Thursday, December 20, 2007

Meditating on the Nine Meditations

The most surprising aspect of the life and work of French composer Olivier Messiaen is how such groundbreaking music poured forth from an essentially conservative Catholic man. Messiaen was arguably the most religiously devout composer of our times, and his writing was an intensely personal outpouring of his deep faith. The musical idiom that he fashioned to express his innermost sentiments and beliefs, however, was far from conservative. In the twentieth century he ranks high as one of the most important names in Western music.

This afternoon I heard for the first time Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur, a series of nine meditations on the birth of Christ. At the organ at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue was John Scott, now in his third year as organist and Director of Music at this famous church.

Many thoughts go through the mind while listening to the music of Messiaen, so many that it is hard to put them all into perspective. At first, there is that xenophobic twitch when we enter an undiscovered country. Messiaen's music is not for those who prefer or demand easily digested harmonies. Influenced by Eastern music, by birdsong and by a myriad of styles that basically dispose of traditional Western modes, Messiaen's music is an avant-garde mosaic that rips through any beliefs we might have of what music should be, and forces us to confront our fears, prejudices, and ultimately our own beliefs, secular and otherwise. In performance, at the hands of a virtuoso organist, these meditations have a way of creeping into our inner core because they themselves come from the inner core of a true believer. But make no mistake: Messiaen's music is never dogmatic. The true faith that comes through is his complete belief in the everlasting power of music. In this sense, it is his immense spirituality rather than any rigid adherence to faith that draws us into his difficult compositions. And although the nine meditations are carefully programmed to specific events in the story of the Nativity of Jesus, the general spiritual approach is what the listener takes away from a performance of this work.

Another aspect that impresses us greatly is the sheer difficulty of Messiaen's writing, and the super-human technical virtuosity that an organist must possess in order to play his music. By all accounts, Messiaen himself was a wondrous organist, and this afternoon the composer spoke through John Scott's titanic performance. The mighty sonorities of the church's organ were put to the test time and again. In particular, the last meditation, called "God Among Us" is unusually fiendish, and Mr. Scott sounded secure and inspired as he culminated the work in an exultant resolved E major chord that assured us that the living faith is very much alive this holiday season.

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