Friday, November 09, 2007

An Early Christmas Present from Olivier Messiaen

The name of French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) has come up in conversations once or twice this week, and many of you probably have never heard of him. So I thought I'd share this video of Naji Hakim, Messiaen's successor at La Trinite in Paris, playing Messiaen's Dieu parmi nous from La Nativie du Seigneur. Hakim is playing the organ at La Trinite. Notice the incredible echo in the building.

Messiaen's music is, it seems, under-appreciated in many quarters. (And, once again, continuing in my ongoing theme, that's not to be laid completely at the feet of the Glory and Praise gang.) While much of what he wrote he never intended as liturgical music but rather as religious music, there is much that we can learn from his compositional technique. Moreover, whatever his intentions in these pieces, one can bet that his improvisations at Mass were not much different than these masterpieces which have come down to us.

Many have trouble getting beyond the sounds in Messiaen's music which they perceive to be dissonance. Believe it or not, Messiaen actually used well-organized harmonic schemes, the colorfulness of which only become more and more apparent with each listening. This isn't to say that there is no dissonance, only to say that there is much less than it first seems. Moreover, Messiaen's music sure is a far cry from the Second Viennese School. And, as a colleague of mine just mentioned over the phone, Messiaen's music "is not Victorian music, and you just have to get over that."

It may also be helpful to know how Messiaen constructed his music. As a devout Catholic, he composed music which relied on Christian imagery. This particular piece, Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us), depicts the angels rejoicing on the night of Christ's birth, among other things. In his work, Messiaen also drew on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he read studiously, and also on material about St. Francis of Assisi. Colorfulness is an important aspect of his writing. In addition to all these, Messiaen made use of unusual modes of limited transposition, as well as Gregorian chant, and even bird songs. All of this is fused into his own personal style, much like Bach fused French, Italian and German influences into his own individual approach.

By all accounts, Olivier Messiaen was a saintly man. He was a genius but also a hardworking servant for the Church. It seems to me that someone who is in a position to do so should begin the cause for his canonization. Church musicians need someone to look up to--a hero to inspire them, and Olivier Messiaen is just the man we need.

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