Who was Olivier Messiaen?


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The huge contribution of the Austro-German world (but also of the countries linked to it for historical, geographical and cultural reasons) to the history of European music should not represent an obstacle to the research and deeper study of composers from other countries who have nevertheless left an indelible mark on the centuries-old “soundtrack” of our Europe. But here, obviously we don’t want to talk about the Italians Scarlatti, Boccherini and Vivaldi, or again of Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini. Nor of the great Russian musicians and those of central-eastern Europe. It seems appropriate instead to try to restore prestige to some “greats”, in part buried – it would seem – by the dust of oblivion. And therefore, in this article we will talk about Olivier Messiaen, the French organist and composer of the last century, a lover of that sacred music that began even before the time of the Gregorian Chants and of Bach but at the same time an experimenter with new instruments and a skilled scholar of ornithology. That passion led him to travel the around world several times, along with his wife, in search of birds not present in Europe and their songs, unknown to us, which he translated in to music for flutes, oboes, piccolos and bassoons, but also to harps, harpsichords and obviously the organ.

Messiaen should certainly be considered a traditional musician, a great expert on the organ that all of us associate with sacred music and celestial mysticism. But at the same time, he was the “maestro” of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, members of the so-called avant-garde music and of twelve-tone music in particular. In fact, he was the first to break away from, at least in part, from ‘tonal’ music based, from Bach onwards, on the centrality of a harmonic system on the basis of which the melodic lines of the music were elaborated. That principle of musical grammar that is tonality, and which was revolutionized in particular by Boulez, Stockhausen, Maderna and by Varèse, Nono and Berio.

Messiaen, argued Massimo Mila,

has exercised a decisive influence on the most recent generations, in particular on Pierre Boulez, the audacious and brilliant experimenter of unusual sound sources.

A kind soul, the titular organist, until his death, of the church of Sainte-Trinité in Paris, Massiaen was born in 1908 and, at the age of 32 years, after the German invasion of France, was taken prisoner and transferred to a work camp in Germany – the Stalag VIII-A at Goerlitz on the border with Poland. Here, in spite of everything, he managed to compose one of his best-known works, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, a quartet in eight movements in which the timbre of the instruments insist on melancholy tones that nevertheless recall the mystical, religious, almost “Franciscan” vein that survives in the soul of the composer.

This sort of compositional ‘bipolarity’ of Messiaen is also highlighted by Turin musicologist and composer Nicola Campogrande, who in one of his books writes how

the references to the music of the past, that preceding the avant-garde of the twentieth century, seem to have slipped away. But – he adds – at the same time, something extremely familiar binds us to this work, as if the music was able to touch our deepest, primordial strings, compared to those that usually resonate within us in a concert hall.

Messiaen, who was also the author of much chamber music (with a preference for clarinet and violin), affirmed that with his work (he also composed a Symphony), he intended 

to express the most important idea, because it is placed above all things, and that is the existence of the Catholic faith.

This, he added, 

is the most solid and noble aspect of my work. 

These proclamations of religious faith, recalls musicologist Guido Zaccagnini, aroused the fierce and vulgar reaction of Francis Poulenc, who defined Messiaen’s compositions as “music for the bidet and the font”. That Francis Poulenc who Mila called “shrewd and impish”, recasting the episode as a question of “diversity of characters”. In this regard, in fact, the conductor and musicologist Kurt Pahlen also recalled how Poulenc (envious, perhaps, not very diplomatic, certainly) had composed “parody music, grotesque leider and comic operas… and some concertos”.

Translated by Paul Rosenberg

Who was Olivier Messiaen? ultima modifica: 2023-08-10T10:04:54+02:00 da MARIO GAZZERI
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