Messiaen and Lazy Listening

Douglass Seaton in Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical Tradition says, “Messiaen’s interests ranged from the songs of birds, which he transcribed avidly, to mystical Catholicism. Much of his music is characterized by subjectivity and programmatic content or orientation.”

All of which is rather shocking. Messiaen was not a mystic and did not compose subjective music, according to none other than himself. I guess it’s because his comments aren’t widely known. After all, nobody can now seriously get away with saying that Lord of the Rings is allegory. It didn’t stop people at the time of Tolkien from asserting he was writing allegory, which is surprising considering how many times he stated the opposite. But now that’s widely known. How many times of quoting Messiaen will it take to convince people that he wasn’t a mystic and that he didn’t write (and didn’t think he wrote) subjective music?

“When asked if he has ever felt the ‘joy of mysticism’ (a moment of epiphany, of certainty) during the act of composing, the response is a resolute, ‘No, not at all. When I am working, there are so many things that require immediacy, so many details to manage, that all I can do is be attentive to what I am doing. I do not experience what you mean. I do not contemplate but act,'” (Sander van Maas, The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen’s Breakthrough Toward the Beyond). Messiaen also stated, “Pure music, profane music, and above all theological music (and not mystical, as the majority of my audience think) alternate in my production.”

Strangest of all is this description of his output. “The illumination of the theological truths of the Catholic faith is the first aspect of my work, the noblest, and no doubt the most useful and valuable.” That’s the way he puts it. He’s illuminating theological truths. In every way it speaks to the opposite of a subjective view of art. It means he (1) believes in the objective truth of these doctrines and (2) expects his music to actually make them more clear. He even goes so far as to say his sacred music is “useful”.

That’s frightening to a lot of people, and I’m convinced that’s why we’re so reticent to admit that Messiaen was not a mystic. When you listen to a programmatic piece of his, say, La Transfiguration, the music is so esoteric, strange, dissonant, chaotic, that you’re faced with two alternatives. To stick with my first point-second point style, (1) he’s composing subjective (and, ooh, let’s say “mystic”) music and you can comfort yourself with the thought that only he will ever understand what he was really trying to communicate or (2) he’s composing objectively “illuminating” music and the fact that you Don’t Get It is a grand tribute to your pathetic skills at listening. I’ve come over time to think the second alternative is far and away the true description.

It’s really about lazy listening. I have no way of knowing people’s motives for certain, of course, but I suspect this is what motivates so many musicologists to patronizingly categorize Messiaen as a mystic, a religious subjectivist, far from real orthodoxy. The reason we want Messiaen far from orthodoxy is because we’re too lazy to allow him to change our view of what orthodox music should sound like.

That’s harsh language, but I can get away with it because, at one point, I thought (1) and even sometimes still want to think (1) even though I’m convinced of (2). Messiaen is really working with a language that’s uniquely his but it’s a language we need to learn to understand. The only way is total immersion, a crash-course in the Messiaenite tongue. It’s tough work, and, you might wonder, if it’s really uniquely his language, how do I know it’s worth my time? Why bother?

But the benefits are too many to put into this post. Just a few though. Think of it this way: he’s the Flannery O’Connor of music. He uses dissonance the way O’Connor uses the grotesque. She famously said, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.” Messiaen describes his use of dissonance similarly—his audience conceived of religion far too tamely. His music is not unconsciously weird; he means every note and is aware of the effects his notes create. He wants to redifine our conception of what brightness and splendor sound like.

He’s also the J. R. R. Tolkien of music. His compositions have blurry edges; there are areas whose existences he suggests but upon which he does not elaborate. The sense is one of incredible broadness of scope. Messiaen doesn’t compose pictures, he composes panoramas. He doesn’t write a musical scenery, but a musical universe.


  1. Rachel · November 10, 2011

    Good post. Thanks for it.

  2. Aki Sue · November 14, 2011

    Interesting theory.

Think aloud.

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