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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My Messiaen story...

My Messiaen story...

When I came to Boston in 1973 I went every week to hear the BSO with student "rush tickets." Those days one would have to stand in line for about four hours (usually in the ice cold) on Friday or Saturday, but the price was right (about $3). It became my weekly ritual, but I heard a lot of great orchestral works, soloists, and conductors (I've also saved all of those program booklets going back decades).

It was probably in the 1973-74 season when the newly appointed music director Seiji Ozawa scheduled the colossal 10-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie. He had made a break-through recording of the piece in 1967 with the Toronto Symphony.

The performance was excellent, and I don't think I have heard it live since that day. It's also a kind of double concerto and featured Messiaen's wife Yvonne Loriod on piano, and his sister-in law Jeanne Loriod on bizarre electronic instrument called the Ondes Martenot.

Turangalîla-Symphonie was commissioned by the Boston Symphony by Serge Koussevitzky and premiered in 1949. Naturally, Boston has a unique association with this piece, although the 1973 performance may have been the first one in Boston since its premiere a quarter century earlier.

In that era one could easily venture to the "Green Room" after a concert to meet and great the musicians, soloists, and in some cases the composer. It was not as crowded as you might think back there. (Sadly it's no longer easy to visit the Green Room in a post-9/11 world).

Young and naive, I ventured back stage. Messiaen was a small frail man with a soft voice. He looked very gentle, which is a little strange when you consider how loud and violent his music can be at times. He was with his wife and sister-in-law who had just given a bang-up performance of his difficult work - which you would expect since they practically had cart blanche rights to perform it.

I remember that I shook his hand, and by American standards his grip was wimpy. We really couldn't communicate much since I didn't know a word of French, and he and his family were not able to convey much in English. I did mention that I was a fan of his famous student Pierre Boulez, which I later discovered was probably the wrong subject to raise. Boulez (who is not known for him warmness), cruelly admonished his teacher Messiaen for a number of decades. This was probably not a pleasant topic for him, but Messiaen replied gracefully (with the help of his wife) that Boulez was one of his most talented students.

I stepped back to allow someone else, another composer, to greet him. She had a copy of the thick orchestral score for the symphony. He was quite impressed that she had spent so much money on it, and was pleased to sign it for her. (In retrospect I should have gotten him to sign my concert program).

If only talent could be communicated like a virus through something as simple as a handshake. But osmosis does not work that way. It takes a lifetime of study, and then you still might not achieve it.


In 1984 I spent some time in Europe. During the short time I was in Paris I made a pilgrimage to Notre Dame in the hopes of hearing Messiaen perform on the organ himself. Although some people told me that he still played there, I did not get to hear him live.


About five years ago on a family trip to NYC we visited an amazing but hidden Episcopal church just off of Times Square for a concert by organist Paul Jacobs (who should not to be confused with the wonderful pianist of the same name who died of AIDS). Jacobs would be performing the complete organ works of Messiaen that weekend. He was amazing! He is such a young guy, and in my mind more than worthy to be the Chair of the Organ Department at Juilliard. He really made those stiff organ pipes sing.

I have to say that it was a concert for - as you say - the hardcore organ officiano. Willemien and Joseph would look at me in disbelief as the insanely loud and dissonant clusters in the music would resound in the church with such intensity that you'd expect stained glass to shatter at any moment. I've never been to a concert (even in the rock era) where my bones and internal organs were shook to such a degree. Having ones private parts vibrated like that is a akin to sex without touching. Of course, all this intensely loud music would be followed by a delicate and soft piece with a simple flute-like tune accompanied by plain triads. It's Messiaen's trademark. You gotta be a Christian mystic to do such things - and make it work.


Looking back at his legacy, I have a love-hate relationship with his work. It is often boring beyond tears, yet there are those beautiful moments that transcend. I simply don't have enough time to listen to it all.

While his music and theories interest me today as historical milestones, I've never had a deep emotional connection to Messiaen's music. The great pieces such as the "Quartet for the End of Time" resonate with me, but I think his influence as a teacher, organist, and superbly capable musician was huge. Boulez recently wrote about his studies with Messiaen in the post-war years saying that since there were so few scores available, Messiaen would dictate the music to his students who had to transcribe it before they could analyse it. (I believe that the Paris Conservatory would not allow him to teach "composition" but only "analysis") That's probably where Boulez's famously perfect musical hearing comes from. Messiaen had nurtured him. (I also have an American friend - Herman - who also studied with Messiaen in the 60s).

Ultimately, I think my emotional detachment to Messiaen's music is a cultural one. I'm more excited for example by a Type-A American composer who was at the center of 1930s-era NYC arrogance (or at least self-confidence). I'm not a Francophile. I like music that moves through harmonic change rapidly -such as in the works of Elliott Carter who was born the same year as Messiaen. I had to go to Europe to discover that.

All the bird stuff is cool, but I can't pick it out in the music and I don't think that should a prerequisite to appreciating those works. How he "made" them was his business - not necessarily ours.

I also like Messiaen's historic piano piece "Mode de valeurs et d'intensités" of 1949. It was one of the first works to use "total serialization." (Milton Babbitt's Three Compositions for Piano, written two years earlier, was the first). But nobody cares about this jargon any longer. It's only a historical artifact.

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