Nov/Dec 1999

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Ecstatic Joy

Olivier Messiaen. Saint François d'Assise. Kent Nagano conducting the Arnold Schoenberg Chor and Hallé Orchestra with José van Dam and Dawn Upshaw. Deutsche Grammaphon 445 176-2.

Messiaen (1908-1992) is generally regarded as the towering figure of French music for the second half of the century. The magnitude of his achievement seems more and more impressive with time, especially as major works like this finally become available on recordings. I can imagine a strong case being made 100 years from now for Messiaen as the central and essential composer of the entire western tradition for the second half of the twentieth century.

He stands outside schools and movements. And the more time I spend with his music the more compelling is my sense that his only musical peer is Bach.

Both were professional organists. Both thought at the keyboard and built reputations as astonishing virtuoso improvisers. Both were intellectually fascinated by the most demanding compositional procedures, but vaulted those procedures into compelling and urgent musical utterances. Both grounded their music in an unswerving Christian devotion that, on the one hand, enabled wrenching plunges into the tragic despair of Christ's agony, while on the other, enabled lofty joy-filled ecstasies seeming to set the entire cosmos to dance. Although keyboard performers, both rendered instrumental pallets with stunning variety almost seeming to re-imagine what an orchestra is for each major work. Both achieved moments of inexhaustible aural delight. Can one wear out the Brandenburgs? Can one over-dose on Turangalila?

Bach's entire edifice (its melodic and harmonic procedures) is built on the homespun Lutheran Chorale--a genre that he perceived as pure and natural aural utterance. Messiaen perceived bird songs to be fundamental natural aural utterances, and his lifelong study of them led to many of his harmonic and melodic procedures.

Saint François d'Assise is Messiaen's only opera. The almost ten-year project of writing it left the composer depleted and exhausted, although eventually he was able to resume composition. It has had two major productions, one under Ozawa in Paris and the Salzburg production under Nagano. Van Dam played Saint Francis both times. This recording is based on Salzburg. Ozawa and Nagano each worked for months with the composer to learn the score. Any production is a massive undertaking. Much publicity has been generated by these productions, so to have at last a recording allows many listeners to find out what the fuss is all about. Saint François d'Assise is simply the most important opera of our time. Its huge resources of orchestra, chorus and soloists completely justify themselves. The work is a mesmerizing journey into innocence, ecstasy, joy and ardent Christian faith. The sound world it carries us into is dazzling.

Messiaen devised his own libretto in which eight tableaux depict the life of Saint Francis. Each tableau renders a parable that epitomizes a single aspect of Francis's piety. The tableaux are sequenced to cumulate into deeper and deeper probings of the character of sainthood, with the mystery of stigmata (tableau 7) as a kind of climax. The visit of the angel (tableau 4) has a rustic pious humor that actually brings laughter. The sermon to the birds (tableau 6) leads to the work's most incredible two and half minutes, the "Grand concert d'oiseaux." The composer's remarks in the liner notes must be quoted:

At the end of Saint Francis's sermon, the birds strike up a vast concert, in which I wanted to create an organized chaos of sounds consisting of bird calls superimposed on each other. This scene is extremely complex from the conductor's point of view, since the time-signatures in these superimposed bars of birdsong are all different. While turning the pages, the conductor has to indicate the points at which the different instrumentalists--who are not playing in tempo--have to start and stop; the first ondes Martenot plays the song of the garden warbler, the second ondes Martenot that of a blackcap, the third the Australian lyre-bird and the trumpet in D another blackcap. But the most difficult moment of all is the return of the oriole on three horns, crotals, glockenspiel and vibraphone. Seiji Ozawa, who specializes in my music, initially told me: "It's unplayable!" And Ken Nagano stayed with me for several months in order to study the score, which is notated on seventy staves at this point. Both of them eventually conducted it with remarkable mastery and genius. (28)

For me, these two and a half minutes feel much longer than the clock shows but are totally coherent and musically exhilarating unlike even the most flamboyant climaxes of Turangalila.

Although, Messiaen (like Bach) makes no apologies for the ardor of his faith, their musics while standing as monuments to the Christian way of being in the world, are musically accessible on terms quite separate from faith. For Messiaen one of those is opera. Emphatically, Messiaen placed his work in the field of the great operas, not oratorios, because he saw the theater as part of its conception. His own comments allude to Boris and Pelleus and Parcifal and Tristan. For a work of over four hours, this raises the question of how successfully he manages human voices in dialogue, action, narrative and solo. (The chorus is for the most part an extension of the orchestra's color, not a feature of the plot.) Many twentieth century operas have been locked into a vocal declamation that as melodic line fails to sustain listener engagement (one thinks of stretches of Britten for instance). Eschewing older features of recitative and aria, this tendency to declamation becomes monochrome. Meanwhile, the orchestra wants to take over, because this is where the composer is most vitally engaged; as a result, the character's in the opera, musically speaking, seem overwhelmed--a situation that almost perfectly reverses the nineteenth century's lavish attention to the solo voice with make-do orchestrations plodding and umph-pahing along behind them. Think of Bellini, early Verdi. Of course there are a handful of twentieth century opera composers who transcend this problem and write wonderfully for the voice as well as the orchestra.

Messiaen's solution is to return to western opera's earliest roots in the seventeenth century--not as conscious anachronism but as an instinctive musical solution. Like Monteverdi, Cavalli and the other Florentine and Venetian boys, Messiaen creates a seemingly endless vocal line. This line meanders in shapely somewhat melodic ways, occasionally bursting into arioso or duetto moments, other times flattening to a kind of Gregorian recitative; and like early opera, the vocal line, often with the sparest (or even no) accompaniment, is punctuated by flourishes of orchestral color, which like seventeenth century ritronelli, develop musical motifs into larger audible structures so that even long scenes move through musical developments and narratives. Thus, Messiaen's vocal line like its baroque ancestors is the generating material of Saint François d'Assise but the orchestral outbursts and riffs propel the affective level of the music forward and sustain narrative drive.

José van Dam (Francis) and Dawn Upshaw (the angel) sing long stretches of many notes. Each is resoundingly triumphant at sustaining vocal vitality, intensity and conviction. One is staggered at imagining the memorization of such roles.

Will America be honored with a production of Saint François d'Assise within the lifetimes of listeners like myself who have already passed their own mid-century marks?


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