Messiaen, Saint Francis, and the Birds of Faith
CHARLES H. J. PELTZ
I have been asked to deliver a confession of my faith, that is, to talk about what I believe, what I love, what I hope for. What do I believe? That doesn’t take long to say and in it everything is said at once: I believe in God. And because I believe in God I believe likewise in the Holy Trinity and [especially] the Holy Spirit.1
I have read that quotation many times and I am still astounded. I am astounded by the strength in its delivery and the personal submission in its substance. Olivier Messiaen offered it in 1971 to assembled dignitaries upon receipt of the Praemium Erasmianum, an honor acknowledging his status as an artist. Like the irresistible utterances of truth by Daniel to the Babylonians, Paul to the Corinthians, and Christ to the Pharisees, the words were out of fashion for both the moment and the era. As with his biblical predecessors, the career risks were high for a musician of his stature to openly proclaim God. His age was not one of sorting through conflicting passions about God’s truth. Rather it was a century of hoping that God would evaporate through disinterest, wherein musicians spent great energy denying the Gott of “Götterfunken.”
A composer of some of the twentieth century’s most important works, Messiaen was both a giant of music and a devout Christian Catholic apologist. His was a highly original voice marked by an extraordinary use of time and its active offspring, rhythm, and a use of color more vivid than one could have imagined even with his French birthright of iridescent sound. Moreover, Messiaen synthesized rhetorics from the most basic found in nature to the most advanced created by humans, a synthesis so potent and perfect that it makes the resultant new language awesomely clear in its ability to communicate the essence of life.
Messiaen communicated religious ideas through this new musical language, and so his work is best seen as an expression of evangelism. One of Messiaen’s evangelical inspirations was Saint Francis of Assisi, whose life inspired the opera that bears the saint’s name. By examining each man and his work in light of the other we can illumine that which “touches all things without ceasing to touch God.”2
Born in 1908 in Avignon, Olivier Messiaen was the child of two highly literary parents: his father, Pierre, was a scholar and teacher whose work included extensive translations of Shakespeare; his mother, Cecile Sauvage, was a noted poet. By age eight he had memorized great chunks of Shakespeare and Tennyson, whose work he described in adulthood as “superfairytales.”3 Self-taught at the piano, he was compelled by his insatiable musical curiosity to beg for scores of Gluck, Wagner, and Mozart as Christmas gifts, and at age nine he composed his first work, Le Dame de Shallot. By age eleven he was attending the Paris Conservatory, where for the next eleven years he studied the whole of music from an array of notable teachers, including Dupré and Dukas.4 Although the Prix de Rome eluded him, he received virtually all of the Conservatory’s honors. In 1930 he left the Conservatory, and one year later accepted the post of organist at La Trinité in Paris, a position he would hold for more than sixty years.
In 1941, after being captured and imprisoned by the Nazis, he wrote in a Silesian stalag his first great work, Quartet for the End of Time, depicting the apocalypse from the book of Revelation. Performed in the prison camp for an audience of five thousand enthralled prisoners, this work for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano was a groundbreaking work, a dramatic synthesis of Messiaen’s religiously inspired ideas and musical language.5 After his release from the prison camp in 1942, he returned to Paris and an appointment to the Paris Conservatory. His well known students included Boulez, Xenakis, and Stockhausen. The intensity of these musical rebels contrasted greatly with the serenity of Père Messiaen.
Messiaen’s musical life unfolded over the next fifty years through compositions for chorus, orchestra (including the sprawling musical landscape Turangulila–Symphony), wind and brass ensemble, and organ. All these works culminated in the opera Saint Francis (1975–1983), a work of Wagnerian proportions based upon central moments in the life of the Umbrian saint. Messiaen’s compositional style evolved over those fifty years, but changed direction very little. As he said about music over the ages, “The music of our time is quite a natural continuation of the music of the past; doubtless there are changes, but no rupture.”6 His musical path was similar: he adopted various techniques, including aleatory and serialism, but remained faithful to his unique synthesis of languages.
Imagine being a child whose mother writes this as she carries you in her womb: “I carry within me the love of mysterious and marvelous things.”7 It is what Cecile wrote in a volume of poems to her unborn son titled L’âme en Bourgeon. It seems inevitable that the son of such literary parents would in some “mysterious and marvelous” way find language the fuel for his creative engine.8 Messiaen created his own fuel, his own language, by interweaving musical language with the languages of many living beings.
Oiseaux exotique, the Exotic Birds, was composed in 1956. That same year, coincidentally, the English edition of Messiaen’s book Technique de mon langage musical was published. Written in 1944, this handbook explains the sources and thoughts behind the musical phenomena he created, and it is an invaluable aid in understanding them. He makes clear that this is not a book on how to compose, but rather a guide to the “rhythmic, melodic and harmonic” views of his music.9 In addition to this trinity of musical elements, he describes his use of Hindu and Greek rhythms and of birdsongs, influences that figure prominently in Oiseaux.
Birds were the world’s first musicians, or so goes the cliché. In chapter 9 of Technique, Messiaen quoted Dukas: “Listen to the birds! They are great masters.” It is to these first musicians that Messiaen turned reflexively for both spiritual inspiration and direct musical material. He collected bird song, as Bartok and Grainger collected folk songs, with an obsession for accuracy. His passion was to notate the primary source, and thereby insure fidelity to that source when recreated by humans. Unlike the nightingale and cuckoo of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, idealized birds à la Watteau, he collected real birds from around the world and unleashed them, à la Hitchcock, in the concert hall: Musique vérité.
Now arises one of those heat-creating and light-discouraging arguments that divert the best discourse. Did Messiaen really transcribe birdsong with complete accuracy? Would a cardinal rush inquisitively (or passionately?) to the room of a clarinetist practicing Messiaen? (Quite an image: the two of thembeak to bellin doomed unrequitedness.) Some assert they can prove (by scientific/acoustical comparisons) that Messiaen was uncannily accurate in the process of transcribing; others think that he fell markedly away from fidelity. Messiaen himself addressed this debate. He said, “I’d like to talk about the musical forms in which I use birdsongs. There are two different forms, one deceitful and one truthful. The deceitful one employs the birdcalls as raw material after the manner of composers of electronic music, who use birdsongs as a source which they constantly electronically alter.”10
Matthew Gurewitsch offers a brilliant insight into the near impossibility of a wholly “truthful” collection and notation:
Birds do not sing the way people write music, and transcribing them was like concocting algebra to reproduce calligraphy: it took creativity of no small order. Birdsong moves faster than human fingers; the first thing to go when an instrumentalist mimics a bird is tempo. Also, Western melodies are strung together from notes, well-defined pitches neatly arrayed on scales. Birds sing microtones. Their staccato “notes” are more like jagged shards than human musicians’ points and beads of sound. The timbres and attacks are often energetic to the point of harshness, yet to our ears in the wild they may sound ineffably sweet. For the piano and for instruments of the orchestra Messiaen invented ways of clustering and combining notes to produce, often with uncanny verisimilitude, an impression of the real thing. Call it trompe l’oreille.11
The argument about Messiaen’s fidelity to nature is an unhelpful and distracting exercise. Gurewitsch articulates the view that complete fidelity to nature is often impossible. Messiaen says that when complete fidelity is possible he is “truthful”; when it is not, he uses the birdsong as primary raw material to be crafted into “trompe l’oreille.”
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