Sunday, April 26, 2020


I posted this message onto my feed on Facebook: "Immersing myself in Messiaen, and I recommend you do the same."

I am an irreligious person. I don't believe in a hereafter, there's no life after this one. Feel free to disagree if you wish.

Messiaen's music is the closest I can come to an argument in favor of an almighty being. It's true, he was a mystical Catholic. Many of the titles of his works are drawn from Christianity.

But it's more than that. There's something about his music that I find at times to be almost overwhelming. I want to drown in the sound. I revel in the beauty. And I love his expansive ideas of what beautiful sound can be.

We know Messiaen the composer (I hope. If not, get hip immediately). Then there's Messiaen the teacher, whose students included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Iannis Xenakis.

But what of Messiaen the improvisor? Unless there are tapes out there that I don't know, this is as lost to time as Beethoven or Bach the improvisor.

I'm recalling this from a book of interviews I read a long time ago, but...Olivier was the organist at a Paris church for decades. On a given Sunday, there would be three services.  He said something about how, for the first service, he'd improvise something in the style of Bach. For the second service he'd improvise something in the style of Mozart or Debussy. (This is where the details of my memory fail.) For the third service, he'd improvise something in the style of Messiaen.

This is where I say, DAMN. Can you imagine? Sitting in a cathedral, the master sitting at the console, improvising something. A classical style, his style, whatever. He said that the priests were more accepting of his music than the parishioners. Think about it: Olivier Messiaen: The Basement Tapes. I'd pay for that.

Addendum: I've been informed that there is film footage of Messiaen improvising at the organ. I stand corrected on that point. Which leads me to wonder: did he intentionally want less of his improvising documented, because it would draw attention away from his compositions? Maybe that's not quite the correct way to word it, just that in general he wanted his reputation to be as a composer first and foremost.

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