For all of my frustrations with the irreconcilable differences between faith and reason, my own powers of reason are still obliged to acknowledge that, in the history of Western music, there are instances of both composition and performance that can only be properly examined through faith-based lenses; and this implies that there are also listening experiences that must be partially, if not entirely, guided by faith. In the twentieth century Olivier Messiaen may be the composer who benefits most from such faith-based performance and listening. This can be problematic for the self-proclaimed secular humanist; and I tried to confront my personal problems in trying last January to write about the San Francisco Symphony performance of Messiaen's "L'Ascension," a suite of four movements, each of which is a meditation on the miracle celebrated by the Feast of the Ascension, framed with a quotation from sacred text. Even more problematic has been my own effort to practice movements from his Vingt Regards sure L'Enfant-Jésus. Beyond the obvious problem that this composition is far beyond my technical skills (which, as I have observed, has not interfered with my efforts to practice the music of Charles Ives), there are the sacred connotations of the title itself, the titles of the individual Regards, and the extended note which Messiaen has provided as a preface (in which he refers to himself as "the author," rather than "the composer"). This note, in turn, explains the significance of three key themes and provides text to establish a context for each of the movements. What is the non-believer to do when confronted with such a manuscript?
In writing about "L'Ascension," I observed that Messiaen's approach to notation was thorough and meticulous enough that, where performance is concerned, he "pretty much made all the decisions that need to be made," which I called a stare decisis approach to performance. I would say that this rule can also be applied to the individual Regards, although I am not sure it can contribute to an effort to bring structural unity to the assembly of all twenty of them. I recall all of this today, because last night's Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, conducted by violinist Anthony Marwood, began with a performance of two of the movements from Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. Yesterday had turned out to be a very busy day for me; and, when I realized that I was approaching this music (and Marwood's observations) in a rather fatigued state, I decided that I would not stay for the remainder of the Class. However, I have to wonder whether or not that state of mind may have facilitated my surrendering myself to the music, setting aside any efforts to cogitate and just "letting it happen."
Those who discuss this music inevitably cite the "secular" circumstances under which it was composed as well as the sacred connotations of the title. Here is the Wikipedia account of the origins of the composition:
Messiaen was captured by the German army during World War II and was being held as a prisoner of war. While in transit to the prisoner of war camp, Messiaen showed the clarinetist Henri Akoka, also a prisoner, the sketches for what would become Abîme des oiseaux. Two other professional musicians were also among his fellow prisoners (the violinist Jean le Boulaire, and the cellist Étienne Pasquier), and he wrote a short trio for them. This piece developed into the Quatuor for the same trio, plus himself at the piano. This combination of instruments is unusual, but not without precedent: Walter Rabl had composed for it in 1896, as had Paul Hindemith in 1938.
The Quartet was premiered in Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, Germany (currently Zgorzelec, Poland) on January 15, 1941, to an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners of war and prison guards (Rischin, 2003: 62). Messiaen later recalled the occasion: "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."
As with the Vingt Regards, Messiaen prefaced the score with a note to establish the sacred connotations, which are based on verses from the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelation, reproduced in the Wikipedia entry in the King James Version as follows:
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire… and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth… And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever,… that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished…
This text deserves a few comments. At a purely personal level, I realized that the text "Time is, time was but time shall be no more." is not Biblical. It is from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in the third chapter, in which Stephen Dedalus is confronting his mortal sin in the context of Father Arnall's sermon on Doomsday. More interesting, however, is that translations other than that of the King James Version do not cite time, as such, in this particular apocalyptic vision. Thus, the Revised Standard Version translated "there should be time no longer" as "there should be no more delay;" and the Jerusalem Bible confirms this reading with "The time of waiting is over." Thus, the text that Messiaen cited is not strictly about "the end of time" but about "the end of waiting!" The proposition that time should no longer exist comes closer to a Zen koan than a Christian revelation. Consequently, a "faith-based listening" to this music has more to do with Messiaen's own sense of faith (which we may assume was intensely personal and therefore possibly impenetrable) than with the apocalyptic visions of John.
This conclusion should also apply to the way in which Messiaen chose to title his eight movements:
- Liturgie de cristal ("Liturgy of crystal") – for the full quartet.
- Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps ("Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time") – for the full quartet.
- Abîme des oiseaux ("Abyss of birds") – for solo clarinet.
- Intermède ("Interlude") – for violin, cello, and clarinet.
- Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus ("Praise to the eternity of Jesus") – for cello and piano.
- Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes ("Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets") – for the full quartet.
- Fouillis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps ("Mingling of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time") – for the full quartet.
- Louange à l'immortalité de Jésus ("Praise to the immortality of Jesus") – for violin and piano.
Note, for example, that the implication of immortality in the final title suggests that time has not come to an end but must submit to "the immorality of Jesus." One might thus make the case that the listener is free to make of this music what (s)he will, even from a secular point of view, just as Messiaen has exercised that freedom on his source text!
Having made this elaborate excursion through the basis for Messiaen's context and the reconciliation of that context for a secular humanist listener, I should point out that none of this figured in Marwood's review of the student performance of the first and sixth movements. Instead, he focused on how the ensemble could arrive at the most effective sonority; and he supplemented his observations with his own somewhat mystical observation that the ensemble should "be" the music, rather than "play" the music. I am inclined to take issue with this, particularly if Messiaen went to those same great lengths to specify with great precision just how the music should be "played." However much we may question the reasoning behind what Messiaen wanted to tell us by way of context for this composition, there is no questioning what he tells the performers to do. If they honor the rule of stare decisis, the music will take care of itself, both in the sounds that emerge and in the way in which those sounds then impact the mind behind the listening ear.