subscribe to his dogmatic certainties of religious faith and my place in the cosmos. Messiaen lodged in my critical faculty like a bone in the throat: a composer of great consequence whom I could neither ingest nor ignore.

The Czech condundrum was relived last Sunday during more than four hours – six, including intervals – of the BBC Proms performance of Messaien’s opera, St Francis of Assisi, a work of such anti-operatic character that no two singers ever attempt a duet. Stupefied as I was for much of the time, my companions appeared to be in a transport of delight, some uplifted in their Roman Catholic convictions, others in a wallow of beauties.

You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy it, they cried, and they were right in so far as St Francis is not a missionary work that sets out to proselytise. I might not have minded half as much if it converted Richard Dawkins to monastic silence.

What Messiaen preaches, however, is that there is only one truth, one way to redemption, the road to Rome. Take it, or be damned. This, to a citizen of our multicultural century, to a descendant of French Jews who endured crusades, Church-driven expulsions and genocide, is frankly unacceptable if not downright offensive.

Blind faith belongs in church, not in the concert hall where those who doubt or deny are excluded. The artist’s job is to ask questions, not to affirm. St Francis has neither the religious ornamentation of Mozart and Haydn nor the requiem challenges of Verdi and Britten.

What are we to make of an aria that begins: “what do you think of predestination?” This is not art, it is not even theology dressed up as art. It is plain old propaganda, no different from the choral version of the Communist Manifesto I once endured among the hardline Czechs.

The longer St Francis went on, and on, and on, the more I realised that Messiaen is the one great composer in the whole of western music whom I actively dislike.

This is, I assure you, a unique situation. The Catholic symmetries of Bruckner’s symphonies leave me open-mouthed in wonder. I can cope with anti-Semitism in Bach and Wagner. I listen without prejudice to music by misogynists, racialists, one wife-murderer and at least two paedophiles. But with Messiaen, for all his ingenuity, my gorge rises and my tolerance fails.

Not that I can fault him on personal grounds. An inoffensive little fellow in a black beret, he was born in Avignon on 10 December 1908 to an English teacher and his wife and baptised on Christmas Day. His reason for composing is declared on one of his earliest published scores: ‘The emotions, the sincerity of a musical work: to be at the service of the dogmas of Catholic theology.’ He was organist at Sainte-Trinite in Paris for sixty years and conducted himself through a long life with blameless rectitude.

His first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos whom he married in 1932, inspired a tender set of Poemes pour Mi (his pet name for her was the third note of the Do-re-mi scale), before giving birth to a son and subsiding into mental illness. Messaien fell in love in 1941 with his pupil, Yvonne Loriod, but did not apparently consummate the relationship for 20 years until after Mi’s death.

His sexual frustration found expression in the Turangalila Symphony, which is stacked with Indian sounds, jittery rhythms and a vast range of percussive instruments including vibraphones and ondes Martenot, a French invention that can sound like anything from heavenly angels to a dustcart reversing in a cul-de-sac. Pierre Boulez, Messiaen’s outstanding student, once called Turangalila ‘bordello music’.

Messiaen’s Francis-like passion for ornithology produced cycles of bird cries for piano and orchestra. He wrote volume after volume of organ music and countless works with Jesus, Seigneur and Amen in the title. It took a command from President Pompidou to make him compose an opera and, though it consumed eight years of his life, St Francis contains some of his most ornate and inimitable sounds, not least the high angelic voice that relieves the monks’ brotherly mutterings.

George Benjamin, one of Messiaen’s youngest disciples, maintains that religion never entered his classroom while Boulez quotes him saying: ‘Religion, the organ and birds are my three main interests. None of my more important students is in the least bit bothered by them.’

His reputation has risen steadily since his death in 1992 and his centenary this year is being marked in every musical territory and style. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead cites Messiaen as the earliest and most durable influence on his rock output.

So what is a Messiaen sceptic like me to do when confronted with a centennial deluge of works that strike no emotional resonance other than mute resistance? There is a box of 17 CDs of Messiaen’s solo piano and organ music sitting unopened on my desk. Do I start with The Celestial Banquet, or go straight to The Birth of Our Lord?

For those who think criticism is a cushy number, this is where the pain kicks in. Writing about art you love and admire is a joy for life. Trying to make sense of a fug of stale incense is no way to start the day. Still, it has to be done and there’s no easy way out.

I tell myself that in every genre there is a genius who leaves us cold. I can see the point in T S Eliot and Jean-Luc Goddard, for instance, but not the pleasure. Others feel the same way about Virginia Woolf and Ingmar Bergman. One solution is to go cherry-picking for the bits you like, but to claim a line in The Waste Land or a scene in Wild Strawberries strikes me as aesthetically dishonest. If the art has the power to arrest your attention for a few moments, it must be worth the effort of self-immersion.

So I’ve cracked open the 17 CDs (on the Brilliant label at about £1 a disc), and I am ploughing through Songs of Earth and Sky. By the end of the year I will have gone to hear more Messiaen than is probably good for me. I don’t expect I will ever learn to love this music, but I will find a key that unlocks the mystery of its attraction and helps me to understand why Radiohead play the ondes Martenot.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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