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Messiaen’s Language of Mystical Love

Series Editor’s Preface vii
Editor’s Introduction xv

Part One: The Composer as Humanist, Mathematician, and Theologian

Messiaen’s Teaching at the Paris Conservatoire: A Humanist’s Legacy
(Jean Boivin)

The Theology of Illusion
(Ian Darbyshire)


Part Two: Self-Restriction and Symbolism

Theological Implications of Restrictions in Messiaen’s Compositional Processes
(Roberto Fabbi)
Mystical Symbols of Faith: Olivier Messiaen’s Charm of Impossibilities
(Jean Marie Wu)
Rhythmic Technique and Symbolism in Messiaen’s Music
(Robert Sherlaw-Johnson)

Part Three: Praising God with Saint Francis and the Song of Birds

Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Theme of Truth in Messiaen’s Saint François d'Assise
(Camille Crunelle Hill)
Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise and Franciscan Spirituality
(Nils Holger Petersen)
Magic and Enchantment in Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux
(Theo Hirsbrunner)

Part Four: Poetry, Angelic Language, and Contemplations

Messiaen and Surrealism: A Study of His Poetry
(Larry Peterson)
Speaking with the Tongues of Men and of Angels: Messiaen’s “langage communicable”
(Andrew Shenton)
The Spiritual Layout in Messiaen’s Contemplations of the Manger
(Siglind Bruhn)
The Contributors 269



Since the beginning of sacred music in the Christian tradition, composers have created musical symbols to express transcendental ideas. These included the use of certain keys and modes, the choice of specific intervals perceived as connected to religious concepts (from the chromaticism in laments over human sinfulness to the representation of God’s perfection in the octave), the shaping of pitch lines for special images of visual symbols (see e.g. the manifold melodic outlines tracing the shape of the Cross), as well as the translation of Christian terms into their numerological equivalents and their embodiment in the form of rhythmic, metric, or otherwise countable units. This development reached its peak in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when an already very elaborate musical rhetoric coincided with a heightened desire for mystical expression.

Olivier Messiaen (Avignon 1908 - Paris 1992), while undoubtedly an heir to this tradition, has created a musical language that is highly idiosyncratic. Influenced by mystics like Saint John of the Cross and Sainte Thércse de Lisieux, his spirituality permeates all his works, from the explicitly sacred to the allegedly secular. As he never tired of telling his interviewers, his music can be subsumed under three themes: God’s Love as it is extended to the world through the birth of His Son (the Incarnation), the human emulation of God’s Love (the myth of Tristan and Isolde as the epitome of idealized love which, even in its most exemplary form, is only a poor and blurred reflection of divine love), and the glorification of God in his non-human creatures (bird song, both as a manifestation of God's love as expressed in nature and of the praise that God's creation offers its creator).

This volume of essays aims to explore the various aspects of Messiaen’s spiritually committed musical language, drawing on his own remarks in subheadings and prefaces, his biblical and theological citations, his allusions to works of visual art, and on the language spoken more indirectly by the musical tropes themselves.

The two essays in the first part introduce the person behind the music: Messiaen the teacher who never formed a “school”, the humanist who coached widely different creative talents, encouraging each to become more fully him- or herself, and the theologian who drew on complex mathematics to transform his rhetorical message into music. Part II follows with three investigations into the principal aspects of his compositional technique and their relationship to his religiously based concept of restraint. The three essays in Part III focus specifically on the celebratory angle of the subject matter Messiaen's music explored: the combination of humility and glorious praise of God in Franciscan spirituality and the song of birds. The volume concludes with three inquiries into language and structure in the broader sense, and into the spiritual motivation that underlies a spectrum that spans from a musical alphabet through the complex symmetrical design of a cyclic composition to the composer’s own poetry.

Soliciting essays for a volume dedicated to a composer whose music, thought, and spiritual attitude have for many years been a major inspiration for me has been challenging and richly rewarding. Working with an international team of authors and editing their thought-provoking articles for publication has been a wonderful experience and a great pleasure. I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to all contributors for making this volume possible. My particular thanks go to Joseph Auner, general editor of the series on “Studies in Twentieth-Century Music” of which this book forms a part, for his very prompt, always enlightening, and invariably kindly advice and support.

As can be expected when several scholars discuss a single composer, the essays collected here contain some points of overlap. Where observations made in one article were repeated in another, such repetitions have been eliminated. Thus Ian Darbyshire, e.g., has kindly agreed to cut out substantial documentation for points made in his essay since the examples are discussed in extensive detail elsewhere, and Roberto Fabbi has consented to limit himself to merely touching upon the issue of synaesthesia, since this is central in Jean Marie Wu’s contribution. In other cases, however, both the series editor and I felt that the various treatments of the same material can be a strength rather than a weakness, since recapitulations of a topic in different contexts often create a cumulative effect.

Much thought has been given to Messiaen’s specific terminology and its rendering by various authors. While several contributors grant the composer the right to idiosyncrasies of language, others feel strongly that traditions of the English language should have priority; thus you will find Ian Darbyshire arguing against the use of the word “interversion” while other authors saw no reason to deviate from Messiaen’s choice of term. However, spelling and capitalization in the titles of Messiaen’s works have been standardized throughout this collection in accordance with the article on Messiaen in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 1980). Transliterations of Indian rhythms follow the “Table of 120 deçi-talas according to Sharngadeva” in Appendix II of Robert Sherlaw Johnson’s Messiaen (London: J.M. Dent and Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974 and 1989; now Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Ann Arbor, July 1997
Siglind Bruhn