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Magnificent and Aweful

PETER DALE considers Messiaen's impact on the ear


La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum are all about light, the colours of light, the functions of light: the way it reveals, illuminates, transfigures; the way it both intensifies and dissolves shadows; even the way it hurts when it dazzles.

Messiaen has taken fourteen texts and grouped them into what he calls, with a liturgical flavour, septenaries. They are taken mostly from the Gospels, but also from the Roman Missal, from The Wisdom of Solomon, Genesis, The Psalms, Paul's Epistles and Aquinas' Summa Theologica. There is no narrative thread as such, so this is not cast in the form of a conventional oratorio, but the intensity of focus and contemplation upon the Transfiguration itself and upon all its correlatives of rapture and awe means that it is nevertheless bound up and unified very powerfully indeed. This is not just description and rumination. There are passages when the music conveys not just impressions of how witnesses to the Transfiguration felt, but the very sensations themselves. Yet in terms of light and sound, this is the eclipse of the merely sensational. Light and luminosity evoke mystery at the same time as they provide the means of understanding.

Anyone familiar with Messiaen will recognise straightaway his compulsive use of birdsong (the Blackthroated Honey Guide, the Alpine Chough, the Baltimore Oriole, Louisiana Owl, Bonelli's Eagle, and many, many others) as messengers of translated joy and ecstatic excitement, but there are other satellites of rapture from his celestial aviary: panic and fear, trepidation and backing-away, elemental chaos as well as sympathetic chorus. Turangalila-like motives and extremely complex textures of harmonic colour are familiar too. So is Messiaen's absolute commitment and, it has to be said, his resistance to under-statement of any kind. The intensity of sweetness particularly, which colours this and all of his music from time to time, requires just as much control as the sense of excited abandonment elsewhere demands so much energy and elan. But Messiaen breaks no new ground here; rather, he consolidates his achievements thus far (1969).

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Copyright © Peter Dale, November 6th 1999


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