Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Messiaen legacy

As the anniversary of his birth gets closer and closer, I expect to be blogging on Messiaen almost exclusively. I'm particularly excited to be making the trip to Montreal for the day itself, to take in a festival Alex Ross describes as unmatched by anything on the continent: the Automne Messiaen in Montreal. So excited, in fact, that I might be inspired to produce regular content (!) on this blog despite the fact that this month is one of the most stressful times of the year for organists.

But there's a basic question worth asking: why Messiaen? Probably the most personal of composers, he established no school and attracted few followers. Among Messiaen's pupils, the only two that sound much like him are the Canadian Gilles Tremblay and the late Jean-Louis Florentz, and even they have their own voice. Think of other prominent composition teachers of the twentieth century - Nadia Boulanger, for example, or closer to home John Weinzweig. These people passed on a definite aesthetic to their pupils, which they chose either to extend or to rebel against. Messiaen's pupils, on the other hand, flew off in all directions - what does Xenakis's music have to do with Stockhausen's, or Boulez with Tristan Murail? It's all very well to say that Messiaen left these people free to pursue their own path, but if he left them nothing tangible to build upon, was his music anything more than a dead end?

Messiaen leaves us with this strange paradox; a defined and systematized style that is instantly recognizable, but one which died with him. Yet perhaps Messiaen's advice to Xenakis tells us something of his real legacy:
When I found out he was Greek, that he was an architect, and that he had studied mathematics, I told him, "Keep going with all that! Be an architect! Be a mathematician! Be Greek! And use all of this in your music!"
This quotation (reconstructed from memory from the Claude Samuel interview books, because I don't have them on hand) gains an unintentionally humorous quality in translation, but it tells us something of Messiaen's genius as a teacher. Xenakis was almost thirty years old: he had already gone to Boulanger, who told him she was too old to accept a beginning composer like him, and to Honegger, who had raked him over the coals for using parallel octaves. Clearly the answer for a man like Xenakis - a firebrand Greek refugee with an engineering degree, a traumatic past in the Greek Resistance, and a mostly autodidact education - was not to go and study strict species counterpoint for four years. Yet something about this always bothered me: was Messiaen saying that technique isn't important?

Then I tried rewording it this way:
When I found out he was a devout Catholic, that he was interested in birdsong, and that he had studied ancient Greek rhythms, I told him "Keep going with all that! Be a Catholic! Be an ornithologist! Be a rhythmician! And use all of this in your music!"
It seems to me that Messiaen's advice to Xenakis was precisely the advice that he wished he had received in his twenties: don't be afraid to put yourself into your music, even if this sounds different from the way others are writing. Messiaen's career could be summarized as a search for a clear compositional identity - first imitating others in his student works, later developing a more characteristic sound, being briefly diverted into avant-garde experimentation, and then finally reaching a fully personal, all-encompassing language. This, perhaps, was his real gift to his pupils. Boulanger's students tended to sound quite uniform, and the Darmstadt serialists created music in any colour you liked, as long as it was black: but Messiaen's students each found a characteristic sound-world. And so his message to today's composers is a profoundly humanist one: go find your own style, and run with it.

Not to say that some of Messiaen's technical procedures didn't rub off, though - would Xenakis have thought to create synthetic scales using sieve theory if not for Messiaen's modes of limited transposition?

1 comment:

Andrew W. said...

Thanks for this. Messaien is one of those composers I keep coming back to, mainly because, with the exception of the Turangalîla-Symphonie, I've never really gotten him, so to speak.

Your post reminds me that it's worth continuing to try!