The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough Toward the Beyond
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Present-day music studies conspicuously evade the question of religion in contemporary music. Although many composers address the issue in their work, as yet there have been few attempts to think through the structure of religious music as we hear it.
On the basis of a careful analysis of Olivier Messiaen's work, this book argues for a renewal of our thinking about religious music. Addressing his notion of a "hyper-religious" music of sounds and colors, it aims to show that Messiaen has broken new ground. His reinvention of religious music makes us again aware of the fact that religious music, if taken in its proper radical sense, belongs to the foremost of musical adventures.
The work of Olivier Messiaen is well known for its inclusion of religious themes and gestures. These alone, however, do not seem enough to account for the religious status of the work. Arguing for a "breakthrough toward the beyond" on the basis of the synaesthetic experience of music, Messiaen invites a confrontation with contemporary theologians and post-secular thinkers. How to account for a religious breakthrough that is produced by a work of art?
Starting from an analysis of his 1960s oratorio La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ, this book arranges a moderated dialogue between Messiaen and the music theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the phenomenology of revelation of Jean-Luc Marion, the rethinking of religion and technics in Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, and the Augustinian ruminations of Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-François Lyotard. Ultimately, this confrontation underscores the challenging yet deeply affirmative nature of Messiaen's music.
the 1960s, this subjective-romantic determinacy of the musical-religious would occupy a much less prominent position and possibly disappear altogether.12 In this period, Messiaen appears to be focused on a more abstract illumination of theological ideas, although, as will become clear below, the idea of the senses will not lose its privileged position.13 Faith—and Music Messiaen’s conception of faith remains implicit in these declarations of intent, which is also the case for the ‘‘theological
8-8-78-8. Symmetrical patterns like these have a special religious signiﬁcance for Messiaen and deserve therefore to be brieﬂy clariﬁed here. In the case of a pattern that, when read from back to front, yields the same as when read from front to back, Messiaen speaks of a ‘‘nonretrogradable rhythm’’ (rythme non-re´trogradable). It is a term he introduces to indicate that, from the compositional perspective, the retrograde yields nothing new. Messiaen favors these rhythms for their special, occult
conﬁrmed by Messiaen in Traite´ de rythme.34 This second passage (ﬁgs. 22–23), henceforward assigned as the passage Messiaen had in mind, looks as follows. After a long birdsong cadenza for solo piano (ﬁg. 21), the choir sets in with the text from the Gloria, homophonically accompanied by woodwinds and brass instruments. After the preceding strident sections of percussive chords and austere monophony, this moment stands out for its choral warmth and calm. The chorale melody 50 Five Times
nonsymbolical, nonnarrative, nonsemantic aspects of music, leaving a husk of rationality and signiﬁcance. In many respects, this contradicts music as it is experienced in sound, and this seems notably the case in religious music. Music can ‘‘form a discourse (discourir)’’ on theological subjects only if its musicality is suppressed. It is remarkable, then, that Messiaen himself has done everything to feed such interpretations of his music. He composes ‘‘to champion, express, and deﬁne
concept of the individual and the notion of ﬂesh.36 According to Marion, the ﬂesh is a gift, in which the ego is bestowed. This implies, according to Marion, that the ego is not autonomous, on the contrary, it comes along as the adonne´ (the gifted) in a more originary experience. ‘‘Flesh gives,’’ Marion writes, ‘‘nothing other than the ego itself, at the same time that every given gives itself to it. It ﬁxes The Circumcision of the Ear 167 it in it as an adonne´—that which receives itself