A month of music: Messiaen

November 4, 2007

October 4 was the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and as has been my custom for the past four or five years I marked the occasion by listening to Olivier Messiaen’s opera Saint-François d’Assise. It never fails to astonish and exult me: my socks are still knocked off. I’ve made hearing it an annual event in order to pay homage to Francis; I’ve made it no more frequent because I simply couldn’t take it: once a year is enough. It’s an opera to love, and love deeply, but not to love comfortably. I love it in analogy to the way I love Lent: as a difficult but ultimately elevating experience. The music is strange and beautiful, but it does not fall easily on the ear, and the demands it makes on the listener are serious. Long after the final notes have died away, that unique sonic landscape continues to reverberate in the mind, and the effect is irresistibly alluring. It calls me back.

Messiaen devoted nearly a decade of his life to Saint-François, writing the libretto as well as the music. The story does not follow a conventional dramatic arc. As the perceptive booklet notes to my recording put it, the work “is a ritual structured around various stations, an action that unfolds, step by step, in the form of a rising spiral”. That word “ritual” is exactly right, for there is a contemplative, formal quality to the action, with nothing superfluous permitted to enter, and every word given its due attention. We see Francis and his brothers at prayer, Francis kissing the leper, Francis meeting with an angel, Francis preaching to the birds, Francis receiving the stigmata, and Francis dying. There is little attempt made to tie the circumstances of the tableaux together dramatically; rather, the drama is an interior one, for Messiaen’s stated purpose was to portray the progress of grace in a man’s soul.

This purpose illuminates the whole opera. It is true, after all, that there seems to be an a priori incongruity between the “poor little man of Assisi” and the music of Messiaen. The former is celebrated for his humility, poverty, and simplicity of spirit; the latter for its opulence, sensuality, and extravagance. Perhaps Messiaen’s chief artistic triumph in creating Saint-François was the manner in which he bridged this gap, adapting his music — still unmistakably and uniquely his own — to serve his subject. This was possible, I believe, only because at a deep level Francis and Messiaen are brothers, for they are both faithful sons of the same Father. Saint-François is a deeply religious work, always aware of its distance from, but relation to, liturgy, and deeply concerned with the life of faith and the mystery to which it gives access. As Messiaen put it, the opera is “an unprecedented attempt on my part to express my Catholic faith by means of a subject that conveys its principal mysteries”. Lovers of Catholic art should take notice: this is incontestably the greatest opera ever written on a specifically Catholic theme, and as such it earns a place among the great artistic achievements to flower from our faith.

It is a massive work: four hours in performance, seven singers, a chorus of 150 voices, and calling for nearly 120 instruments. It’s a payroll calculated to bankrupt opera companies, and performances have been fairly infrequent since it premiered in 1983. The music is unlike anything most audiences have ever heard — unless, of course, they are already enthusiasts for Messiaen, and even then there are strange delights in store. To enter the aural world of this opera is to enter a dazzling world of colours. Messiaen was a master of the art of orchestration, and he achieves timbres and texture that I, at any rate, have not heard elsewhere. He organizes his music, here as in his other compositions, according to his own personal musical modes (related to his synaesthesia), rather than according to conventional Western harmonic systems. This, more than anything else, makes his music unpalatable to some, but it is also what makes his musical voice so distinctive and, ultimately, lovable.

In Saint-François he has built the music out of great blocks of sound that seem to me the aural equivalents of those great mountains in the backgrounds of Giotto’s paintings. It swoops, clatters, and shimmers. It makes use of a number of leitmotifs — of death, grace, and perfect joy, for instance — that appear again and again and convey through the music aspects of the inner drama that, as I have said, is the real subject of the opera. The pace of the music is almost entirely slow and hypnotic, but the impression is one of light and brilliance rather than weight. Occasionally it breaks out into joyful musical cacophony, as when Francis preaches to the birds. In response to his words the orchestra takes flight: the notated music splits into seventy staves (!), each playing in a different time-signature (!!), and all playing bird-song. Bizarre, yes, but unforgettable. In the end, the score rises to a searing intensity as Francis dies and is received into new life.

Album coverThere have been several recordings of the opera. The one I own was recorded live in 1998 at the Salzburg Festival, and for good reason it is regarded as the best available. Kent Nagano, who knew and worked with Messiaen before his death in 1992, leads from the podium, with Jose Van Dam and Dawn Upshaw taking the central roles of Francis and the Angel. It is a glorious recording, the sound uncannily rich and vivid, and at moments its sheer potency can be overwhelming. I consider it one of the best engineered recordings in my collection, and someday I hope to hear it played on a high quality audio system.

After all this, there may be some who would like to hear the opera for themselves. I recommend it to you with only minor trepidation. If it is your first exposure to Messiaen than I can’t predict what will happen. You might be transported to the seventh heaven, or you might require hospitalization, but I guarantee you won’t be indifferent. Snippets can be sampled at the Amazon page, and if you live in the US you can apparently hear the recording in its entirety for free on Rhapsody (though I have a hard time believing there’s no catch). I also discovered, quite unexpectedly, two short videos that capture Dawn Upshaw in rehearsal for her role as the Angel. The production for which she is preparing is the very one captured on my recording. Most of the rehearsal is executed with piano accompaniment; only in the last few minutes of the second video is the orchestra heard in full. Still, great viewing. (Duration: about 10 minutes each.)

4 Responses to “A month of music: Messiaen”


  1. […] masterpiece Saint François d’Assise.  (I have written about this opera in this space before.) Nagano knew Messiaen well, conducted the premiere of Saint François, and has presided over the […]


  2. […] Orchestra, Kent Nagano) [Deutsche Grammophon, 1998] — I have written about this recording before.  The music, I know, is not everyone’s favourite, but it is undeniably potent, and I cannot […]


  3. […] Olivier Messiaen’s opera Saint-François d’Assise. I have written about this opera before, and, despite its length, I try to listen to it each year at about this time. I may not manage it […]

  4. Marc Puckett Says:

    Thanks for this, and for pointing me here!


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