Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bon centenaire!

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most important composers of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen, who died near Paris in 1992. (As an aside, tomorrow is the 100th birthday of another important 20th-century composer, Elliott Carter, who is very much alive and is still producing new music.) A devout Catholic, Messiaen produced startlingly original compositions that reflected his own intense and very mystical spirituality as well as his keen interest in topics as diverse as ornithology, Thomistic philosophy, and the music and cultures of East Asia. Though he spoke very openly about his religious faith and produced numerous compositions on explicitly Christian themes, Messiaen also won the respect and admiration of many who did not share his beliefs. The fact that Messiaen spent decades serving simultaneously as titular organist of La Trinité in Paris and as a professor at the Conservatoire de Paris says much about his ability to thrive in very different musical cultures.

The centenary of Messiaen's birth has occasioned numerous tributes and many performances of his music, winning him new fans and hopefully also leading some to reflect more deeply on the relationship between modern classical music and religious faith. Though I've been aware of Messiaen for a few years, the buzz surrounding the centenary got me more interested in his work and ultimately converted me into a fan. Listening for the first time to some of Messiaen's more explicitly religious compositions, like his L'Ascension for organ or the orchestral work Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, as well as ostensibly secular pieces like the Turangalîla-Symphonie, I felt a sense of genuine awe unlike anything else I've experienced while listening to music. I've certainly been inspired by music before - I could go on at great length about how deeply I've been moved by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, or how much spiritual sustenance I've drawn from the Russian tradition of sacred choral music and from the religious works of J. S. Bach. I'm simply saying that I've found something unique in Messiaen's music that I can't fully express in words. In this sense, Messiaen reminds me powerfully that one of the functions of music is precisely to express what words alone cannot.

If you'd like to know more about Olivier Messiaen and about the spiritual vision the informs his music, I suggest that you take a look at an appreciation of Messiaen by Jesuit Father John Coleman published two weeks ago in America. On the 100th anniversary of Messiaen's birth, I'll be praying in a spirit of gratitude for the blessed repose of a great composer who left us an enduring gift in his music. AMDG.


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