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Don’t be put off by the birdsong

It’s the 100th anniversary of ’challenging’ avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen

JAIME J. WEINMAN June 30 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Don’t be put off by the birdsong

It’s the 100th anniversary of ’challenging’ avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen

JAIME J. WEINMAN June 30 2008

Don’t be put off by the birdsong

music

It’s the 100th anniversary of ’challenging’ avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen

JAIME J. WEINMAN

What would you expect from a composer who spent years writing music based on bird calls, who encoded his pieces with Catholic messages that only his co-religionists were supposed to understand, wrote his most famous quartet to pass the time while he was held in a German POW camp, and became a mentor to avant-garde composers around the world? You probably wouldn’t expect his music to be performed very often. But Olivier Messiaen, the French composer and church organist who lived from 1908 to 1992, is getting a lot of attention for the 100th anniversary of his birth. A list of upcoming performances at Oliviermessiaen.net takes in dozens of major orchestras and performers; the Berlin Philharmonic is playing works like Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence, and the New York City Opera has scheduled a production of his only opera, the five-hour Catholic guilt trip St. Francis of Assisi. With his influential experiments with rhythm and tone colour, his exotic, multicultural sounds, and his attempts to fuse music with conservative religion, he offers something for everybody. At least, concert programmers are hoping he does.

Being important doesn’t make a composer popular, and Messiaen’s music has plenty of obstacles to popularity. Andrew Shenton, who runs Oliviermessiaen.net, admits that while he’s a big fan, “not all of his music is great to listen to,” adding that another composer said that Messiaen’s birdsong music makes you “feel like you’ve gone to heaven or been pecked to death.” Apart from the hard-to-follow rhythms and melodies of his music, its Catholic content makes people feel, Shenton says, as if they’ve been “sermonized during a concert.” Audiences can get

used to difficult music, but a combination of difficulty and religiosity is a lot to take.

Yet Messiaen continues to have real, devoted fans who love his music passionately. And he is in some ways more accessible than the more academic, avant-garde composers who learned from him. Malcolm Ball, who runs another fan website at Oliviermessiaen.org, says that what made him an admirer was that Messiaen created “a completely new sound world” that followed “no school or style.” Messiaen’s star pupil, Pierre Boulez, a famous avantgarde composer and conductor, declared that any composer who didn’t use the dissonant 12-tone system (based on rows of non-repeating notes) was “useless,” and refuses to conduct much of his mentor’s music for that reason. But Messiaen couldn’t bring himself to follow any one system; some of his music is off-putting, but he also creates moments that are tonal and surprisingly tuneful.

Messiaen also has more appeal today than he had in his own time because he was sort of a forerunner of globalization. At a time when European composers mostly stuck to a purely European style, Messiaen filled his works with nods to non-Western music: his strangest rhythms and sounds don’t sound so strange to people who have heard Asian or Hindu music. Today, when the Internet gives us easy access to the music of every cul-

ture and continent, Messiaen’s music sounds surprisingly hip for a French organist. His nods to the East also make his music sound less sectarian, even if he wouldn’t have admitted it: Shenton says that Messiaen tried to claim that his borrowings from Hindu music had some kind of Catholic significance. When audiences hear one of his accessible pieces, like the 80-minute symphony Turangalila, or the hypnotic Quartet for the End of Time, they don’t hear religious preaching; they hear a mix of colours and rhythms that hardly any other “classical” music has.

But is that enough to make his music catch on? While Ball has seen “enthusiastic response to the centenary year” from concert audiences, what his music needs most is media exposure, and Messiaen has had the rotten luck to get his big year just as radio stations and record companies are cutting back on any but the most familiar music. The CBC intended to celebrate the Messiaen centenary with a compact disc of his music conducted by Messiaen’s friend Kent Nagano. But when the CBC announced a huge reduction in its classical production schedule, one of the first things to go was the Messiaen project. Still, despite the relative lack of broadcasts and recordings, Messiaen’s fans hope that this year will bring him closer to mainstream acceptance. “I feel encouraged,” Shenton explains. “People are starting to talk about why you can find his music beautiful even if you don’t agree with his views.” M