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Messiaen Hardcover – 16 Sep 2005
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"Far and away the best source of information, at least in English, about the composer's life and work."--David Weininger, The Boston Globe--David Weininger "The Boston Globe "
The French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908 - 92) is a musician about whom most remains to be discovered. More than a decade after his death our knowledge of Messiaen is largely conditioned by what he said about himself - in lectures and interviews, in his work as a teacher, and in the monumental seven-volume treatise that encompassed the whole of his composing world. But Messiaen's public documents conceal as much as they reveal, seldom explaining why a work was written, or what complexities went into its making. Almost nothing has been known about Messiaen's working practices. Indeed, the composer became fanatically secretive about any work in progress, and was similarly reticent about his private life. This is the first book to explore the world that Messiaen was at pains to keep hidden. It has been made possible by the unprecedented access to Messiaen's private archive granted to the authors by the composer's widow, Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen. The archive includes musical sketches, correspondence, lecture notes, diaries, as well as hundreds of photographs, many of which are published here for the first time.Using this remarkable material, Hill and Simeone trace the origins of many of Messiaen's greatest works, and place them in the context of his life, from his years at the Paris Conservatoire, his passionate first marriage to Claire Delbos, through to the immense achievements of his final decades. See all Product description
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Where this book really scores though is in photographs, most of which have been unseen before and the book is lavishly illustrated throughout. So, 5 for the photos, 3 for the text.
I particularly wanted to find information about Messiaen's first wife Claire Delbos and discovered far more in this book than in any other, either in English or French, so I can't understand the criticism made below about not learning much about her here - that's just not the case.
The index is incredibly detailed, and points the reader in all sorts of interesting directions (e.g. projects Messiaen planned but never completed).
There is unlikely to be a more thorough biography of Messiaen for a long time. This one is very good value, a lovely production by Yale, and a book I shall re-read often.
It should be. Peter Hill knew Messiaen in his later years and worked with him on his complete CD set of the piano music. The writers also had access to much original material that was unavailable before, including the composer's diaries which he started soon after the War and kept up right until his death.
Obviously the authors made an editorial decision to be very non-interventionist, to present all the facts as objectively as possible but to refrain from any speculation. The result is a book which tells us all about Messiaen's travels, which concerts of his own music he played in or attended, what the critics published about first performances, which birdsongs he notated and where, what colleagues said about him in public pronouncements (but not private ones), the import of some of his letters (usually rather formal). There are some insights into his working methods, too. We discover that orchestration often took him as long or longer than composition and that he preferred to make his own fair-copies for the printer - indeed that he liked to control the dissemination of his music in print and in performance as much as possible. We can infer that he liked to attend as many performances of his works as he could and that he was touchingly susceptible to applause and approbation.
But we never get a very clear picture of Messiaen as a man. His relationship with his first wife, for example, was clearly a devoted one, but we discover little of how it changed once her mental deterioration took her into a Home in the years before her death. Nor do we really know exactly how his relationship with Yvonne Loriod, his second wife, evolved during the same period. Clearly they became very close, if only because he was thrown together with his young student so much while they travelled around playing Visions d'Amen together and introducing the 20 Regards to the world. This is not just a desire for a bit of prurient scandalising. Mme Loriod had a profound effect on his musical development almost from the first moment he heard her play his music and the early development of their lifelong relationship is very relevant. The relationship with Messiaen's son from his first marriage remains a very grey area, too. In later years, were they close or distant? It's hard to tell from the text here.
One would also like to know so much more about the individual nature of the composer's Catholic faith. That it was absolutely fundamental to his thinking, his composition, his very being is clear enough from the music itself. But there is little further elucidation of what he actually believed in this book. Moreover there is little personal reflection on the man and his music and the huge influence he has had on composition from the early 50's to today from the many, many students he taught - from Boulez and Stockhausen to Benjamin and through them to so many other contemporary composers. Indeed, as teacher as well as composer, it could be argued that Messiaen is the most influential figure in music since Wagner. That surely was worth investigation while these witnesses are still alive.
In summary, the facts and the information are all here, but not a real portrait of the man himself. To that extent, this book is a disappointment.
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One evidence of editorial restraint, perhaps understandably, is in the treatment of the couple's relationship. The book includes, without comment, a tender photograph from the late 1940s that shows nothing but Messiaen and Loriod's delicately intertwined hands. Messiaen was still married to his first wife at the time, and would remain so until her death more than 10 years later; he and his pianist muse, both devout Catholics, then waited another 2 years before getting married. Mme. Loriod is quoted as saying that despite their passion, they didn't have a pre-marital affair, and I won't doubt that here. But a distinctive feature of this biography is supposed to be the authors' access to Messiaen's own diaries. Despite this access, we are told *absolutely nothing* about what Messiaen was feeling about this aspect of his life. Nor are we told that his diaries are silent about it (which would be an eloquent omission). There is only silence on this topic.
Another clue may be found in Mme. Loriod's 2010 obituary in The Guardian, by Roger Nichols. (She passed away about 5 years after this book was published.) Nichols quotes an unpublished letter of her former teacher Darius Milhaud about a visit from the couple, saying "The Messiaens are here. As always, charming and impossible." Despite having read the present book, I still find this quote mysterious: the charming is quite evident here, but there's very little about the impossible.
Most problematic, though, are Messiaen's attitudes during the war and particularly his very complex attitude toward Jews. First there is a curious passage in this book, where the authors speculate that Messiaen "surely noticed" when Jews in occupied France were first forced to wear the yellow star. Not only do they not provide any basis for this speculation, but they quote at length a passage filled with the crocodile tears of France's favorite Nazi, the aesthete Ernst Jünger, about how unfortunate a decree this was. We're not told of any connection between the composer and Jünger, so this is a bizarre intrusion, to say the least.
What's more troubling is what's left out. The biographers don't mention that whereas other French non-Jewish musicians, such as Nadia Boulanger, did not take advantage of Jewish colleagues' dismissals, Messiaen didn't have any such qualms about succeeding André Bloch as professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire. Apparently Messiaen, feeling guilty, also would fudge the date of his release from a prison camp to make it appear that Bloch's dismissal came during his internment. (See Benjamin Ivry's review of « La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation » (2013; Myriam Chimènes and Yannick Simon, eds.) in the Forward, 2014 March 08.) Moreover, in a 1987 interview with Claude Samuel, Messiaen said that the Jewish people were guilty of "deicide" for the death of Jesus -- an extreme position even for a devout Catholic, given that the Second Vatican Counsel had absolved the Jews of this crime in the 1965 statement Nostra Aetate. In the 1990s Benjamin Ivry also published an account of interviewing the French Jewish composer Odette Gartenlaub, a student of Messiaen's who was forced out of the Conservatoire and into hiding. Messiaen did nothing to help her, nor did he communicate with her during the war; after it, he and the rest of the Conservatoire staff were "friendly and pleasant again," as if nothing had happened.
Ivry and others probably go too far to assert that Messiaen was antisemitic. Messiaen seems to have revered his Jewish teachers Paul Dukas and Maurice Emmanuel; the clarinet part in the Quartet for the End of Time was written for a Jewish musician, Henri Akoka; he worked closely with Koussevitsky and Leonard Bernstein, who premiered his Turangalila Symphony; according to his student George Benjamin he showed kindness to his post-war Jewish students; and he was on warm terms with Ligeti and Milhaud. Maybe his attitudes and actions are better explained by a complex mixture of cowardice, careerism, and religious self-righteousness. The point here, though, is that all of those less-than-flattering events are ignored and all of that complexity is masked in this biography.
In short, this is a very stimulating book from which to learn about the background of Messiaen's music. It tells much less about the man than it's advertised as doing. I hope a better-rounded biography will appear in the future, but in the meantime, this might be the best available.
As such, I would not recommend "Messiaen" to those who have only a passing curiosity in the man or his music. The authors seem to presuppose at least some familiarity with most of his compositions, and they discuss several of his self-analytical theories (e.g. modes of limited transposition, "rhythmic personnages," "color" chords) without further explication. Fortunately, Messiaen spared no detail in explaining these and other concepts in numerous treatises, prefaces to scores, and program notes.
For those who already know and love Messiaen's music, though, this book will be a goldmine full of insights. After reading it, I listened with new ears to even my least favorite among Messiaen's works, such as "Livre d'Orgue" and "Chronochromie." As a performer, I am now eager to dive into more of his organ and piano pieces. My renewed enthusiasm for Messiaen's music is a testament to the authors' successful way of assembling many and various details into a compelling narrative.
In addition to this book, I would recommend Rebecca Rischin's "For the End of Time" to those who are especially interested in the "Quatuor pour la fin du temps" and Messiaen's time in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Rischin tells the story of all four performers from the 1941 premiere (not just Messiaen himself) and gives a fuller picture of camp life at Stalag VIIIA than do Messiaen or Hill and Simeone. (Be forewarned, however, that her musical descriptions often come across as unsophisticated, especially in comparison with Hill and Simeone's--her book would rate at 4 stars versus their 5.)
Chances are that Hill and Simeone's "Messiaen" will reach its target audience without my help, but if you are a Messiaen fan and are still unsure whether you will enjoy this book, I cannot recommend it more highly.