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Vital Sparks: Olivier Messiaen

26/08/2006
Tomorrow evening, I’m off to an Edinburgh International Festival performance of Olivier Messiaen‘s enormous orchestral piece Des Canyons aux Étoiles, so it seems appropriate to inaugurate a projected series of occasional blog entries on the writers, musicians and artists who most invigorate me with a few words about Messiaen. Over the past few years, I’ve grown more and more interested in his music. I’ve yet to undertake any serious reading about him and his work, but his orchestral and piano writing affects me deeply.
Messiaen was a man of strong Christian faith and profound artistic originality. The combination has, apparently, puzzled other avant-garde French composers, but it is essential to the intellectual and emotional content of his works. He can hold the full richness and complexity of faith in a few notes. It never ceases to amaze me how a single Messiaen chord can express so much: the now and the not-yet of trusting God, the simultaneity of joy and sorrow in the soul’s present adoration of Christ and its ache for the perfection of heaven. His suite for two pianos Visions de l’Amen is particularly full of examples of this, as is his orchestral work, Éclairs sur l’Au-delà.
The musical colour of Messiaen’s work is breathtaking. He was a synaesthete, seeing sounds as colours, and used this as a basis for his musical composition. Birdsong was another strong element in much of his work. I often wonder how his work looked to him. It would never be possible for me to experience what he experienced, but the palete is wonderful and stimulating nonetheless. I’ve only ever heard his music on CD or on the radio; tomorrow will be my first experience of it in concert. I can hardly wait.
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