Book: Messiaen by Robert Sherlaw-Johnson

By: Duncan McGibbon

The late Robert Sherlaw-Johnson's pioneering monograph on the composer has been updated by Caroline Rae. This makes it a valuable guide, combining the creative and spiritual insight of the original and the impressive, up to date scholarship of its editor. Messiaen wrote surprisingly little liturgical music, but brought his faith to bear in the concert halls of Europe and the world through the consistent use of theological themes in all his work. His concern for creation is expressed in the use of birdsong throughout his music.

Messiaen himself disclaimed any role of mysticism in his work. This should be taken note of as the word is too often applied superficially to his music. The composer preferred to think of his music as structured on theological themes. Sherlaw Johnson's analysis of the structure of the composer's music helps the listener engage with it more vividly. He also places Messiaen's originality in the context of the French musical tradition. He clearly shows how the influence of Debussy, Emmanuel, Ravel and Stravinsky was as decisive on its development as plainchant and Indian music.

Messiaen wanted the listener to grasp the structure of his works in the same way as he would Beethoven's or Bach's. The problem lies in the man's originality which requires the audience to understand radical new structures. This book explains them in detail. Sherlaw Johnson's own Catholic faith helps the reader explore the spiritual meaning of his compositions without the condescension of some commentators who wryly refer to 'popular Catholic devotions' as if the man were a gifted simpleton, or others who would have him none other than a levitated visionary. To take one simple example, Messiaen wrote his stunning 'Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps' in a prison camp in Görlitz, Silesia. The tragic circumstance of its composition obviously underlines the reference to the Apocalypse 10.5-6, 'An angel lifted up his right hand to heaven and swore an oath that there should be no more time.' Yet the composer was equally as insistent that he wanted to abolish the standard divisions of tempo in classical music. Hence the Quartet for the End of Time interchanges both theological and musical ideas.

Messiaen's music is neither the 'pure' music of Webern, nor the plainchant of the Roman Gradual, though it takes inspiration from both. Messiaen wanted to create a communicable language in which natural life, spiritual ideas and musical structures combined in music of great energy and colour in which simple, almost primitive melodies are used in complex mathematical structures. His influence has been great. Both Boulez, an atheist and Stockhausen, a devout Catholic in his youth, saw him as their formative influence. In an age that is witnessing a profound spiritual desertion, the technical mastery of his music is a positive sign of faith. However it should not be treated as mystical wallpaper only to be heard in churches, but as a challenging innovation in musical language that belongs to everyone who cares to listen and understand it.

Share this story