Canons Regular of St. John Cantius

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By Br. Jonathan Ryan, S.J.C.
Published in the Winter edition of Sacred Music

This calendar year marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of not only one of the greatest composers in twentieth-century Western Music, but also one of the greatest craftsmen of the Catholic faith in art from our time. Yet, the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) often finds itself conspicuously absent from the performance venue and university classroom alike. But what about those of us who serve in the music programs of Catholic institutions? Are we missing anything?

I know I won’t find myself alone if I say I’ve come across three groups of people in life: those who don’t know the music of Messiaen at all, those who loathe Messiaen’s music, and those who love it. Having spent at least several years in each category myself, and in that order, I relate to all three. I wonder, though, if this year, the one-hundredth anniversary of Messiaen’s birth, we shouldn’t give at least some consideration (or reconsideration) to this deeply Catholic Frenchman. This man was heralded as a musical giant in his life time, saw his music performed by major artists across the planet, and at the same time was humble enough to serve as organist at a single Parisian church for over half a decade, and in so doing, intimately acquainted himself with the Roman Rite’s chant and liturgy.

Listening to the music of Messiaen constitutes an art in itself, and is, admittedly, nearly as demanding as performing it! A major part of this challenge lies in acquiring a distinct pair of “Messiaen ears.” I believe that many do not move beyond some of the unique elements of Messiaen’s music, such as his harmonic language, because they listen to this music the same way they listen to Bach. A certain aural distance from the music of Messiaen is, I think, crucial, much like one uses physical distance for viewing art from the French Impressionists. Of course, we can far more easily walk back several steps in an art gallery than achieve its auditory equivalent! I’ve discovered, however, that listening peripherally – almost as if we were hearing background music – can give a good frame of mind at the outset.

If a conscious, fully attentive hearing of the music takes the back seat, then we naturally need something to occupy the forefront of our mind. Here, Messiaen gives ample food for thought in his composition subjects. He often accompanies his vivid and sometimes tremendous titles with a subtitle or quotation, such as the biblical, theological, or liturgical passages he links with most of his organ compositions. I’d wager that if we can focus on the work’s subject and then allow the music to simply fill in the gaps, we may find ourselves able to glean more and more from the music.
We must go further, however. In order to focus on the subject, we must not hold back our imagination and contemplation. Given the profession and interest in church music among our readership, I’ll concentrate on parts of Messiaen’s large corpus of organ works for examples, since he wrote only one liturgical choral piece, the a cappella Eucharistic motet O Sacrum Convivium from 1937. As a side note, Messiaen held Gregorian chant in the highest esteem both for its own worth and also its place in the liturgy, which may partly explain the notable absence of liturgical choral music from his pen, excluding O Sacrum. Turning, then, to the organ works, even a casual observation of Messiaen’s titles will readily demonstrate that the composer has spent a good deal of time in thought. I personally would argue that he has spent a great deal of time in prayer as well. We must do the same as listeners.

Take, for example, one of Messiaen’s earliest works for organ, L’Ascension or “The Ascension” from 1934. The four movements in the version for organ portray aspects of Christ’s Ascension one might not find readily apparent. In the first movement, The Majesty of Christ praying that His Father should glorify Him which is paired with the biblical quotation “Father, the hour is come, glorify Thy Son, that Thy Son may glorify Thee” in the score from the “high priestly prayer of Christ” in John 17, Messiaen paints neither Christ nor His prayer, but the majestic quality of the praying Christ. Similarly, in the third movement, Outbursts of joy from a soul before the glory of Christ which is its own glory, with its biblical quotation of “Giving thanks unto the Father, who hath made us worthy to be partakers of the lot of the saints in light…and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places, through Christ Jesus” from Colossians 1 and Ephesians 2, we have neither heaven nor the joy of heaven, but the actual bursts of ecstatic jubilation from a soul having completed its pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem. I remember when I was first introduced to L’Ascension. Once I got over my initial reaction of “Who on earth comes up with these kinds of things?!”, I discovered that this is someone who thinks about and understands the Ascension in ways I did not.

Turning to the music itself, we find no shortage of vivid imagery. Staying with L’Ascension, in the first movement, The Majesty of Christ praying, Messiaen accompanies an effortlessly rising melody, which almost seems as if it has been going for centuries, with a slowly rising harmony, all spaced by regular rests. It has been said that one must smell the incense and see it rise in Messiaen. In this movement, these pauses between phrases indeed help create an atmosphere of space and grandeur, and provide one of the greatest, albeit neglected, challenges to an interpreter for a successful rendering of the music.

The second movement, Serene Alleluias from a soul longing for heaven with “We beseech Thee, almighty God, that we may in spirit dwell amid heavenly things” quoted in the score from the Collect of the Ascension Day Mass, employs a theme-and-variation form. After using the silvery open flute stops on the organ to present the movement’s sole melodic theme, itself reminiscent of the meslismatic Gregorian Alleluias, a variety of textures colorfully and tranquilly yield an introspective musical, and, we could say, spiritual, journey.

I dare write that one would be hard pressed to find a more extraverted piece in all the instrument’s repertoire than the third movement, Outbursts of joy from a soul before the glory of Christ which is its own glory. Launched by rapid fortississimo chords succeeded by a powerful bass melody in the pedals played on full organ, this opening section appears a total of three times alternating with brisk, playful toccata sections on more hushed but equally intense sounds. The final recap of the opening section leads to one of the most electrifying conclusions in twentieth-century music with a virtuosic, tsunamic flourish in octaves swelling to the final cadence in one of the brightest possible sonorities, F# Major. And all from the sheer joy of a soul in heaven!

Combining the introspective nature of the second movement and the stillness of the first movement, the final movement, Prayer of Christ as He ascends toward His Father in heaven with its accompanying biblical text of “Father, I have manifested Thy name to men … and now I am not in the world, and these are in the world, and I come to Thee” from the same chapter in the Gospel of John as the first movement, equals the imagination of the earlier movements. Note that Messiaen depicts the resurrected Christ’s actual prayer, which we do not know in any detail, as He ascends. Such an entirely intangible subject is nothing unusual for Messiaen. Also as in the first movement, the music has an eternal quality, almost seeming as if it didn’t really ever begin or will actually end. After slowly but confidently rising, – again, the image of incense, perhaps lofting up to a vaulted gothic sanctuary ceiling, immediately comes to mind – the music fluidly floats out of sight. The registration, or combination of sounds from the organ, requested by Messiaen, too, contributes to this quality with the soft, shimmering strings stops and the soaring open flute stop built with double length pipes to emphasize bloom in the treble range.

Awareness of time presents an interesting overall element in Messiaen. Typically, there is no clear, consistent time signature for the listener, such as 4/4, 3/4 or 6/8, even though the musical notation usually involes such conventional time signatures. Instead of being subconsciously attentive to the ticking away of time, one begins to enter a world free from chronos, precisely like the timelessness of Gregorian chant.
Looking to Messiaen’s other, later works, we discover a plethora of intriguing characteristics. The songs of birds, transcribed by Messiaen himself from, literally, all over the world, permeates much of his music with the faultless melodies of these little animal-musicians. For those of us who spend countless hours practicing a single piece of music to give the finest, most convincing execution possible, birdsong, a life-long fascination for Messiaen, affords a perfect musical performance for all to hear. No tickets are required! Have you ever heard a cardinal rush that fifth note? Or that one passage from a nightingale that’s flat? I don’t think so. And so, Messiaen uses “perfect” music straight from Creation as part of his own music.

While I could spend a dozen pages more on Messiaen’s organ music alone, I must leave these for future discovery. For instance, there are the picturesque scenes from the 1935 nine-movement work The Birth of Our Lord, or the celestial meditations on the afterlife in The Glorified Bodies: Seven short visions of the life of the resurrected. In Messiaen’s later organ works, we have the “communicable language” premiered in the nine Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity from 1969 in which he depicts attributes of God as written in the Summa theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, and his last and largest work for organ, premiered in the United States in 1984, The Book of the Blessed Sacrament, in which eighteen movements take us from adoration in the first four movements to the next seven programmatically portraying events from Christ’s life to seven movements centering around transubstantiation and the reception of Holy Communion. This still leaves out other key aspects of his music, such as additive, non-retrogradable, and non-Western rhythms, or his wholly unique harmonic language with its seven Modes of Limited Transposition.

There is much for future discovery. We have only scratched the surface, hopefully laid some groundwork, and maybe piqued a few curiosities. Next time you have occasion to hear a piece by Messiaen, make sure you read the program notes, allow time to absorb the title(s), and use your imagination before the music begins. If you find yourself with about $90 to spare, I can’t recommend too highly the recording, which I consider definitive, of the complete Messiaen organ works by Olivier Latry, one of the foremost organists in the world, on the stunning organ at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on the Deutsche Grammophon label. I suspect you may be in for a surprise.

Brother Jonathan Ryan, SJC is a junior professed member of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius (http://www.canons-regular.org), and has served as Principal Organist at St. John Cantius Parish in Chicago since 2006 (http://www.cantius.org). The first prize winner of numerous national organ competitions, he holds music degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music with academic honors and the Eastman School of Music, as well as the Associateship and Choirmaster certifications from the American Guild of Organists.