Wednesday, December 10, 2008


When a composer's music is perfectly fitted to his time, one can wonder what or even if he would have composed where he born a hundred years earlier or later. If Mozart lived in the 20th century, I expect he might have been a film maker rather than composer.

Centenary considerations are much on the mind these days, with Elliot Carter's big day widely celebrated around the city. On the hundredth birthday of Oliver Messiaen (today), I attended an sprawling program of his work at The Church of the Ascension.

Hearing the "Quartet for the End of Time" live is always a powerful experience. The performers tonight, Paul Kim, piano, Curtis Macomber, violin, Jonathan Spitz, cello, Alan Kay, clarinet, revealed the work's intense expression and spiritual questioning, within the framework of its beauty of both sound and form. After intermission, Jon Gillock played an impressive selection of movements drawn from various organ works into his own suite.

Listening, I was struck again by how constructed Messiaen's music sounds. Its madeness is conspicuous to the point of being part of its meaning. Music, by contrast, that sounds "natural" almost defies the idea of its being composed. There are songs by Stephen Foster and melodies by Mozart that seem so inevitable that it is hard to believe there was a time when they didn't exist, as if composers discovered rather than created them. The unnaturalness of Messiaen's music seems related to its task in that so much of what he writes asks us to look directly, unflinchingly, into the greatest mysteries of existence and not avert our gaze. The wrenching knowledge that such knowledge is unknowable is a difficult truth, a question with no answer. Such contemplation is essentially an unnatural act. Quite outside nature, it is supernatural.

Nature does not contemplate, existence is enough. When Messiean introduces bird song into his music, the ambivalent sounds of nature bring the personalness of our spiritual experience into sharp relief. It brings to mind Giovanni Bellini's 1480 masterpiece, St. Francis in the Desert, at The Frick Collection in New York City. The artist baths Saint Francis in one of the most extraordinary streams of light in Western art at the transcendental moment when he receives the stigmata. In the background, a crane, a donkey, and a flock of sheep stand unaffected by the miraculous transformation. The saint's moment in the light is his alone. The knowledge that nature is unconcerned about our struggles draws us to contemplate things beyond nature, beyond what is knowable. Messiaen's music is an indispensable guide. Mozart and Stephen Foster provide the perfect balm.

Musee des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden (1940)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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