By Peter A. Klein
The Seattle Symphony will perform Olivier Messiaen’s “Oiseaux exotiques” (Exotic Birds) on this coming weekend’s concerts. That brings to mind a pivotal musical event in my life, when I first encountered the great French composer’s music, and the man himself. That encounter restored my faith in the possibilities of contemporary music.
It was early in 1975. I was a student in Boston. Like many an Overly Earnest Undergraduate, I had major philosophical and intellectual battles playing out in my mind. One that preoccupied me was the almost total dominance, in contemporary music, of the twelve-tone system (also called serial music or Serialism), developed by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and their successors.
The prevailing wisdom in the 1970s came from manifestos such as Milton Babbit’s “Who Cares If You Listen?,” Stravinsky’s declaration that music could not express anything besides itself, and Pierre Boulez’ admonition that anyone not composing serial music was “USELESS!” There was no God but Webern, and Boulez was his prophet.
It was a very lonely time to believe, as I did, that music should actually communicate with its audience. Throughout history, the best music has expressed beauty, profound emotions, connections with the Divine, lofty ideals and such. It did so through the effect of ordered sounds on the human ear and brain. But that ideal was eroded through most of the 20th century, abetted by scientific discovery, political upheaval and the horrors of two world wars.
For many composers, Serialism offered an exciting way to organize sounds, free from the tapped-out major-minor tonal system that had served music for over 200 years. The problem, to me, was that Serialism was based on misapplied mathematics, and ignored human physiology. There was no sense of tension and release. Though highly ordered on paper, serial music usually sounded painfully chaotic and monotonously wrenching when played, notable exceptions like the Berg Violin Concerto aside.
Audiences stayed away in droves, while critics, academics and young musicians castigated them for their stupidity and narrow-mindedness. Declare that the Emperor had no clothes, and one risked being labeled a Philistine or a fool.
Enter Messiaen. I heard that the Boston Symphony was going to play his “Turangalila Symphony,” and the composer himself would be present. I knew a little about him—that he used bird songs in his work, that he was interested in Eastern music and instruments, that his deep Catholic faith was the basis of much of his music, and that he went his own way. I bought tickets to both the open rehearsal and concert.
Before the rehearsal, violinist Harry Ellis Dickson recited a limerick that some wag had penned about an earlier Messiaen performance:
I’m in a dark state of depressiaen,
Induced by a large dose of Messiaen.
Oh the pain, oh the pain
Of those sounds in my brain.
Let me out! I will sign a confessiaen.
This wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. Dickson often told amusing stories about the difficulty audiences or musicians had with new works. This would loosen up the audience, perhaps making them more receptive to the music.
And then came the “Turangalila” itself, a mammoth, ten-movement symphonic poem on love, time, and life and death, through the perspectives of Hinduism, Christianity, and the Tristan and Isolde legend. The performance was a family affair, with Messiaen’s wife Yvonne Loriod taking the piano part. Her sister Jeanne Loriod played the Ondes Martenot.
I loved it. The piece sometimes used harsh, huge blocks of sound, but nothing that someone familiar with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” couldn’t handle. There were passages of sublime beauty, often employing the Ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument that allows the player to directly produce vibrato (you’ve probably heard it in science fiction movies and TV shows).
Messiaen often used chords as Debussy did, as entities unto themselves, not as elements of a harmonic progression. Familiar sounds appeared in fresh contexts, unfamiliar sounds still made sense. Messiaen could write dauntingly complex rhythms that stretched and shortened in time. But his music seemed all about the ear, and it sang to the ear.
One final gem remained that weekend—a performance of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” at New England Conservatory, with BSO first-chair players on violin, clarinet and cello, and the composer at the piano. It was a bitterly cold winter night, perhaps not unlike the night in January 1941 when the Quartet was first performed, in a German prisoner-of-war camp, with Messiaen and three instrumentalists playing for their fellow prisoners and their guards.
Here, devoid of lush orchestral dressing, was music in its essence, speaking soul to soul. Bird calls served as heavenly messengers, chords and themes from the simplest to the most angular spoke of existential angst transfigured by Divine love.
In the question and answer session that followed, Messiaen came across as gentle and unassuming. I asked him if he wrote with any particular audience in mind, such as ordinary music lovers, or a musically educated elite. I’ll never forget his response: “Je compose parce que j’aime composer. C’est tout” (I compose because I love to compose. That’s all).
Afterwards, I had a chance to meet Messiaen personally for a moment, and tell him in my limited French how much the Quartet had moved me. He thanked me, and we exchanged a few pleasantries. Then he excused himself. A Conservatory student had some pet birds in her dormitory room, and of course, he wanted to see them.
I’ve heard much and learned much in the 36 years since that night. But I’ll never forget meeting the Frenchman who found a way to be as modern as any hard-core Serialist, yet not leave ordinary mortals behind.