Messiaen, atom bombs, prisons, and true freedom

“I have tried to be a Christian musician and to sing my faith, without ever succeeding.  No doubt because I am not worthy of it (this said without false modesty!).  Pure music, profane music and above all theological music (and not mystical, as the majority of my audience think) alternate in my production.  I truly do not know whether I have an “aesthetic,” but I can say that my preferences are toward a glistening (chatoyante) music, refined, even voluptuous (but not sensual, of course!).  A tender or violent music full of love and vehemence.  A music that rolls and sings (praised be melody, the melodic phrase!).  A music which could be new blood, unknown perfume, a sigular gesture, a bird without sleep.  Stained-glass music; a swirling of complementary colors.  A music which expresses the end of time, ubiquity, the glorified bodies, the divine and supernatural mysteries.  A “theological rainbow.”

These are words from french composer Oliver Messiaen discussing his philosophy of composition and compositional techniques.  Messiaen, a devout Catholic since birth, speaks of being fascinated even at a very early age with story and mystery.  Through childhood fairy-tales, literature (his father translated Shakespeare’s complete works) and ultimately through stories from the Bible, where fantasy and Truth are blended, Messiaen grew into the Christian faith.

We foster a great admiration for [the] cosmos, but we all, even the unbelievers, have an obscure feeling that there’s something else which is beyond time, space and stars and everything we know -something which isn’t before or after them, but is completely outside them, which supports and contains what everyone who isn’t entirely insensitive can feel – and which one can call God.  Basically, religion is above all this: a relationship with the extraordinary spirit which is outside everything, which is totally different.  Throughout the history of our planet, there have been founders of religion, religious geniuses, rophets, outstanding popular leaders, like Mohammed, Buddha, and Moses, too; but there’s something unique, that’s even more unusual than the totally other deity: namely, that God – as different, as distant, as terible, as motionless, as eternal, and as infinite as He appears to us – came to us and tried to make Himself comprehensible in our language, in our sensations, in our attitudes of mind.  That’s the most beautiful aspect of the Godhead: the Mystery of the Incarnation, and that’s why I’m a Christian.  In saying this, I’m not thinking differences between Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Catholics – and a Christian is a person who uderstands that God came.

Not surprisingly, Messiaen describes the book of Revelation “the loveliest Book and the one which dominates all others.”  This quarter, in a paper for a seminar on music of the Cold War, I will be examining Messiaen’s compositional output during the cold war years, specifically looking at his Quatour pour la Fin du Temps (1941) and Messe de la Pentecôte (1949).

Despite this time of great fear, increasingly heightened tensions and impending nuclear destruction, Messiaen claims to have been uninfluenced by cold war politics.  During his imprisonment in a WWII German POW camp, he composed the Quatour pour la Fin du Temps. In those harsh conditions, it is logical to assume Messiaen’s writing was influenced by these exceptional circumstances of his imprisonment.  During an interview decades later, Messiaen explained his reasons for writing the quatour, stating, “I would instead say that I composed this quartet in order to escape from the snow, the war, the captivity, and myself.  The greatest benefit that I gained from it was that, in the midst of three hundred thousand prisoners, I was probably the only one who was free.”

Author: adamkurihara

Minister of Worship Arts at NSCBC in Beverly, MA

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