Rhythms of Catholicism

Review by David Heetderks

Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) is a formidable figure in 20th-century modernist music. In the 1930s and ’40s, he developed a unique musical style full of colorful, dissonant harmonies that juxtaposed extreme contrasts of loud and soft or fast and slow. He devised new ways of thinking about musical time, creating highly irregular rhythms and complex collages that overlaid multiple rhythmic patterns.

He was among the first globally multicultural composers, claiming as formative influences ancient and non-Western musical systems and cultures. After World War II, his career found unexpected rejuvenation when he gave lectures at the famous Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music and became a guide to composers who would be towering figures in the mid-century avant-garde. Incongruous as it may seem today, Messiaen was also a devout Roman Catholic.

Visions of Amen
The Early Life and Music of Olivier Messiaen
By Stephen Schloesser. Eerdmans. Pp. 594. $50

The relation between Messiaen’s faith and his avant-garde musical ideas is a fascinating topic, but it is not to be explored lightly. Messiaen left behind reams of dense commentary on his music in score inscriptions and treatises. He discussed his faith and music in interviews late in life, but his statements are only partially true. These sources require analytical and historical scholarship to peel away the layers they contain and reveal Messiaen’s private life and complex theological development behind them.

Stephen Schloesser undertakes this unpeeling. Much like Calvin Stapert’s books, also published by Eerdmans, Visions of Amen combines biography, theology, and musical analysis and aims to make the composer accessible to general audiences. But Schloesser’s book is more ambitious. It aims to engage scholars as well as general readers, and it incorporates sources previously unknown to non-Francophone readers. At 594 pages, its scope is vast. This ambition pays off with fascinating insights for many sections; for others, it results in digressions and tenuous claims.

The first half of Schloesser’s book provides a biography of the composer up to World War II, emphasizing his developing theological and religious thought. Its description of Messiaen’s early life will upend conceptions of those who know him solely through published interviews or oft-used biographical sources (such as The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). Messiaen claimed that he came to Catholicism unprompted by any members of his family, but Schloesser shows that this is almost certainly false: Messiaen’s father, Pierre, likely influenced the composer’s faith. Pierre grew up in a highly pious household, and gravitated to Catholic revivalist writers in response to the conflict between church and state at the turn of the century.

Pierre’s relationship with the poet Cécile Sauvage, Messiaen’s mother, is complex, and Schloesser’s depiction of it is a page-turner. Pierre fell in love from reading her poetry, and a shared love of literature became the bond upon which the couple founded their romance. They married despite familial disapproval and Sauvage’s agnosticism. The young Olivier Messiaen witnessed a great deal of strain in his home caused by his parents’ difference in faith, the demands of their careers, Cécile’s postpartum depression during the first three years of his life, her clandestine affair with another writer, the tumult of World War I, and Cécile’s eventual death from tuberculosis.

The composer’s early life, as well as his mother’s bleak poetry, informs the undercurrent of loss and melancholy that Schloesser identifies in his early compositions and that, the book argues, reappears sporadically throughout his ouevre. The chaotic family dynamic in which the composer was reared, sadly, reproduced itself in adulthood when Messiaen’s wife began to succumb to mental illness as World War II began.

Despite the composer’s later claims, his father’s faith also influenced his self-understanding as an artist. It is quite possible that Messiaen’s introduction to the ideas of philosopher Henri Bergson, whose distinction between different types of time would prove formative for the composer’s ideas about rhythm, came from his father (p. 96). In 1927–28, Pierre gave his son, then a young man, Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, which argued that religion and the avant-garde are compatible (p. 80). Despite Messiaen’s claim to have not understood the book, the composer’s writings reveal an undeniable influence.

Messiaen spent the rest of his life exploring how to be a Catholic avant-garde musician. Schloesser’s close readings of Messiaen’s commentaries demonstrate that many of his forward-thinking ideas about rhythm and musical expression resulted not in spite of his Christian faith but because of it. After graduating from the Paris Conservatory, the composer took up a position at the Church of the Trinity in Paris. Adopting the label of a “mystic” composer, he became notorious for wild organ improvisations that were nonetheless rooted in the French practice of performing as a commentary on a religious text (pp. 142–44).

His score inscriptions in his early career were steeped in the writings of Columba Marmion, one of the most popular devotional writers after World War I. In the 1930s, he desired a more solid theological foundation and recast himself as a “theological” composer, plumbing the depths of Thomas Aquinas in his music and commentaries. Messiaen’s interest in juxtaposing extreme opposite states derived from surrealism, part of the zeitgeist of interwar France, but this adoption rested on his belief that it was compatible with the idea of a union between the physical and spiritual. Schloesser’s comments on the song cycle Poemes pour Mi, which the composer wrote for his first wife, even engender a discussion on changing attitudes toward marriage found in the Catholic Church.

The most uneven portion of the book is its central one, where the author gives a movement-by-movement account of Messiaen’s Visions of Amen, a two-piano work that broadly outlines a narrative of creation, Christ’s suffering, judgment, and the final consummation of God’s salvific plan. The account is interesting, but it rambles. Many readers will find a slog in its 163 pages — almost a third of the book’s main text. Messiaen wrote the piece at the end of World War II for Yvonne Loriod, a young piano student with whom he was falling in love (although he remained married to his wife until her death).

The work represents a summation of musical techniques Messiaen used in the first half of his career, and his multiple commentaries on it provide a rich set of data from which to mine his views on music and theology. But Messiaen’s discussion is so far-ranging that critical interpretation would benefit from a single narrative thread to tie it together. Schloesser’s discussion lacks this thread. Instead, it gives the impression that the author believed any potential extramusical connection, however tenuous, must be included.

The book’s chapter on Amen of Judgment, the sixth movement of Visions, is a telling example of both its analytical strengths and weaknesses. The chapter opens with imaginative connections between Messiaen’s score and his theological influences. It suggests that periodically throughout the movement three high bell-like piano sounds of equal duration represent what Bergson calls “clock time”—an outward marking of the length of events that contrasts with “duration,” which is time as it is experienced subjectively by an free individual.

As a symbol of clock time, it represents the end of possibility or will: “[c]hoices are no longer possible. ‘The damned are fixed in their state’” (p. 404). Messiaen’s cryptic description of a “bell of evidence” in his composer’s note leads to a fascinating discussion on the practice of ringing a bell in the medieval ritual of excommunication, evoking terror and solemnity and creating the two types of fear — roughly, “fear” and “awe” — discussed by theologian Ernest Hello. Although there is no direct evidence Messiaen had this connection in mind, he would have been aware of the ritual, and the relationship might provide the foundation for a persuasive, imaginative interpretation.

But rather than exploring this topic more deeply, the chapter devotes the rest of its pages to proposing other, more tenuous connections. Schloesser states that Tarare, an obscure Salieri opera, “might have” (p. 423) also been in the composer’s mind while he wrote the movement. Tarare also features a scene of judgment that involves bells, but the only evidence that Messiaen was interested in it is that he excelled in music history and that the score would have been available to him.

Moreover, the author undermines his own argument by showing how ubiquitous bells were in French life. The Tarare connection offers little insight; it merely provides thin justification for a digression on the opera. The end of the chapter compares brief percussive effects in the movement to another work by Messiaen that features percussion. The composer compared the latter work to Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which leads to a discussion of the concept of the abyss in French literature. At several degrees’ removal from the original topic of the chapter, the insights that readers are supposed to draw about Amen of Judgment are lost.

Finally, the connections the author makes between extramusical associations and musical gestures suggest a fuzzy understanding of instrumental technique. For example, Schloesser compares a performance direction given to the percussionist in the score of Tarare, in which one bar is beat softly to one bar loudly, to Messiaen’s description of a quick “flam” stroke used in Amen of Judgment. Percussionists would have to squint to see the passages as similar.

Readers interested in a deeper appreciation of the two-piano work Visions of Amen, or those seeking a casual biography, will have to sift through less helpful passages. Nonetheless, there is no question that the book is a major achievement. It provides invaluable research and insight for any reader curious about what motivated Messiaen’s complex musical and theological thought. Many of its ideas will reveal new ways of listening to the composer’s music. The book shows that just as Messiaen’s music layers part into a dense, multicolored collage, it also overlays multiple extramusical and theological associations.

David Heetderks is an assistant professor of music theory at Oberlin College Conservatory.

Image: Olivier Messiaen meets Pope John XXIII.

TLC on Facebook TLC on Twitter TLC’s feed TLC’s weblog, Covenant Subscribe


Online Archives