As composer, organist, teacher and theorist, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was the most influential European musician of the second half of the twentieth century–and yet he was in many ways far removed from his time and place. His religious beliefs were those of a pious medieval Catholic; his musical style ignored just about everything that had happened in European music between the troubadours and Wagner. He cobbled together a personal idiom out of bits and pieces of musical techniques and sources from around the world, forging them into a system he hawked with the ardent self-confidence of a traveling Bible salesman. His combination of naïve fervor, pedantry and self-made originality made him seem more like a misplaced American maverick–like Charles Ives, Henry Cowell or John Cage–than a product of French culture. And yet scarcely any Western European composers of the past sixty years have been untouched by his ideas.
Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, the co-authors of this handsomely produced new biography, have a long association with Messiaen’s music, as a performer and a writer, respectively. For their devotion they were granted access to a huge private archive of papers, photographs and memorabilia still controlled by the composer’s widow, Yvonne Loriod. This relationship yields predictable strengths and weaknesses. The book fills out our knowledge of Messiaen’s career and reception (Loriod must have saved every review he received in his life), but it also tends to frame controversies in a defensive manner and fails to deal forthrightly with some of the touchiest and most interesting aspects of his career; Claude Samuel’s book of conversations with Messiaen, Music and Color, and Rebecca Rischin’s recent history of the Quartet for the End of Time–a work for violin, cello, piano and clarinet famously composed and premiered at a German prisoner-of-war camp in January 1941 before an audience of fellow prisoners–convey a much more vivid sense of Messiaen’s private side. But the public “and then he wrote” story told here has its own fascination.
The facts of Messiaen’s childhood are already familiar. His father was a professor of English (though Messiaen never learned the language). His mother, Cécile Sauvage, was an important poet; her ode to motherhood, L’Âme en bourgeon (The Flowering Soul), was written while she was pregnant with the future composer. Throughout his career Messiaen, who wrote his own texts for three song cycles and for the epic opera Saint François d’Assise, lauded his mother’s influence on his music and poetry. Her death when he was 19 was one of two tragic personal losses that shadowed his career.
In his intellectual family, Messiaen was a much appreciated prodigy, exhibiting early signs of extraordinary ability as a pianist and composer. Although his parents were not especially religious, he discovered his defining religious worldview (if not a calling) very early in life. Not surprisingly, Messiaen’s early works–like the piano Préludes, written (and published) when he was just 21–were rooted in French music, particularly that of Debussy and (more ambivalently) Ravel. A piano teacher gave him the score of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which became a musical bible. From Debussy he derived the use of rich chords, modal scales, medieval parallelisms and exotic echoes of East Asian music. But Debussy’s music is all about evanescence; it is written on the wind and water. Messiaen dehydrated Debussy’s style, draining out its temporal instability. His music is made of stone.
Messiaen also rejected those even more transient elements in both Debussy and Ravel that stemmed from jazz or from Erik Satie, the anarchic presiding spirit of French music in Messiaen’s student years. He moved French music out of the cafes and back to the cathedrals. The one non-French influence on Messiaen’s style was Stravinsky of the Russian period, particularly The Rite of Spring and Les Noces. Messiaen appropriated the Fauvist colors, asymmetric rhythms and Cubist construction of these works, along with their antirationalist subtext. His questionable analysis of Stravinsky’s rhythm, a mainstay of his teaching, became the basis for his own rhythmic innovations. Stravinsky never found Messiaen’s imitation flattering; “rubbish” was one of the kinder words he used for it. His antipathy mirrored Messiaen’s strong revulsion to the neoclassical direction Stravinsky took in 1918, beginning with L’Histoire du Soldat. By his early 20s Messiaen, after receiving every possible honor at the Paris Conservatory, became the organist at the church of Sainte-Trinité, a huge Second Empire pile tellingly located midway between the Opera Garnier and Place Pigalle. His daring improvisations at the midday mass soon achieved notoriety and evolved into several masterly cycles of sacred organ music: La Nativité du Seigneur and Les Corps glorieux. (These remain the best introduction to his music, especially heard in his own performances on the four-CD set Messiaen par lui-même.)