Soaring Aloft

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a former AP foreign correspondent and McGraw-Hill veteran of 17 years. He now writes for the International New York Times, American Spectator, Facts&Arts.Com, and a couple of classical music outlets 01.11.2015

At what point did Pierre Boulez say his teacher’s music made him want to vomit? The teacher, of course, was the great French composer Olivier Messiaen, and Boulez was his ex-student. Scholars have been trying to track down that unkind cut for decades but details remain clouded. Boulez has denied that he ever used the word. Others say he did. It’s one of those tantalizing puzzles in music history that may never be solved, like who was “Elise” in Beethoven’s life, or what (or who) killed Tchaikovsky.

Sketch of Olivier Messiaen by Michael Johnson.

Pianist Peter Hill, an English scholar and Messiaen specialist, tells me in an email exchange that he “skirted the (Boulez) issue cautiously” in his 2007 book Messiaen because he was not satisfied he and co-author Nigel Simeone had nailed it. The wording they came up with was that Boulez could be “almost offensively derogatory” about Messiaen although he was more often an admirer.

How Boulez could be so conflicted over Messiaen continues to intrigue music sleuths. Messiaen’s widow and primary performer of his piano works, Yvonne Loriod, told Hill a few years ago that Boulez was “very hot-headed” and recalled that he made some deeply wounding remarks backstage to Messiaen after a rehearsal in 1948. She didn’t have the exact quotation, however. Later they all became friends again.

It was in a Boulez biography that the late French author and broadcaster Dominique Jameux attributed the word “vomit” to Boulez, if only in reference to the electronic warbling keyboard instrument known as the ondes Martenot that Messiaen favored in some of his works. And it is Jameux’s assertion that has stuck, spread, and is often quoted today.

The Boulez puzzle may be an extreme case of love-hate among the creative but Messiaen still divides the music world 23 years after his death at 83, sometimes in language nearly as extreme. A musician friend in Seattle recalls that one West Coast professor, explaining the pronunciation of the composer’s name to American students, quipped, “Messy-YAWN, and for me that sums up his music.”

The mild-mannered Messiaen acknowledged that a large part of the music establishment found the twittering of birdsong in his compositions to be misplaced. His comments can be enjoyed in 2002 DVD that compiles extensive archive footage of him teaching at the Paris Conservatoire and answering interviewers’ questions. “It makes them (my critics) laugh, and they don’t hold back,” he said. His widow recalled that his music always faced a mixed reception during his lifetime. “He would sometimes win the admiration of the public but the critics were very, very spiteful,” she said.

I don’t mind declaring my bias. Without fail, his compositions strike me as inventive and charged with colourful textures, often staggeringly beautiful. I almost wrecked my car a few years ago when one of his choral pieces surged through the car radio. I had to brake sharply to pull over to take it in. The haunting harmonics of “Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine” were derided by some avant-garde critics as mere “Christmas tinsel” but they sounded celestial to me. He was pilloried by the atonal elite for not being far enough avant the garde.

Nowadays I keep running into Messiaen-lovers. One French woman who as a child heard Messiaen play the Sainte Trinité (Holy Trinity) organ in Paris tells me his playing could be “grandiose, almost scary”. Messiaen took a liking to her and invited her one day to sit on the bench. She remembers touching a few keys. “He smiled when I put a shy finger on the keyboard, then he struck the first majestic chords of the Bach Toccata and Fugue. The church was immediately filled with waves of that gigantic sound. I still carry it with me these many years later.”

Messiaen served as organist at Sainte Trinité from 1931 to 1992, withdrawing just a few months before his death. For 61 years, the faithful swarmed in to hear him play the sacred repertoire at Sunday Mass, then to listen to his improvisations afterward. And the popular adulation continues. Hundreds of devoted fans turn out annually for the Messiaen Festival in the Pays de la Maije of France, a mountainous backwater near Grenoble that inspired many of his large-scale works. Even Boulez, reformed and mellowed, has participated in the festival as a conductor.

Controversy aside, Messiaen’s place in music history is assured today, with some music scholars ranking him alongside Igor Stravinsky as one of the most innovative voices of his time. Major works were commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and he was in demand worldwide for teaching harmony and composition. He became a virtual rock star in Japan, where he discovered Japanese traditional music and borrowed from the harmonics he was hearing there for the first time.

His YouTube visits on the Internet today number in the hundreds of thousands for his organ, piano, orchestral, choral and chamber works. A mountain peak near Bryce Canyon was named “Mount Messiaen” in 1976 as homage to his orchestral suite “Des canyons aux étoiles,” commissioned by Alice Tully for the U.S. bicentennial celebration.

A handful of his works remain in the standard repertoire but there is much more Messiaen that is rarely played. A closer investigation reveals a broad palette and unique sound world, much of it inspired by birdsong. He left a legacy of more than a hundred works for piano, orchestra, chamber groups, solo instruments, many enhanced by electronic instrumentation and a gathering of exotic bells, gongs and cymbals and Balinese gamelans he collected from around the world.

Messiaen’s friendly personality also left good memories among those who studied with him. He laughed easily and had a taste for loud shirts – Hawaiian prints toward the end of his life. His relaxed attitude toward students was to let them grow naturally, not to force them into traditions or trends. British pianist Peter Hill, who in addition to the biography edited The Messiaen Companion, recalls his “natural courtesy, with a sweetness and charm … nonetheless the intensity with which he listened made playing to him a formidable experience.”

Even Loriod fondly recalls her long marriage to him as passing “with never a cross word.” She has also said that she was kept at arm’s-length from his creative process. She was never informed of his works in progress, she said, and was only allowed to study and play the works when completed. “He worked enormously hard,” she told Peter Hill. ”He never took a single day of holiday.”

Messiaen’s circle as a popular Paris Conservatoire professor included students Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Harrison Birtwhistle, Alexander Goehr, George Benjamin, Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey, among others who went on the push the avant-garde boundaries. Popular musicians such as Quincy Jones, the Hollywood jazz and cinema composer, also came to study with him. Boulez, writing in The Messiaen Companion, credited Messiaen with “the great merit of having freed French music from that narrow and nervous ‘good taste’ inherited from illustrious forebears …”

Even today Messiaen is remembered as a gifted teacher. Boulez said one hearing of his 1932 “Theme and Variations” for violin and piano “was enough to inspire me with an immediate wish to study with him. I felt the force of his attraction immediately.” In this performance by Dutch violinist Janine Jensen and Lithuanian pianist Itamar Golan, the early Messiaen shines through. Although more traditional in structure, the highly developed piano part introduces chords and progressions that one hears in his later orchestral and piano works. After this piece, he left tradition behind.

For the listener seeking more conventional Messiaen, this curious clip of his first published composition, at age 21, is the eighth of hisPréludes, echoing of Ravel and Debussy: 

These early pieces serve to illustrate how Messiaen earned respect in a sound world that was breaking free of 19th century tradition. He seemed to be on his way to wider recognition when World War II broke out and his life nearly came to a halt. He was drafted by the French army in 1939 and put to work as an orderly. Just a few months later he was captured by the Germans along with nearly one million French soldiers. His unit was held in an open field without shelter for three weeks in June-July 1940, where by chance he met the clarinetist Henri Akoka, who became a close associate.

Finally the prisoners were marched 70 kilometers without food or water to the Prussian region of Silesia where about 30,000 of them were interned at Gorlitz-Moys. Yvonne Loriod recalled in an interview that Messian told her the French soldiers fought each other desperately for water after arrival but his faith as a devout Catholic and high-minded optimist prompted him to remain apart, declining to lower himself to the melee.

A relatively light work regime in the camp was granted him by the “good German” officers, music-lovers all, on the grounds that he was a composer of some renown. Historians believe he and other established professionals were spared the worst so that word would filter back to France and reflect well on POW treatment, and hence encourage French collaboration. The conductor Jean Martinot, later music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was held at a POW camp where 50 musicians were allowed to perform under his baton.

Whatever the motivation for leniency in Messiaen’s case, the composer benefited creatively. Internment and forced isolation from the Paris avant-garde scene may well have enabled one of the most original chamber works of the 20th century to be born. Messiaen produced his famous quartet virtually under German orders. “You are a composer. Then compose,” the main guard told him shortly after he was settled in. He was given private quarters, manuscript paper, pencils and erasers, and he set to work.

After months of concentration on his ideas, then intensive rehearsal time snatched between work details, “Quartet for the End of Time” was premiered in January 1941 in the camp before a packed barracks of some 350 prisoners. “The first difficulty was to read the piece,” recalled violinist Jean Le Boulaire in an interview. “The second was to play it together. That wasn’t easy either…. We had a lot of trouble. … We had run across something we had never seen before.” Messiaen’s friend from the forced march Akoka played the clarinet, Etienne Pasquier played cello and Messiaen handled the very demanding piano score himself – despite some white keys that stuck without warning.

The smartly uniformed German officers occupied the front row, probably perplexed by the other-worldly sounds of the composition Most of the audience was no better equipped to appreciate it but as a relief from camp routine it was warmly welcomed.

Even today, parts of the Quartet can be hard going. Messiaen’s notes published in a CD boxed set, “Messiaen Edition,” don’t help much. He tended to think, compose and speak in colors, and the piece is famous for being his first extended usage of birdsong. The first movement opens with birdlike trilling on the clarinet, originally played by Akoka. The movement is entitled “The Dove,” and Messiaen describes the sound he sought as “orange veined with violet”. Birds chirp throughout, some on the piano, some on the violin. In the fifth movement, “The Ethereal Sounds of Dreams.” an ostinato of orange-blue is superimposed on cascades of violet-purple. And the climactic eighth movement ends in a melodic second theme of orange-green.

This recent video demonstrates the birdsong and the complex rhythms Messiaen assembled for his chamber masterpiece:

As with much difficult modern music, repeated hearings produce a gradual sense of recognition, appreciation, and finally aesthetic acceptance. It is as if Messiaen expected public incomprehension but knew that, over time, the difficulties would be surmountable. One of my musician friends in Bordeaux says it took him ten years to grasp the piece, which he now treasures.

Musicologist Rebecca Rischin’s book For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet, is carefully researched detective work that unravels the many myths and conflicting details of life in the camp and the genesis of the Quartet. A few years ago she traveled from her home base in Ohio to Paris where she tracked down the aging survivors of the quartet and several ex-servicemen who attended the premiere.

After months of research, she concluded that the whole story of the Quartet’s creation can never be known, although she identified several parts that were borrowed from earlier compositions. The fourth movement, “Interlude” was first dashed off as a trio for the clarinet, cello and violin to be played by Messiaen’s camp friends. It was the first part of the Quartet to be composed, and became the seed for the development of the other seven movements. “It would appear,” writes Rishchin, “that Messiaen had not given any thought to composing a quartet … prior to his arrival” in the camp. She concludes further that the fifth and eighth movements were reworked from prewar pieces.

Messiaen himself was less than forthcoming on some details. For example, he often told interviewers that 3,000 prisoners attended the premiere. Some writers put the number at 4,000, or 5,000 and even 30,000. Rischin posits 350-400, sensibly basing her estimate on the capacity of the room in which it was performed. Messiaen repeatedly said that the cello in the quartet had only three strings instead of four. Not true, says the cellist Pasquier. He could never have played the demanding cello part without the fourth string, he told Rischin.

“This absence of knowledge only magnifies the composer’s elusiveness; his omissions serve to preserve the myths surrounding the piece and the mystery surrounding the man,” Rischin writes.

Scholars who have delved into Messiaen’s creative forces are seeking to understand where this unique voice came from. It is clear that his religious beliefs and bible readings served as part of his inspiration. The title of the Quartet refers to the biblical passages in Revelation 10.1-7 in which an angel descends from heaven and declares that “there shall be no more time” – meaning eternity will arrive, with no past and no future to distract us from God.

A large proportion of scholarly study has gone into Messiaen’s romance with birdsong. He has spoken extensively of his love of birds in general, their chirping and their flight, and his realization as a youngster that they were actually making some kind of music. In his later years he called himself a professional ornithologist. He also accepted, as he said in a seminal 1967 interview with French music critic Claude Samuel, that his “passion for birdsong was open to ridicule”.

Messiaen persevered, however. He once said he believed birds are “the best musicians on the planet,” and credits them with inventing the chromatic and diatonic scales, and engaging in the first group improvisation in their “dawn chorus”.

His widow recalled in a 1993 interview with Peter Hill how she supported Messiaen’s avian interests. “I used to drive him into the countryside in my little car,” she said, “and he would spend nights in haystacks or barns to hear the dawn chorus.” He could hear a nightingale and noted that at sunrise that voice would soon be joined by “a mate singing counterpoint”.

The “Messiaen Edition” DVD deals in detail with his bird obsessions, showing him slogging through wooded areas, notebook in hand, taking rapid dictation from the birds. “I simply write what I hear, then adapt it for our modern instruments,” he said. Birds tend to chirp two or three octaves above piano range and some sing in quarter-tones, he said. These qualities cannot be reproduced on a standard piano but Messiaen does a fair imitation with high-register piano writing. In teaching his classes, he liked to whistle bird calls before demonstrating his piano variations.

He carried binoculars to match the species with the song and claimed to have identified some 500 European birds by their music. He recalled in an interview that a peasant who caught sight of him in the early morning dew wondered, “Is he a foreigner or is he mad?”

His prison camp violinist Pasquier accompanied him in walks in the woods after the war, and Rischin asked him what it was like to observe the composer at work. Pasquier said Messiaen would order him to “pay attention” as the sun rose. “The moment was still, then all of a sudden we heard “peep”… Five seconds later all the birds started singing together, like an orchestra!”

It was these birds, in a forest near Verdun, that inspired what would become the third movement of the Quartet.

Another signature element of Messiaen’s music is the tone color he could produce in piano, organ, choral or orchestral compositions. From an early age he was gifted with synesthesia, a cerebral condition that relates music to specific colors. Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was also known to rely on synethesia to enrich his compositions. Tone colors can sometimes have unexpected effects on ordinary listeners as well. Author Henry Miller, listening to Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, described his own experience in his novel Nexus: “(It is) all fire and air,” he wrote. “The first time I heard it I played it over and over… It was like a bath of ice, cocaine and rainbows. For weeks I went about in a trance.”

I spent the summer listening to 16 CDs in one of Messiaen’s boxed sets and never quite fell into a trance but can now fully appreciate his extraordinary richness. One of many interesting pieces I discovered, his1963 “Colors of the Celestial City,” combines all of his principal musical motifs – Christian symbolism, plainsong, birdsong, rhythm and his color associations with musical chords. It stakes a claim to color composition, a style he clung to for the rest of his life. This clip of a performance conducted by Boulez, Loriod at the piano, stands out among the numerous recordings:

Messiaen was distressed when skeptics refused to accept his mental colorations as basic to his compositions despite his precise descriptions of the vivid orange, greens and purples he saw in his mind as he struck certain chords. “I see colors whenever I hear music, and they see nothing, nothing at all. That’s terrible. And they don’t even believe me,” he said to German interviewer as quoted by Seattle musicologist Jonathan Bernard in The Messiaen Companion. As Bernard explained, “For Messiaen, we know that it was harmony … that produced the response.” And he is convinced there was nothing whimsical or improvised about Messiaen’s color responses: “They were absolutely fixed and consistent from hearing to hearing of a given passage.”

Full color schemes came into play as he composed for the organ, an instrument he exploited as a full orchestra. His “free recitals” on Sundays built large audiences at the Holy Trinity church in Paris. Natural acoustics bounced sound off the stone walls and high ceilings to the chilling delight of parishioners. This clip is valuable for its extended closeups of Messiaen personally introducing passages, then playing the stacked keyboards and working the pedalboard with both feet. Turn up the volume and prepare for a thrill:

The concept of orchestral use of keyboard instruments extended to his piano writing as well in which he exploited it’s the instrument’s timbre to the full, writes Robert Sherlaw Johnson in his 1975 book Messiaen. The composer’s piano output is voluminous, with “Catalogue of Birds” generally noted as his most important piece. Peter Hill, in an essay on the piano music, called Messiaen’s piano writing “the equal of any twentieth-century composer in scale and scope, and arguably without parallel in the originality of its technique”.

Hill, who has recorded the complete piano works, remarked to Loriod in an interview that he considered two piano compositions, “Four Studies of Rhythm” and “Cantéyodjaya” (a name borrowed from southern India), “very important works”. She replied that the study was in reaction to serial composition which Messiaen believed was too concerned with pitch and not enough to rhythm. Messiaen didn’t like “Cantéyodjaya” much, she added, “but it’s certainly fun to play”.

This recent recording by respected and much-recorded German pianist Stefan Schleiermacher brings bounce to the writing and displays Messiaen at his playful, whimsical peak, at least in piano composition. But “fun to play”? Only for the virtuoso set:

Of all the musical jewels Messiaen left us, it is his Turangalîla-symphonie that is most commonly associated with his name. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, its 1949 premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the young Leonard Bernstein, brought Messiaen to international attention for the first time. It is not a symphony in any traditional sense but rather a mosaic of ten movements that unfolds over about one hour and fifteen minutes. One critic jocularly characterized it as replete with “dancing rhythms, tantric sex and laughing gas”. The title comes from Sanskrit words that mean “love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death”.

Messiaen himself was anything but modest about his creation. He called it “superhuman, overflowing, dazzling and an exercise in abandonment”.

Messiaen specialist Myung Whun Chung conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in this full-length recording, especially valuable for the quality of the German Arte Television video showing the panoply of instrumentation in full flight – part of the enjoyment in any Turangalîla performance:

His final composition, appropriately named Revelations on the Beyond, was commissioned by Alice Tully for the New York Philharmonic and was finished just two months before his death. It premiered six months later at Lincoln Center with Zubin Mehta conducting. Of the available YouTube recordings, it is Simon Rattle’s version with the Berlin Philharmonic that best renders the coloring and overlaid birdsong.

British critic Blair Anderson praised it as an “exacting yet sweeping performance.” But the Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille under director Myung-Whun Chung is the standard today, available in separate movements from iTunes.

Messiaen’s legacy seems destined to survive the upheavals in the volcanic world of contemporary composition. His balance of originality and accessibility makes his major works popular with curious concert-goers and objects of interest to the music world. His controversies have faded with time, and his theology, birdsong and color-association serve his memory well. He has left a strong imprint on the world of modern music.

Messiaen died after surgery at the Beaujon Hospital in Paris April 29, 1992. After his funeral, Yvonne Loriod ordered a special gravestone topped with the sculpture of a bird.

Originally published on the Open Letters Monthly, posted here with the kind permission of the author, Michael Johnson.

This review is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

Rate this review

Click the stars to rate

Recent Music Reviews