A Crucifix of Sugar


by Robert Evett

Religion has lost much of its force as a source of inspiration for major works of art in this century. One thinks of the poetry of Eliot and Auden, paintings of Rouault and even Dali, the Matisse chapel, the novels of Mauriac and Graham Greene, but rarely of music. Yet as Ned Rorem has remarked:

There are specifically big and important and definitely holy works being made in our age: Poulenc’s Dialogues, Penderecki’s St. Luke’s Passion, Britten’s War Requiem, Stravinsky’s Canticles, and nearly everything of Messiaen whose output Stravinsky described as “a crucifix of sugar,” while Virgil Thomson once termed it as “destined at once to open up the heavens and bring down the house.”

For about twenty years, since the premiere of the Turangalîla-Symphonie under Leonard Bernstein, I have been under the illusion that the name of Olivier Messiaen was a household word. Not so, it turns out. Since some people who listen to a lot of music have not yet been caught up in the Messiaen vogue, some explanations are in order.

In 1936, Messiaen, who is now sixty-two years old, founded a group of composers who called themselves “Jeune France.” Except for André Jolivet, the others have not been imported extensively into this country. At that time, Ravel, though no longer active, was still alive, and a great deal of music being written in France was either an afterglow of Debussian Impressionism or forthright neoclassicism à la Stravinsky.

Messiaen’s music is neither. There is a heavy perfume about it that one associates with French music of the nineteenth century. Messiaen is an organist, and one of the musical heirs of César Franck. He was appointed organist at La Trinité in Paris in 1931 and has had the position ever since, except for a two-year interruption during the Second World War when he was held by the Germans—not in a concentration camp, as is sometimes reported, but in a less severe prisoner-of-war compound.

Unlike many organists, who simply work in church and don’t trouble their heads about theology, Messiaen is, or at least represents himself as, a Catholic first and a musician and Frenchman rather by accident. The overwhelming body of his work to date, though he has avoided liturgical texts, is not only mystical but so specifically religious in character that almost every phrase has an extramusical meaning. The critic Arthur Cohn wrote (and I think I detect a note of exasperation here): “Messiaen enmeshes his doctrines with occult definitions which practically require a concordance to understand.”

There is, for instance, a musical interval, the tritone, which is tonally ambiguous and which medieval theorists called “the devil in music.” Messiaen uses it constantly. In his symbolism, it means not sin and evil, but rather “the subtlety of radiant bodies . . . pure as the angels of God in the heavens.”

In Vingt Regards sur l’EnfantJésus-—a piano piece that runs to 177 pages of score and takes about two hours to perform—he uses constantly recurring materials, two of them being the “Thème de Dieu,” a five-chord motif in which the harmony does not change, and an eightnote motif, called the “Thème de l’Etoile et de la Croix,” the associations linked because the Star opens and the Cross closes Christ’s life on earth. There is, in addition, a “Chordal Theme, llowing from one piece to the next, broken up or unified as in a rainbow.” These materials not only are the stuff of the Vingt Regards but also are threads tying that work to other mystical pieces—the long suite L’Ascension (there are two versions of it) and the Visions de l’Amen, a one-hour piece for two pianos.

Messiaen’s rapturous descriptions of his use of this thematic material accompany the scores. This note precedes the Vingt Regards:

More than in all of my previous works, I have sought here a mystical language of love, at the same time varied, powerful and tender, sometimes brutal, in a multicolored design.

Here he describes the “Première Communion de la Vierge”:

A tableau wherein the Virgin is represented on her knees ... a luminous halo encircles her womb. Her eyes closed, she worships the fruit hidden inside her. . . . The low pulsations . . . represent the heartheats of the Child in His mother’s womb. The dying away of the Theme of God.

This describes the third of the Visions de l’Amen, “Amen de l’agonie de Jésus”:

Jesus suffers and weeps. “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt! . . .” He accepts, that Thy will be done, Amen.—Jesus is alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, face to face with his agony. Three musical motifs: 1 ) the curse of the Father on the sins of the world which Jesus represents at this instant; 2) a wail, a rhythmic and expressive grouping: anacrucis-accent-termination; 3) an excruciating cry on four notes, in varied rhythms— then, an echo of the Theme of Creation. A long silence, broken by a few pulsations, evokes the suffering ot this hour; unspeakable suffering barely suggested by the bloody sweat.

A concordance is indeed in order detailed analysis of Messiaen’s must would be like one of those guides to Wagner’s Ring in which every month is identified, and its variations as well. Recently, plowing through the score of the Visions de l’Amen. I was finally able to identify the four notes representing the “excruciating cry” of Jesus, but the repetitions and rhythmic variations were so extreme that just finding the notes themselves was difficult.

Messiaen was appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1942, shortly after he was repatriated from Germany. How it was possible to lead a reasonably normal life during the Occupation will always be a mystery to those of us who were not there, but Messiaen was prolific as a composer, busy as a performer, and extremely active as a teacher. The transition from the Occupation to the Liberation of Paris seems to have had very little effect on his musical life. He had already attracted some of the most original young talents in France as pupils, and after the war, he was sought out by bright young German and Italian composers. He was the teacher of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, to name only a very few, and thus became the fons et origo of the new avant-garde in Europe, the old avant-garde being Stravinsky’s.

Listening to Messiaen’s music, it is almost inconceivable that he could have become so powerful an influence. The man has developed what he calls “my musical language” and has written a book about his technique. He has not, however, developed a readily identifiable style of his own. Instead, he makes do with scraps of other people’s styles, mostly leftovers from his predecessors in French organ lofts. He claims that his main sources of inspiration are birdsong, Gregorian chant, and the classical music of India, but many of his characteristic pieces, especially if they are slow, sound like a not-very-talented organist padding out an improvisation during a lull in a religious service.

The harmony, very often, is cloyingly sweet, whether it is gushing out in torrents or quietly meandering along to no apparent purpose. The first time I heard a major work of Messiaen’s (this was the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, and a long time ago), I had the feeling that the outer edges of the harmony were fuzzy and blurred; that whatever musical structure there was had been buried in the middle register, where it was least conspicuous and hardest to find and follow.

Music motivated by intensity of religious feeling and cast in an overripe post-Romantic idiom is the last place you would look for technical complexity. But the complexity is there, and it is for this that the musicologist William Austin describes Messiaen as “the most independent and astonishing French composer between Debussy and Boulez.”

Like Schoenberg before him, Messiaen is an explorer of music of arbitrarily limited means. Schoenberg’s principal contribution to compositional technique, the note row, confined the composer (though more loosely than is generally supposed) to a series of pitches selected in advance of composition and exploited in the arbitrary patterns of repetition into which they naturally fell. And it was first to Schoenberg, then to his apostle, Webern, that the young radicals of the forties turned.

Messiaen’s music contains a far larger number of unalterable elements than almost any other music. He invents scales and chords of limited transposition, and uses a device he calls rythme non rétrogradable— that is to say, a rhythm that is the same coming and going. Here is a verbal approximation of rythme non rétrogradable:

Gárnísh with grátéd chéese
hót, stéamíng ápplé píe.

This is a simple example of a technical trick which can be complicated infinitely and has the quality (whether this is an advantage or disadvantage is, thank God, not my lookout) of being undetectable to the unalerted ear. It is rigid order concealed under wraps.

Because style is not the product of Messiaen’s musical methods (his students do not write music that sounds like his), his techniques can be adapted to virtually any style or to any sounds that lend themselves to organization. In the fifties, for instance, there was some highly complex music based on “total serialization,” in which dynamics and rhythmic units could be organized into series and inverted or run through backwards just like the notes in twelve-tone rows. This development was straight out of Messiaen.

I once heard a piece composed for Pyrex mixing bowls of different sizes struck with a variety of beaters— wooden and metal spoons, wire whisks, and the like—which was a complicated set of canons based on extended Messiaenic rythmes non rétrogradables. Messiaen’s rhythmic techniques lend themselves to electronic music, where the nature of the apparatus makes it possible to sustain a single tone for minutes on end.

Since Messiaen is not committed to a style, he makes his music out of whatever he feels like putting into it. He has experimented with electronics, but not been satisfied with the results; so, except for a rather antiquated electrical contraption called the Ondes Martenot, he tends to use conventional instruments. One piece may be devoted entirely to sexy French harmony, and the one following it made of the most disagreeable rackets he can contrive. I’m thinking of a long piece from one of his Catalogues d'oiseaux,Le Chocard des alpes.” The chocard, if your French is rusty, is a jackdaw, and the piece, which is about a jackdaw being pursued by an eagle, is one hideous clatter after another. Whoever put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder may have had a hand here in spiking Messiaen’s marzipan with tabasco. But in the Catalogues (seven of them have been published so far) Messiaen identities the songs of seventyseven different species, and some of the pieces are not much more than prettified piano arrangements of pretty birdcalls.

Not being an ornithologist or an authority on the music of the Hindus, I cannot swear that Messiaen owes as much to birdsong and Indian music as he claims. I do know that the license he takes in employing Gregorian chant fragments is so great that he might as well not have bothered to ransack his Antiphonary for melodic materials.

However, there is one aspect of Hindu music that has influenced Messiaen heavily, and that is his timing. He tends to go on. And on. And on. The Visions de l’Amen is the longest two-piano piece in existence. Vingt Regards is the longest piano piece in the world. Harawi is one of the longest of song cycles. The Turangalîla-Symphonie is longer than anything else in a comparable form except perhaps those by the two runners-up, Bruckner and Mahler.

Furthermore, Messiaen is virtually untouched by Occidental notions of form building. True, there are pieces in which there is a great deal of variety, a great deal going on, and a great deal of brilliance. An occasional piece, such as “Dieu parmi nous” from the relatively early organ suite La Nativité du Seigneur, will build to a conventional climax. But the rule is that when Messiaen gets hold of what he thinks is a good idea, he contemplates it—that is, he repeats it over and over again, sixteen, eighteen, twenty times in a row, with few if any changes. The result is that it takes not only special training but a liberal endowment of Sitzfleisch to hear one of his pieces out from one end to the other. As a consequence, it is customary to perform excerpts from his works rather than the works in their entirety. Evidently, the composer does not object. On his recent American tour, he appeared in piano recitals with his wife, Yvonne Loriod, who played two, not all twenty, of the Regards, obviously with her husband’s blessing.

For me, Messiaen’s failure to create musical forms that are immediate and communicative is damning. I think that the single greatest characteristic of the music of Western civilization is its ability to convey meaning by concise utterance, and that, by this standard, he has the worst sense of timing of all major figures in our musical history. However, with Messiaen’s greatest interpreter, Boulez, on the podium of the New York Philharmonic, and with the tremendous proliferation of his music on phonograph records within the past year, we may simply have to get used to his windiness.

In one of his latest—and sometimes contradictory—statements about Messiaen, Stravinsky had this to say:

One of those great hymns of his might be the wisest choice of all our music for the deck-hand concert on the Titanic of our sinking civilization: among other advantages, rescuing vessels—other planets—would have a good chance of hearing it. I unrashly predict, as well, that his more recent works will last as long as any music of the time.