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Few composers of the 20th century were as deeply shaped by a theological tradition as was Olivier Messiaen by French Catholicism in the period following the First World War. Born to a literary family – his mother a poet, his father an English teacher and translator of Shakespeare – young Olivier excelled in piano and organ performance and won composition prizes at the Paris Conservatory. From his 20s into his 80s, at the Parisian church La Trinite, he played for three masses and a vesper service each Sunday. In recommending him to this prestigious post, mentor Charles Tournemire described him as  “a transcendent improviser, an astonishing performer and a biblical composer,” adding:  “with Messiaen, all is prayer.”

Musical influences on Messiaen included Tournemire and Widor and other French organ masters, as well as French modernist composers of the generation after Ravel and Debussy. Voicing his admiration for Stravinsky and Moussorgsky, Messiaen also mastered the complex rhythmic patterns of Indian ragas. As a professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire for nearly half a century, he taught and occasionally employed the fashionable new science of 12-tone composition embraced by the musical avant-garde. Many of its leading figures – Boulez, Xenakis, Stockhausen – were among his students.

Messiaen’s music sounds like no one else’s.

But Messiaen himself followed a different muse. Among the distinctive elements of his music are palindromic rhythms, the same forward and backward; altered scales yielding unexpected harmonic intervals; extremes of tempo, with frenetic activity alternating with seeming motionlessness; and evocations of birdsong, some of it having been notated meticulously in the field. Performed by a pianist, an organist, a chamber ensemble, an orchestra or an opera company, Messiaen’s music sounds like no one else’s. Titles of two works, early and late in his musical life, hint at the range of his ambitions: a 1931 organ suite titled “Apparition of the Eternal Church” and a 1974 work for soloists and string ensemble titled “From the Canyons to the Stars … .”


To the unaccustomed ear, Messiaen’s music can be impenetrable, and his florid titles only compound the befuddlement. The intended theological content escapes many listeners entirely. Sometimes this arises from prejudice: When a leading French organist toured the Soviet Union in the 1960s the movement Messiaen called “Dieu parmi Nous” (“God among Us”) was rendered into Russian as  “All Together, Comrades!” More often listeners simply escape the spell, hearing only a blooming, buzzing confusion.

Stephen Schloesser, historian at Loyola University in Chicago, has fallen under the spell. With two accomplished pianists, Hyesook Kim, of Calvin College, and Stephane Lemelin, of McGill University, he undertook a massive exploration of a major keyboard work, “Visions of Amen,” composed in 1943. Support from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship made it possible to present the seven-movement work to audiences at eight colleges and universities. The unusual trio – two pianists and one historian – overcame audience skepticism, Schloesser reports:  “Listeners expressed deep affinities with Messiaen’s vast mental store of images.”

The direction in which Messiaen pointed was invariably upward, toward the light.

“Visions” stands between two important milestones in the composer’s career. Two years earlier, during a brief period as a prisoner of war in Silesia, Messiaen and three fellow musician-prisoners premiered what remains his best-known work, the “Quartet for the End of Time.” One year after virtuoso pianist Yvonne Loriod (later to become the second Madame Messiaen) joined the composer to perform  “Visions,” she premiered one of the most challenging of all 20th-century solo compositions for piano, Messiaen’s “Twenty Gazes on the Christ-Child.”

Schlosser’s imposing monograph grew from seeds planted during the concert tour. Its title is somewhat misleading: In addition to an exceptionally informative portrait of the composer’s childhood and early career, Schloesser also describes and analyzes major works of later decades. His biography corrects some errors disseminated by the composer himself, who identified both of his parents as unbelievers. In fact his mother was agnostic, his father a devoted lifelong Catholic. Schloesser also recounts, clearly and sympathetically, the composer’s challenges as a husband and a father, assuming sole responsibility for family and household during his first wife’s lengthy illness and institutionalization.


But center stage here – 160 pages on musical elements, theological references and context – belongs to “Visions de l’Amen.” Listening to the online performance by Kim and Lemelin or to one of several commercially available recordings while reading these extended notes discloses new layers of meaning and conveys the excitement of the recitals more than a decade ago.

Consider, for example, the work’s second movement, the “Amen of the Stars, of the Ringed Planet,” with the two piano lines seeming to fly to great heights and then yield to gravity’s pull. Where Pythagoreans and Thomists envisioned an unvarying circular motion of the highest sorts of bodies, Messiaen’s heavenly music is that of an ecstatic dance,  “brutal and savage,” in his words – a far cry from the stately and invariant majesty of the ancients’ and medievals’ music of the spheres.

In this movement Schloesser hears a  “Pascalian and Heideggerian anxiety,” a sense of fear and isolation over our insignificance in a vast and complex cosmos, and he points to parallels in the writings of John Updike and Walker Percy, as well as French popularizers of modern cosmology. And – in a striking display of the broad knowledge and sensitivity that he brings to this project – Schloesser helps us discern borrowings from both Hindu dance and birdsong.

Listening to a recording of “Visions” with Schloesser as a guide is as rewarding, and as surprising, as visiting an art gallery with an erudite and enthusiastic docent. The level of detail can be intimidating at times: Movement 6, the  “Amen of Judgment,” takes less than three minutes to play but 30 pages to explain. The most prominent motif here is that of  “three frozen notes,” in the composer’s description, like the tolling of a bell. Are they intended to suggest the bell that once announced a believer’s formal excommunication, Schloesser muses? Or to invoke the judgment scene in a Beaumarchais opera, forgotten today but known to Messiaen? Or should we hear the fearful abyss of the philosophy of Pascal and the fiction of  Poe, authors whose work the composer admired?


Or perhaps this is simply extraordinarily interesting and complex music for the piano. Sometimes Schloesser overplays his erudition. The strategy I have followed, and recommend, is to listen carefully to the piece more than once while reading Schloesser’s commentary, marking out mentally the elements he describes. Then close the book and listen again, intently and without concern for extramusical references.

Messaien’s works are not suited, in any case, to background entertainment. Slipping  “Visions” between Mozart and Vivaldi in the stack of discs for a dinner party would induce puzzlement, if not indigestion. What did the parishioners at St. Trinity make of the polyrhythmic and polytonal improvisations on chant and hymn tunes they heard each week? One visitor, Aaron Copland, recorded in his diary for 1949: “Visited Messiaen in the organ loft at the Trinite. Heard him improvise at noon. Everything from the  ‘devil’ in the bass, to Radio City Music Hall harmonies in the treble. Why the Church allows it during service is a mystery.”

Mystery is an apt term, but the mysteries that Messiaen sought to explore were deeper. In his organ works, in compositions for chamber ensemble and in choral and keyboard compositions, he ventured beyond the realm of ordinary experience, beyond the domain of conventional harmony and accessible melody to a universe of deeper and more profound realities. And the direction in which he pointed was invariably upward, toward the light, toward a deep sense of joy and affirmation in daily existence. With Messiaen, all is prayer.

The iconoclastic modernists of 20th-century music needed to shake the dust of Romanticism and Impressionism from their feet in search of an austere and intellectual musical orderliness. Finding beauty in their compositions – as many do today – would have seemed to them an affront.

But the mystical Catholic who was their teacher during the week and church organist on Sunday unashamedly pursued an ideal of otherworldly and cosmic beauty in all that he wrote. Often he succeeded. Even on first hearing we are entranced by the gently rocking chords of the fourth and longest movement of “Visions,” the  “Amen of Desire.” The composer’s notes highlight two  “themes of desire” that provide a unifying element, a theme of  “slow, ecstatic, longing of a deep tenderness,” alternating throughout the movement with an  “extremely passionate” theme of a  “soul pulled by a terrible love.”

We may listen here, with Schloesser’s assistance, for marks of a teleological cosmos, shaped by the philosophies of Aristotle, Aquinas and Bergson. With Schloesser as guide, we may also note the palindrome rhythms and unconventional scales. Closing the book and listening afresh, we will be caught up in melodies and harmonies that unveil the transcendent in the ordinary, the spiritual in the physical, the dance of angels in the movements of fingers on keys and of hammers on strings. In his book The Rest Is Noise, music critic Alex Ross has observed that, where his contemporaries believed God was either absent or unrepresentable,  “Messiaen felt that God was present everywhere and in all sound.”

Describing Movement 5, “Amen of the Angels, of Saints, of Birdsong,” Schloesser calls attention to an obscure Scholastic concept that may provide an important clue to Messiaen’s achievement. God alone dwells in eternity, writes Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, and we dwell in the temporal world. There is also an intermediate realm of  “aeviterrnity,” whose inhabitants possess an unchangeable nature yet can experience temporal change. Two examples are given: heavenly bodies, which cannot change but can move, and angels, who possess  “an unchangeable being as regards their nature with changeableness as regards choice.”

Music is essentially a temporal creation, a mode of communication among persons in which expectations about melody, harmony and dynamic change are continually invited, then fulfilled – or redirected. Listening to a Byrd motet, a Mozart concerto or a Charlie Parker solo involves us, in different ways, in unceasing imaginative interplay between what we sense is coming next and what actually follows.


Some contemporary composers forsake any such dialogue. For Cage and Varese, sometimes for Schoenberg, sounds simply follow other sounds in a succession determined by calculation or chance. These composers’ recordings are outsold a thousand to one by Disney soundtracks and country albums. All the same, they have bequeathed a richer palette of musical expression to all of their musical successors, even those who have returned (as most have) to harmonies and structures that unfold in audible patterns and that balance dissonance with consonance.

As a composer, Messiaen made use of 12-tone algorithms, Romantic dynamic contrasts and Impressionistic scales without holding a membership card in any of the major movements of 20th-century composition. Can we learn to listen in the aeviternal realm, equidistant from time and from eternity, in order to discern multiple layers of meaning?

Angels figure prominently in Messaien’s titles. Perhaps his music, challenging as it is to hear and understand in our temporal realm, would sound as tuneful and harmonious as Tudor choral music – or 60s surfer pop – to an angelic ear.

David A. Hoekema teaches philosophy at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Photo: Nimarie at Greek Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 gr], via Wikimedia Commons

David A. Hoekema

David A. Hoekema

David A. Hoekema is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and retired Academic Dean at Calvin University, and, in the winter, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Arizona.  His most recent book, We Are the Voice of the Grass (Oxford University Press), recounts the tireless work of Christians and Muslims who came together to strive for an end to a brutal civil war in Uganda. In light of recent developments in the CRCNA, he is now a member of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, and he also participates in the worship life of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Grand Haven. Hiking, bicycling, choral music, old-timey string bands, and conversation with Christians whose minds and hearts are open to all are among the things that gladden his heart.