Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Messiaen composition fitting for the Transfiguration; further thoughts on Messiaen

Since we're still in the midst of the centenary year of Olivier Messiaen, it seems fitting to point out a piece which I have played a number of times for the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is Apparition de l'Eglise Eternelle (Apparition of the Eternal Church). This a good beginner piece for organist and audience alike. Here's Daniel Roth playing it:

Just the other day, I was speaking to a friend of mine on the phone, who said that his 14 year-old daughter wanted to talk to me. She's just recently begun to study the organ, and she had some questions about Messiaen. I was delighted by her curiosity.

One of the questions she had for me concerned why many people don't like Messiaen's music. The way she phrased it indicated some level of perplexity on her part: I find it interesting that adults have a hard time appreciating high art that a young person will readily embrace. In any case, I answered that perhaps this is because people look at Messiaen telescopically: They hear what they consider to be dissonance and they run away. No time is ever spent learning the inner workings of the unique harmonic language of this composer. This lack of study will impair one's ability to grasp his genius. I heard one ignoramus, after a particularly moving performance of Messiaen's Transports de joie at this summer's CMAA colloquium, call this music "Communist." Perhaps that means that Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher wouldn't like it, or something. Another person complained about it, and I tried the humorous approach: "Well, what are you going to do when you get to heaven and the music of Messiaen is being played?" The fact that this exchange took place at a gathering of church musicians was alarming to me (and it completely killed the good mood I was in from the performance).

The truth of the matter is that Messiaen occupies an exalted place alongside J.S. Bach and Anton Bruckner as one of the greatest organist-composer-church musicians of all time. Too often we like to pull things apart and find what is wrong with them. In the case of this trinity of composers, it is far better simply to sit at their feet and learn.

On the surface, Messiaen may strike the listener as one of the many composers of the 20th century who did away with any sense of hierarchy in his work, but this is far from the case. His techniques of formal development are light years ahead of the coat-hanger rattling music that everyone is subjected to in undergrad school. And I dare say that no music save Gregorian chant contains as much Catholic theology as does Messiaen's. In a way, the riches of the theology he employs remind me of Richard Weaver's comment that the artists of centuries ago used story--not so much to tell a story, but to translate the story into form. In the case of Messiaen, it's formal sonic spirituality.

"You're a horrible teacher," someone said to John Nash in the movie A Beautiful Mind. "I'm an acquired taste," retorted the professor. For many, Messiaen may be an acquired taste, but this does not take away from his value. After all, beauty is indeed more than skin deep.

But no one ever gets beyond skin deep without considerable effort.

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