Eternal Harmonies: Messiaen, Faith and Music

Eternal Harmonies: Messiaen, Faith and Music

When you have five minutes, watch the below video. It’s ok – I’ll wait.

Wild, isn’t it? And it tells us a lot both about Olivier Messiaen’s amazing musicianship and the intense religious faith that underpins almost every note he composed. In the latter regard he was atypical: sure, there are great religious works that date from the mid-20th century – Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, for instance, or the choral works of György Ligeti (made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) to name but a few. But those composers were by means committed Christians and their works by means orthodox expressions of faith. Only with the fall of the Soviet Union in the century’s last decades did we see the emergence of devout ‘great composers’, such as Arvo Pärt or Sofia Gubaidulina, for whom religion was a comfort and a form of political resistance.

Messiaen, one of the towering figures of the last century's music, dutifully played the organ at weekly services in Paris’s la Trinité for some sixty years, yet published only one short piece for specifically liturgical use, the motet O Sacrum convivium. His faith presented no impediment to representing erotic love as a reflection of divine love, as in the song cycle Harawi or the massive Turangalîla Symphony; he developed an intensely personal musically idiom to reflect his unfashionable theological meditations, yet was the revered teacher of generations of composers as diverse as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis through to the much feted (and much younger) George Benjamin; he went 'back to nature' and explored bird-song to create a music anything but primitive or naive.

In the clip you’ve just seen, Messiaen improvises on a plainsong, Puer natus est (a boy was born), which has been sung for centuries at Christmas-time. But there is no saccharine ‘O-Little-Town-of-Bethlehem’ flavour to this music, nothing that suggests a silent night with the Holy Family surrounded by shepherds, magi and surprisingly continent livestock. The boy in this case – Jesus – is no less than the incarnation of the Lord of Creation, and Messiaen’s powerful, vertiginous, highly coloured and energetic treatment of the tune leaves us in no doubt of that fact, or the awe that it inspires in him. 

Messiaen explored this at greater length in his 1935 La Nativité, which deals primarily, though not exclusively, with the joy of the Incarnation. In order to express this joy, and the sense of the eternal uniting with the temporal, Messiaen explores complex rhythms.  There is much use of ostinato, or repeated rhythmic patterns; balancing this is the composer's love of irregular rhythms.  Put simply, where much Western music conceives of rhythm as the division of an unvarying pulse, Messiaen, inspired by Greek poetic metres and Indian music, creates interest by the unexpected addition of rhythmic elements:  where we expect four beats, he will suddenly write five and so on. Our expectation of the downbeat is constantly surprised, and such ‘distortions’ of regular pulse remind us of variation in nature: no two waves are ever quite the same shape. You’ll hear some of this playful manipulation of rhythm in the Quartet for the End of Time; in some cases Messiaen ignores other musical elements, like harmony, and has the whole group playing in sinuous unison.

In his harmony, Messiaen creates a sense of timelessness without becoming bland.  Using his own system of modes, or scales, he creates chords which can be extremely tense, or conversely, lush (although the lushness, paradoxically, is achieved through the constant presence of mild dissonance.)  This accounts for the yearning quality of much of Messiaen's music, such as we hear in the gradual, inexorable soaring of the violin, over disembodied simple chords, in the last movement of the Quartet for the End of Time.

Awe is never far from Messiaen's music, and awe in the contemplation of nature is, for him, the same as awe in the presence of God. Such works as the orchestral Des Canyons aux etoiles (From the canyons to the stars) celebrates the composer's reaction to spectacular desert formations in Utah, as well as his enduring love of the night sky. Messiaen's acceptance of the doctrine of the Incarnation, that God became fully human in Jesus, makes the whole material universe sacred. Remembering Paul Dukas’s comment, 'Listen to the birds. They are great masters', he came to feel that birdsong had a sacramental quality, the voice of the earth singing praise to God. That is certainly the sense we get from the counterpoint of birdsong that opens the Quartet.

 Olivier Messiaen during a campaign in the east of France, Metz 1939/40. Source: The archive of Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, Paris.

Olivier Messiaen during a campaign in the east of France, Metz 1939/40. Source: The archive of Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, Paris.

Messiaen’s faith may well have been tested by the experience of war, and his captivity as a POW in the winter of 1941 at Stalag VIIIA, in Görlitz. Much, however, of the Quartet for the End of Time’s musical ‘imagery’ refers explicitly to that of the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation in the New Testament, and like St John’s vision of the ultimate battle and triumph of Good over Evil, the piece is intended to comfort, rather than frighten, in the face of uncertainty.

Schubert, like Messiaen was raised in the Catholic faith, though his feelings towards religion were much more ambivalent, and seemingly of little comfort as syphilis took its toll and his health deteriorated. In 1824 he wrote to friend:

I find myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair continually makes things worse and worse instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain at best, whom enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating variety) for all things beautiful threatens to forsake, and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being? ‘My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it nevermore’. I might as well sing [that] every day now, for upon retiring to bed each night I hope that I may not wake again, and each morning only recalls yesterday's grief.

Despite his illness, Schubert worked on several things at this time, including the D minor String Quartet, whose slow movement is a set of variations of his song, ‘Death and the Maiden’. Its poem, by Lutheran pastor Matthias Claudius reflects the burgeoning Romantic movement, which began in reaction to the authority of Church and State, but more abstractly, questioned the very notions of reason and rationality that had underpinned the Enlightenment. Nature, the Medieval world, folktales and the supernatural became the currency of Romantic poetry, and the greatest escape from those arbitrary authorities was, of course, represented by death. One of the first poets of the Romantic movement in German, Novalis, wrote his Hymnen an die Nacht, or ‘Hymns to the night’ – some of which Schubert set to music – which famously equate death with ecstasy. In fact at one point Novalis says ‘you are Death, and only you can make us well’. And Romanticism arguably rreacvhed its climax in theerotically charged deaths of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, some decades later.

Schubert’s song is a dialogue, where the agitated music of the terrified maiden contrasts with the calm and comforting responses from Death. Significantly, Schubert only uses Death’s material, but of course writing music, and especially variations, is a symbolic way of staving off the end, what scholar Maynard Solomon describes as a ‘bulwark against extinction.’

Samuel Barber would have disagreed, saying ‘it’s only music’ – referring, specifically to the celebrated Adagio which began life as the slow movement of his String Quartet. As a stand-alone work for string orchestra the Adagio immediately acquired connotations of solemnity and grief in the lead-up to World War II and with the death of President Franklin D Roosevelt.  But Barber perhaps undermined his protestations of it being ‘only music’ when he arranged it as an a cappella setting of the Agnus dei – a prayer for forgiveness and peace that occurs before communion in the Latin Mass.

Neither Barber nor Schubert enjoyed the seemingly unshakeable faith of Messiaen; for Schubert, ‘comforting perceptions of a brighter and better life’ were to be found in music (especially Mozart’s), and that, perhaps, is what each of the works in this program of Eternal Quartets offers in its own unique way.

by Gordon Kerry