The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough Toward the Beyond

The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough Toward the Beyond

Sander van Maas
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough Toward the Beyond
    Book Description:

    Present-day music studies conspicuously evade the question of religion in contemporary music. Although many composers address the issue in their work, as yet there have been few attempts to think through the structure of religious music as we hear it. On the basis of a careful analysis of Olivier Messiaen's work, this book argues for a renewal of our thinking about religious music. Addressing his notion of a hyper-religiousmusic of sounds and colors, it aims to show that Messiaen has broken new ground. His reinvention of religious music makes us again aware of the fact that religious music, if taken in its proper radical sense, belongs to the foremost of musical adventures.The work of Olivier Messiaen is well known for its inclusion of religious themes and gestures. These alone, however, do not seem enough to account for the religious status of the work. Arguing for a breakthrough toward the beyondon the basis of the synaesthetic experience of music, Messiaen invites a confrontation with contemporary theologians and post-secular thinkers. How to account for a religious breakthrough that is produced by a work of art?Starting from an analysis of his 1960s oratorio La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jsus-Christ, this book arranges a moderated dialogue between Messiaen and the music theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the phenomenology of revelation of Jean-Luc Marion, the rethinking of religion and technics in Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, and the Augustinian ruminations of Sren Kierkegaard and Jean-Franois Lyotard. Ultimately, this confrontation underscores the challenging yet deeply affirmative nature of Messiaen's music.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4652-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Is what is convincing also true? This classic question often preoccupied me when leaving the concert hall or church where, just before, a work by the French composer Olivier Messiaen (Avignon, December 10 , 1908–Paris, April 27, 1992) had been performed. The question seems naýïve, because the occasion is so evidently about experiencing a work of art that is manufactured, shaped by human hands, not a religious, sacramental ritual. Nonetheless, the great power of some of Messiaen’s work still forces this question on the listener—and I am not alone in this respect. The euphoric ovations or reverent testimony...

  6. 1. It Is a Glistening Music We Seek
    (pp. 13-36)

    Olivier Messiaen is mentioned in many a twentieth-century survey in relation to the role he had in serialism. Around 1950 he was seen as a forerunner in the field of conceptual and technical innovations in music. During this brief period he produced works with often purely technical titles that to all appearances did not refer to religion. But although these works may possess an implicit religious meaning, as some authors have pointed out, Messiaen’s overall oeuvre—on paper, in any case—is emphatically determined by the many works with explicit religious titles, themes, and mottos.¹

    In the historical period in...

  7. 2. Five Times Breakthrough
    (pp. 37-60)

    The first chapter mapped the “program” of Messiaen and exploring the theoretical possibilities that he discerned for putting it to practice. Now it is time to turn to the question of how he endeavored to realize these possibilities. What does it look like in practice, this “glistening music” of soundcolor, dazzlement, and breakthrough? How does Messiaen actually compose this music oféblouissement? What is it that makes music and religion relate so intimately to one another? Several levels come into view. What chords and colors exactly come into play? How does Messiaen use them? Are there perhaps any other musical...

  8. 3. Balthasar and the Religion of Music
    (pp. 61-88)

    The connection between Messiaen and the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar is barely noticeable. Yet it is much stronger than can be inferred from the occasional reference to the latter (in comparison, Saint Thomas Aquinas figures much more prominently in the composer’s writings and scores).¹ When he does refer to Balthasar, it is without exception in admiring terms; he calls him “the greatest contemporary theologian” and claims to have read Balthasar’s theological magnum opus,The Glory of the Lord(Herrlichkeit), in its entirety.²

    Messiaen probably came across the work of Balthasar during his preparations for the libretto ofSaint...

  9. 4. The Gift of Dazzlement
    (pp. 89-125)

    The notion of saturation surfaced more than once in the discussion of the dazzlement passages in Chapter 2. A saturated sound-image was created with Messiaen’s so-called turning chords (La Transfiguration, Part VIII); along with that, different forms of chromatic saturation were mentioned, as with the sound field of the third movement (Part XII) or the fully chromatic chords in both chorales (Parts VII and XIV). Especially in these latter instances, saturation pertained to a parametric phenomenon: the notion referred to the fact that all twelve tones on the chromatic scale occurred in the sound field or the relevant chord form....

  10. 5. The Technics of Breakthrough
    (pp. 126-157)

    The varied and conflicting vocabularies Messiaen uses when speaking of his own work are a reflection of the complex cultural-historical background that informs it: secularization, individualization, modernism, postmodernism, and technology, to name a few. In the opening paragraph of hisConférence de Kyoto, Messiaen blames the lack of understanding that often informs the reception of his work on the decline of faith. He laments the fact that as a “Christian and a Roman Catholic,” he speaks of “God, Divine Mysteries, and the Mystery of Christ to unbelievers or people who have little knowledge of religion and theology.”¹ This sounds like...

  11. 6. The Circumcision of the Ear
    (pp. 158-178)

    Messiaen’s discourse onéblouissementand the possibility of a breakthrough toward the beyond is surprisingly radical. This is not only because the composer calls attention to the actual possibility of religious music—and in a certain sense hyperreligious music, for Messiaen places it above religious music—in an age when, to all appearances, this possibility had definitively turned into its opposite, but also because of his surprising move of connecting the domain of religious experience directly to the coordinates of the musical artifact. In this way, he suggests that a religious experience can be evoked by musical-technical means, countering the...

  12. Epilogue: On Affirmation
    (pp. 179-180)

    As Christian Asplund is right to emphasize in an article in which he compares the aesthetics of Cage, Bach, and Messiaen, the music of the last composer does not appeal to a sense of interiority in the way Bach’s music does. It seems as though in Messiaen’s music the vertical plane of stained-glass windows is answered by a planar experience that leaves all interiority behind. Inspired by Gilles Deleuze, Asplund notes, “Rather than delving or diving into a squalid, striated space of darkness within, Messiaen wants to ascend to a smooth, infinite space of light above, an expanding beyond oneself...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 181-220)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-230)