Marking 25 years this month since the death of the French composer Olivier Messiaen, Warner Classics releases its complete 25CD Messiaen Edition. Journalist and radio personality Jon Tolansky pays tribute with memories of the composer from people who knew and worked with him.
“Messiaen was one of those experiences that you remember all your life. I never met the Pope or the Dalai Lama, but I think he was that spiritual”
The pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet mirrors the feelings of most people I know who encountered Olivier Messiaen. His presence was mesmerising, almost hypnotic, as I can personally attest. The face, the eyes, the voice – his whole bearing: gentle and deep, but penetratingly intense – like a spiritual laser. He was of course devoutly religious, in the Catholic faith, but his faith also embraced his ecstatic and pantheistic love of the physicality and poetry of life and nature, including his beloved birds that he studied as an ornithologist and notated so extraordinarily intricately into so much of his music. They were like divine angels and inspired musicians to him, and in an interview for his 70th birthday he said, “for me, birds are the greatest of artists”.
He outlined “human love, faith and divine love...nature, especially the song of birds” as the main themes in his music, expressing them in a completely original style and language that was so strikingly all his own. For all the important influences on him of Debussy, whose music he loved, and also traditional Hindu, Greek, Javanese and Balinese music, his works are instantaneously recognisable as Olivier Messiaen, vividly bringing to life the essence of his feelings and personality. It was thus right from the time of his very early works, an immediately arresting example being the remarkable Le Banquet Céleste (The Heavenly Feast), which he wrote in 1928 when he was only 19 years old, with the epitaph, from the Gospel according to John, "He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood dwelleth in me and I in him".
The recording of Messiaen himself playing this on the organ of the Sainte-Trinité Church in Paris takes us directly to where for 61 years, from 1931 until 1992, he was the titular organist of the church. On some days the captivating sounds of his random improvisations there – sometimes mysterious, sometimes electrifying – could be heard by visitors if they were lucky to be in the church just at the right time. One of them was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who studied some of the composer’s music in person with him.
“I think he was living in another level of the world from where we all are. He was so spiritually high that just to meet him and speak with him – just to look at him – was an experience by itself. And to hear him improvise at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris was absolutely staggering – the spiritual force was amazing”.
Messiaen’s spiritual fervour embodied joy, love, redemption and nature. It was in the early 1950s that his love of birdsong intensified so much that he began an exhaustive study of it, initially with the guidance of the ornithologist Jacques Delamain. He first went down to see him at the property Delamain owned at Branderaie de Gardépée in the Charente, South West France, in April 1952, and among the many vital fruits of his ensuing immersion in ornithology was Catalogue d’oiseaux: the massive seven book set incarnation of birdsong that he wrote between 1956 and 1958, which he dedicated to the pianist Yvonne Loriod. She was to become his second wife following the death of his first wife, Claire Delbos, after many long years of ill-health, a cause of great distress to the composer.
The Catalogue d’Oiseaux was one of the works Messiaen explained in detail to the pianist Peter Hill, who built up a special rapport with the composer and became his biographer. He recalls Messiaen’s words to him about La Fauvette des Jardins – the Garden Warbler – evoking the cycle of a midsummer night transitioning into the next day, going through the day and then transitioning into night again:
“He talked about the different hues of a sunset – sometimes a kind of rose pink and then later on a kind of violet that would ‘stain the skies’, as he said, and one could see how his harmonies were paralleling this in sound.”
These are the harmonies of chords that Messiaen describes in his preface to the score as “colours of the sunset”, calling them an “ecstatic contemplation”. Colour, in its widest but also most precisely vivid sense, was a vital essence in his experience of life and faith, and thus his music, in which it was nevertheless a highly complex expression. The pianist, scholar and author Roger Nichols remembers:
“What Messiaen did say to me, which I don’t think generally is known, is that whereas we know that deeper sounds are darker and upper sounds are lighter, and for instance A Major is generally a light blue becoming darker as you go down to the lower octave, it was not as simple as that for Messiaen because they moved – there were spirals and twirls and circling. So there was not just a block or slab of colour: they circulated and intertwined. I think this was a help to him in composing, as he said certain juxtapositions of sound produced a jarring of colour that he simply found impossible to tolerate.”
It was as much Messiaen’s acute sensitivity to musical and natural sound, light and colour as his punctilious intellectual rigour that spawned the meticulously detailed instructions he put in his scores and kindled his intensely critical surveillance of those who performed them. And yet, for all his fearsome exactitude he did not want an impersonal clone. If he was convinced that an interpreter understood his music and could technically fulfil the detailed demands, he gave them freedom of expression, as Peter Hill recalls.
“He always encouraged me to follow my own path and undoubtedly encouraged me to follow my own destiny with his music. At the same time, I learned so much from hearing him talk about the background and the inspiration for the pieces and of course trying to live up to the exceptional demands that he made in terms of the way one played his music.”
Some of the most challenging of all demands Messiaen made on performers are still daunting more than three decades after his only opera was premiered in Paris, in 1983. For the massive size orchestra and for the conductor, Saint François d'Assise is a technical tour de force, and although the vocal parts are relatively simple, the baritone taking the role of Saint François is on stage for nearly four hours. In a sense this work, which Messiaen said is a set of “scenes showing various aspects of the grace in the soul of Saint François”, stands as an apotheosis, a kind of summation of all the composer’s creative work during his life – his devout religious belief, his love of nature, his intense experiences with colour, and his love and involvement with birdsong. All these elements were the embodiment of his passionate faith. Singing the role of Saint François in the world premiere of the opera, following much personal discussion and rehearsal with Messiaen, was the baritone Jose van Dam.
“He was a very devout believer – and God and the Saints were very important in his life. I understand this as I am also a believer, even if not as much as him. When I spoke with him he was greatly enthusiastic about writing this opera. He asked me if I could demonstrate to him the highest and lowest range of my voice and I said to him ‘It’s very strange that you think about a voice like mine for Saint François. For me Saint François is more a tenor or a light baritone like a baryton-Martin’. He said ‘No no. For me, the strength of St François’ faith must be heard in his voice. I want a voice like Amfortas in Parsifal or Boris in Boris Godunov. I want a strong, solid voice’”.
After he had completed Saint François d'Assise, Messiaen said that he would not compose again. He was mistaken, as several more works were to follow, but in a way he was declaring his credo, as he did near the very end of the interview he gave to Claude Samuel in 1988, which Warner Classics has issued:
“I have no doubts about God, because God is truth. The only truth, even. The unique truth. Whereas I am a very small creature, subject to weakness and change, subject to variations. So it’s quite normal that I doubt myself and not celestial truths.”
The Olivier Messiaen Edition (25 CDs) is out now on Warner Classics and features Olivier Messiaen, Yvonne Loriod, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Martha Argerich, Simon Rattle, Pierre Boulez, André Previn and more.
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