At the beginning of his Traiie de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie,
the seven-volume treatise on which Messiaen worked from 1949
until his death, he discusses, with the support of quotations from the
work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the difference between eternity and
time. Time is not a part of eternity, time and eternity are two absolutely
different measures of duration. Time is the measure of what is created,
eternity is God himself and is indivisible as God is indivisible. The
end of time, a vision of eternity through the suspension of musical time was Messiaen’s aim in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, and in the works that immediately preceded it. A regular pulse draws the attention
of the listener to an awareness of. time, so the destruction of this
regularity by the addition of short time values, or, the creation of
rhythms from the addition of different durations was to provide the
contact between the listener and the eternal in order to illustrate the
theological concepts involved in Messiaen’s composition. It can be
argued that, however one organizes rhythm, it is impossible for music to
exist outside of time and that bringing about the ‘end.of musical time’
through irregular rhythms is simply an illusion. Much music, however,
depends on creating a sense of illiusion. The listener—whether it is a
vision of a submerged cathedral in a Debussy Prelude, a primitive ritual
in Le Sacre du printemps, or simply the transporting of the listener from
the physical world to a world of some musical experience as would be the case with music with no programmatic or pictorial content. In a certain sense, the. illusion becomes the reality, if only for a short space
This is also the aim of liturgy arid liturgical music, and it is significant
that the musical traditions of the older Christian churches should
be ametrical in the sense of avoiding a sense of regular pulse, as for
example in Old Roman and Gregorian chant arid the liturgical polyphony
of the High Renaissance. It is natural that the shape of Gregorian
chant should form a constant basis of many of Messiaen’s melodies.
The use of the introit for-the-third mass of Christmas, Puer natus est
nobis, or the gradual Haec dies, from the Easter Mass in Regard de
I’Esprit de joie (no. 10 from Vingt regards sur I’Enfant-Jesus) for
instance, both freely transformed into his own modal language, are
appropriate because of the association with the Nativity in the first case
and with joy in the second, although the movement itself does not have
a specific Easter association. Many other examples occur in all periods
of his music.
Robert Sherlaw-Johnson, Rhythmic Technique and Symbolism in the Music of Olivier Messaien
It was not until late in college that I realized a connection between what I consume aurally with what I produce musically. I began to realize this as a composer. I noticed that my music would inevitably be influenced by the music I grew up listening to and the harmonic language I had been accustomed to hearing. This initially disturbed me greatly, as I was unable to compose in an organic, creative method of pure self-expression, but have come to realize that my musical identity is connected to the music of my youth, and by realizing that I can choose to embrace it, or begin to move away from it. In college I began to listen to more “serious” music, and I have noticed that even though I still play and listen to all kinds of music, my study of classical music has influenced how I play piano, sing in ensembles, and even how I play contemporary worship music.
It is difficult to imagine or remember my first aural experiences, but perhaps common for most people, the sound of my parents’ voices comes to mind. Growing up in church, the first musical experiences I had were in worship singing praise songs and hearing choirs. In addition to live music, sounds from movies and television are imprinted in my aural memory. I remember watching Disney movies and learning to play the songs on the piano, and enjoying the Disney “sing-along” videos. When I was 5 I began piano lessons, to which I owe a great deal of my musical development. Because of the early start, I have always had a “good ear” when it comes to pitch and melody, and found elementary music classes to be rather easy. I found ear training exercises in my piano lessons simple and obvious, and quickly advanced to more difficult material. I hated practicing, but my mom reminds me I loved “composing” my own songs and discovering what melodies I could make on the piano. Though I never wrote anything down, I hope to someday recapture this childhood fascination with sound and melody.
Today my most impressive aural experiences are becoming increasingly diverse. At the core of my transcendental musical experiences is Bach. I have been overwhelmed with a sense of peace in playing and studying Bach’s Fugue in Ab from Well Tempered Clavier book 1; I have been moved to tears filled with a sense of comfort while riding my bike listening to a recording of O Jesu Christ Meins Lebens Licht; While rehearsing the St. Matthew Passion, I remember shivers up my spine and the hair standing up on the back of my neck from the soprano (boy-chorus) melody in the first movement on the chorale tune. Amidst the dense choral and instrumental counterpoint and pulsing bass line (depicting the impending suffering and “heartbeat” of Jesus’s passion) the simple unadorned chorale tune O Lamm Gottes pierced through my ears and into my soul. I understood that despite chaos happening all around, God is sovereign. The passion, crucifixion, and resurrection were in His plan from the beginning.
Besides Bach, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus has reduced me to tears. In its simple, elegantly stunning beauty, I find again assurance of God’s sovereignty. I’ve struggled to find the exact words to explain my feelings about that short piece, but perhaps words are not always necessary in describing music.
When listening to 20th century classical music, I have also had metaphysical aural experiences. At a concert by the Emerson String Quartet, amidst the usual string quartet fare of Mozart, Beethoven, and Fauré was Webern’s (in)famous 6 bagatelles for string quartet. Having studied post-tonal theory and serialism, I understood these pieces intellectually, but had not found any connection with them beyond that. Before that concert I respected the composer but was fine with leaving my feelings there. Looking at the program, I rolled my eyes and wondered how the audience would receive Webern. When the 6 bagatelles began, I was instantly enthralled by the mystery and my perspective of music was immediately re-oriented. Webern challenged my conceptions of what “beauty” was. Set against the backdrop of traditional ‘romantic’ or programmatic music I began to understand that beauty in music was more than just nice melodies and pretty chords. Webern taught me that fascination I had as a child with sound.
Another 20th century work that deeply impacted me is Messiaen’s Quartet pour le fin du temps. Similar to my Webern experience, I went into the concert with a pre-conceived opinion of the piece that I knew to be 20th century and therefore difficult to digest. It was a student performance during a summer program for music composition and conducting I attended, so on top of the in-accessibility of Messiaen was my prejudice against ‘student’ performers. During the 7th and final movement of the piece, ‘Louange a L’Immortalite de Jesus / Praise to the immortality of Jesus’, I remember hearing the long sustained notes of the violin climbing gradually to its highest tessitura paint the picture of Jesus on earth ascending to the Father. In the repeated pianissimo chords in the piano I heard the infinite and immortal nature of Jesus. The final forte resolution and agreement of violin and piano near the end of paint the picture of heaven. Again, words here somehow fail to describe the experience fully. Give it a listen!
EDIT: Thanks to the fact that I live in the 21st century, I have found a video recording of this very performance of the Messiaen I was talking about. I contacted my friend Aubrey, who played the violin part that changed my life, and she kindly allowed me to share it here. She says:
It is wonderful to hear from you. I would be honored to have you post that recording of Messiaen to your blog. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I’m so grateful I got to share it with such incredible musicians and dear friends
Ok so I’m still working on my Paper on Messiaen (see this post). As I was reading articles and books about Messiaen, his catholic faith and liturgical music, I was reminded of The Sprit of The Liturgy, By Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI), a book recommended to me that I have been reading this quarter. Ratzinger’s book discusses liturgies’ foundations in Biblical history, its relationship to time and space, and, in his chapter on liturgical form, discussion of practical matters for the church such as placement of the altar, function of music, and physical participation (kneeling/standing/sitting).
Messiaen’s liturgical music often plays with our notions of time. His most popularly studied work, Quatour pour le fin du temps, uses a complex and irregular rhythmic language to give the listener the sense of a suspension of time (note: bad idea to listen to when you’re working on a paper with a deadline in 24 hrs).
Ratzinger, in his opening chapter, discusses what we experience during the liturgy, and how, for a moment, time and our notions of purpose and achievement are suspended in place of a new kind of existence. During the 1920s, a metaphor was made comparing liturgy to “play.” Specifically, the play of a child. Ratzinger begins his book with a mention of this concept. When a child plays, “it has no meaning or purpose outside of the rules of the game. For that reason, there is something healing, even liberating about it. Play is a kind of other world, an oasis of freedom, where for a moment we can let life flow freely.” He then illuminates a deeper facet of this analogy that ties it in with the essence of the liturgy, not to mention send shivers down my spine.
Children’s play seems in many ways a kind of anticipation of life, a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity. On this anaolgy, the litrugy would be a reminder that we are all children, or should be children, in relation to that true life toward which we yearn to go. Liturgy would be a kind of anticipation, a rehearsal, a prelude for the life to come, for eternal life, which St. Augustine describes, by contrast with life in this world, as a fabric woven, no longer of exigency and need, but of the freedom of generosity and gift. Seen thus, liturgy would be the rediscovery within us of true childhood, of openness to a greatness still to come, which is still unfulfilled in adult life. Here then, would be the concrete form of hope, which lives in advance the life to come, the only true life, which initiates us into authentic life – the life of freedom, of intimate union with God, of pure openness to our fellowman. Thus would imprint on the seemingly real life of daily existence the mark of future freedom, break open the walls that confine us, and let the light of heaven shine down upon earth.