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Themes exposed

02 January 2015

Helen Burrows on the young Messiaen


Visions of Amen: The early life and music of Olivier Messiaen
Stephen Schloesser
Eerdmans £33.99
Church Times Bookshop £30.60 (Use code CT870 )

THE result of a considerable amount of research and a creative partner-ship between the author, Stephen Schloesser, and the pianists Hyesook Kim and Stephane Lemelin, Visions of Amen is not only a most approachable and fascinating exploration of the influences on Messiaen's early career, but also allows readers access to an extremely fine online recording of the two-piano work.

The early part of the book gives an insightful account of the life, work, and religious and intellectual thinking of Messiaen's parents, Pierre and Cécile. The narrative is compelling reading, and uncovers the principal and lasting influences on Messiaen's own life and his music, especially theology and literature. Messiaen's childhood was saturated by literature: his mother was an especially talented poet.

In young adulthood, an increasing awareness of Messiaen's synesthesia is set in fascinating context with detailed descriptions of contemporary investigations into the condition including the association of multisensory perception with drug-induced visions. The author also uncovers an array of inconsistencies in Messiaen's own portrayal of himself in later life: he frequently asserted that his parents were non-believers and that he was "born a believer", which is clearly untrue, as his Roman Catholic upbringing, under his father's influence, was strict. Also, why he allowed Dupré to believe that, as a 19-year-old, he had never played the organ (and apparently learnt to play in eight days) is a further mystery.

The years of the Great War were overshadowed by tragedy and grief, and Schloesser ascribes this, together with the slow demise and ultimately untimely death of Cécile (an event sadly mirrored in Messiaen's domestic life with the mental illness and early death of his own first wife), to Messiaen's preoccupation with melancholy.

This melancholic perspective, which is at odds with Messiaen's assertion that he was a "musician of joy", is convincingly established in the early part of the book, though the centerpiece of this study, Visions of Amen, is described as the quintessential expression of Messiaen's essentially joyous preoccupation with the glory of God and the world to come.

Coverage of the period 1943-92 is brief. The author considers the catalogue of birds in some detail, but otherwise the commentary attempts to place the works written during this 50-year period in the context of the themes already present in his youthful work.

This book is a welcome addition to the several existing biographies of Olivier Messiaen. The coverage of Messiaen's early career is not only detailed but also absorbing reading, and the decision to publish in association with a recording considerably enhances the reader's appreciation and understanding of the tangled web of influences that underpin this seminal work.

Dr Helen Burrows is Director of Music at St George's RAF Chapel of Remembrance, Biggin Hill, and at Combe Bank School. She is also Examinations Secretary to the Guild of Church Musicians.

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