IN 1945 Virgil Thomson was spreading the word to America of a "thirty-seven-year-old boy wonder" whom Parisians were calling the "atomic bomb of contemporary music." Olivier Messiaen was his name, and he had published a two-volume treatise, Technique de mon langage musical, the year before. Such self-analysis was not as megalomaniacal as its eyebrow-raising title might suggest; almost nothing Messiaen wrote followed traditional forms, and musical progressives wanted to know what he was up to.
Already his output featured large-scale, ingeniously crafted works for orchestra, piano (solo and duo), and organ, the lush song cycle Poèmes pour Mi (Mi being the nickname of Messiaen's first wife), and the masterpiece Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), scored for the unusual combination of violin, clarinet, cello, and piano. These happened to be the instruments, broken-down though they were, available when Messiaen, a famished and frozen prisoner of war, wrote the piece in a Silesian internment camp. There the quartet received its first performance, before an audience of 5,000. "Never," the composer later wrote, "had I been listened to with such attention and understanding."
In the future lay the Turangalîla-symphonie (the title, taken from Sanskrit, implies a cosmic love song, a hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death). An eighty-minute pageant of volcanic energy alternating with voluptuous serenity, the symphony displays throughout a knowledge second to none of what musical instruments can do. Also still to come were a sequence of phenomenal piano and orchestra pieces dazzlingly wrought from the real songs of birds; the monumental La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, which runs an hour and forty minutes and calls for seven instrumental soloists, a chorus of one hundred, and an immense orchestra heavily reinforced with percussion; the opera Saint François d'Assise, of Wagnerian duration (four solid hours of music), depicting moments in the spiritual history of Saint Francis, in deliberately action-free fashion; and much, much more.
Acceptance of Messiaen's scores was by no means instantaneous or general. In 1960, outside the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées after the world premiere of the challenging Chronochromie (which in one now-famous passage requires the eighteen string players to play eighteen different birdsongs simultaneously), an exasperated member of the orchestra hit the composer with a shoe. Through the very end of the sixties Messiaen's music continued to encounter insult and abuse. These still smarted in the last years of his life, although by then the tide was turning. Detractors notwithstanding, prestigious commissions had long been coming and continued to come Messiaen's way. In 1992, at the age of eighty-three, he died showered with honors, a cult idol in his native France and throughout the world, notably in the United States and Japan. Before long he may be joining the universal pantheon as a new colossus -- the next Mahler, as it were, though as unlike Mahler as Mahler is unlike Mozart.
TO outward appearances Messiaen was a gentle soul, quietly earning his bread as a teacher, first at the École Normale de Musique and later at the Paris Conservatoire, and as the organist at the church of La Trinité for fifty years. But in his art he was intrepid. His classes in harmony and analysis attracted the most daring talents of the postwar generation: Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and, toward the end, George Benjamin, whose compositional abilities Messiaen likened to the young Mozart's. With his students Messiaen explored Western music from Gregorian chant and Monteverdi through compositions still wet on the page, not to mention exotica like rhythmic systems from India (the intricate deçi-tâlas that figure so prominently in Messiaen's own writing) and metrics from ancient Greece. His knowledge of the musical heritage was encyclopedic; constant interaction with the brightest of his juniors kept him young.
Receptive as Messiaen was to impulses from far-flung sources, his sympathies were by no means all-embracing. No postmodernist, he recognized that aesthetics has a history; he saw no point in trying to replay the gambits of the past. Unlike the eclectic Stravinsky, who plunged into ism after ism, Messiaen dabbled in new developments (electronic music, total serialism) only in a very controlled and time-limited way. The son of a father who translated Shakespeare and a mother who wrote mystical, rather purple verse, Messiaen found his voice early -- a voice like no other. To judge from his earliest publications, his musical godfathers were César Franck and Claude Debussy; his precocious love of Wagner echoes in musical reminiscences of the lonely English-horn solo of Tristan und Isolde. But what is original in Messiaen infinitely outweighs any influence. The atomic-bomb metaphor is grotesquely inappropriate. To discover Messiaen is to make landfall on a virgin continent teeming with life, rejoicing in that natural condition perhaps best called a state of grace, unravaged by civilization -- if an abode for humankind at all.
At first the explorer may be as much bewildered as bewitched. Messiaen discloses many-splendored landscapes mystical and sumptuous, ajangle with birdsong, awash in rainbows. One will not go away from a concert humming the tunes; melody, in the linear sense, is seldom prominent. Messiaen's is supremely a music of simultaneities, of layers and textures.
Typically, it comes complete with a map: Messiaen's own painstaking record of his intentions, materials, and techniques. How much practical guidance the map offers is another question. The symphonic Réveil des oiseaux lists, in order of appearance, more than three dozen birds. Good luck picking them out -- and what exactly is gained if one does? And what on earth is one to make of the knowledge that a certain Messiaen "mode," or sequence of notes, consists of "horizontally layered stripes: from bottom to top, dark gray, mauve, light gray, and white with mauve and pale yellow highlights -- with flaming gold letters, of an unknown script, and a quantity of little red or blue arcs that are very thin, very fine, hardly visible"?
FOUR key factors set Messiaen's music apart. First is his Catholicism, a faith he claimed to have been simply born with (though his parents were nonbelievers), which to him was an inexhaustible font of metaphysical ideas. Second, his idiosyncratic notion of color. Third, his iconoclastic approach to rhythm. Fourth, his use of meticulously transcribed birdsong, from which he spun fantasias of bizarre brilliance. In various ways each of these wellsprings of inspiration put Messiaen in what he termed "eternal conflict" with the public at large.
Messiaen wove divinity into his music by every musical and extramusical means he could devise: individual sections of his works appear under theological headings or quotations from Scripture; musical motifs are explicitly associated with such entities as God and the cross; he even went so far as to invent a musical alphabet of tones and durations for spelling out texts from the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
In conversation Messiaen spoke with quiet conviction of the Resurrection and the joy to come. Judging by the evidence of the music, I would say that he heard the voice of God the Father in bleak, granitic tones of the abyss (shades of Wagner's dragon, Fafner); even agnostics may sense with awe the cliff against which all creation is bound for shipwreck. Elsewhere Messiaen's music offers existential consolation, in strains inspired by the mystery of the Trinity. Whatever the message, Messiaen was preaching mostly to the unconverted. "I speak of faith to atheists," he said. And this, he could see, was a problem.