Messiaen the Messianic teacher?


Dustjacket of the Book Messiaen Texte AnalysenAround the centenary of the French composer Olivier Messiaen’s birth (2008), several new books on his music were issued but like the ebb of the tide, there seem to be ongoing new releases every year. He passed away 11 years ago today and his contributions to the musical scene are assessed, measured and discussed continuously.

Some of the new materials which have come in include the following: Olivier Messiaen : Texte, Analysen, Zeugnisse. This is a 2 volume set edited by Wolfgang Rathert, Herbert Schneider and Karl Anton Rickenbacher which is devoted to the writings of Messiaen and analysis and criticism of his work. The first volume is a German translation of parts of Messiaen’s magnum 7 volume opus, Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie : (1949-1992).

The treatise codified Messiaen’s thoughts on the phenomena of rhythm, time, metre, colour (in the spectrographic and orchestrational sense), various species of birdsongs (a life-long obsession) and analyses of musical works unrestricted by geographic boundary. The second volume contains writings by Messiaen as well as essays by Pierre Boulez, Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, Anne Liebe, Karl Anton Rickenbacher, Konstantin Esterl, Wolfgang Rathert, Oliver Vogel, Klaus Schweizer, Stefan Keym, Tobias Janz, Werner String, Herbert Schneider and others.

Messiaen the teacher

Although he was a noted composer, organist, theorist and musicologist, one only needs to look at the roster of some of the names who ‘studied’ with him at the Paris Conservatoire over his 37 years there (whether officially as a diploma student or as an auditeur). The list reads like a Who’s-Who of Contemporary Composers in the World: Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Kurtag

There was also a strong British contingent which included Alexander Goehr, Oliver Knussen, Peter Maxwell Davies, George Benjamin. The same holds true for the French: Jean Barraqué, Pierre Henry, Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, Betsy Jolas, Yvonne Loriod, François-Bernard Mâche.

To say he was an influential teacher would be an understatement. I can think of only one other teacher who had as impressive a roster in Paris, that of Nadia Boulanger. From serialists to spectralists, Messiaen’s pedagogic approach allowed for the wide aesthetic encouragement of the student to find their own voice. Although his own interests were documented in his epic treatises, the individual students took what they needed from him for their own compositional development. However, this would manifest itself in different ways!

In the Preface to Messiaen’s Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie, Pierre Boulez writes:

‘I personally retained two lessons I’ve never forgotten: the historic perspective needed to place musical language, the provisional temporary validity of any stage in the evolution of that language.’ (I, v, 1994) (Translation is my own.)

For someone like Boulez, Messiaen’s encouragement would mean the exploration of total serialization found in his work Structures. For others like Murail and Grisey, it would lead to the formation of the spectralist Groupe de l’Itinéraire. Despite all of the different aesthetics, Messiaen managed to ‘square that circle’ serving as a solid foundation for his students with them functioning as the pillars found in today’s fractured contemporary music scene. Dustjacket of Olivier Messiaen Journalism (1935-1939)
The divergent essays in Volume 2 of this set reflect this multiplicity of aesthetic influence.

Another recent acquisition for the Music library is : Olivier Messiaen : journalism 1935-1939.

This book, edited by Stephen Broad, pulls together Messiaen’s early writings for Le Monde musical, La Sirène, Le Revue musicale, and other journals. The edition contains dual translations so you can read the original French or in English. As the writings date from the 1930s, they provide an opportunity to assess the writings of a composer in his late 20s and early 30s on the cusp of recognition.

You can also check out this 3rd new acquisition in the Music Library’s collection: Messiaen : et le concert de la nature / Alain Louvier.

Another version of this article was published here.

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