For the Birds

Messiaen around: Reinbert de Leeuw (right) conducts the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with soloist Peter Serkin playing Des Canyons aux Étoiles. . . .Photo: Stephanie Berger

“My time will come,” Gustav Mahler once said, and indeed it did. His symphonies, often maligned and infrequently performed during his lifetime, are now as firmly entrenched in the standard repertory as Beethoven’s. Could the next candidate for equivalent posthumous success be Olivier Messiaen? Some think so, and the Lincoln Center Festival’s recent mini-celebration of the composer, who died in 1992 at the age of 83, helped promote his cause.

Avery Fisher Hall may not exactly have been packed for the three concerts, but the response was enthusiastic and the audiences included many young listeners apparently receptive to this French composer’s singular blend of Catholic mysticism, ornithology, and colorfully innovative musical vocabulary. Each concert featured one evening-length piece written during a different period in Messiaen’s life: the Turangalîla-symphonie (1946-48), Des Canyons aux Étoiles … (1971-74), and Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà … (1987-91). It’s also worth noting that all three scores were commissioned by American patrons or musical institutions, and all were first heard in this country. On this occasion the performance duties were divided between the New York Philharmonic, Hans Vonk conducting, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, led by Reinbert de Leeuw.

Perhaps one shouldn’t pursue the Mahler-Messiaen analogy too far, but there are a few significant parallels. Both composers shared a love of nature that they expanded into a world vision, and they were not shy about painting large musical panoramas with great brushstrokes or drawing on a wide range of musical sources. Their major works are generous in length, instrumental requirements, and expressive gestures – and neither man is afraid of being obvious or even vulgar. It’s rather ironic that, as a teacher and theorist, Messiaen had such a huge influence on composers (Boulez, Stockhausen) now accused of being the elitists and aesthetic terrorists who turned off an entire generation to new music. In his own creative work, Messiaen promotes no rigid dogma, only his deeply held religious beliefs and eagerness to embrace everyone within earshot.

The big difference, of course, is that Mahler’s vision is both secular and shot through with an emotionally charged angst that connected powerfully with late-twentieth-century sensibilities. Messiaen, on the other hand, is the eternal sunny optimist who relates everything around him, from the birds and the bees to the canyons and the stars, to Catholic theology with the childlike wonder of a devout believer – it’s rather like opening the front door and confronting a wide-eyed representative from Jehovah’s Witnesses. I wonder whether general audiences, even those who find Messiaen’s vivid musical imagery intriguing, will ever feel comfortable with this side of the composer.

Even Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the world premiere of Turangalîla in 1949 and later sparked the Mahler movement in this country, never cultivated much of a taste for Messiaen. I don’t believe he ever touched Turangalîla again, although in many ways that exuberant score would seem made to order for him, the celebration of a sexuality so divinely inspired that it can be practiced without guilt. For some, I suppose, that message forgives the pages of stupefying banality, but I can’t be so charitable. To me, this religio-erotic love bath just sounds embarrassingly awful, rather like Rachmaninoff on acid or, as Virgil Thomson once remarked, music straight from the Hollywood cornfields.

Later on, Messiaen did find more refined ways to establish a relationship between musical sounds and religious concepts. But even so, I am placing no bets on this composer’s imminent liberation from cult status, or on his ascent to join Mahler in the pantheon.

For the Birds