`School of the ecstatic.' Devotional, emotional life and music of Messiaen

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Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time, by Paul Griffiths. Cornell University Press. 274 pp. (including photographs, musical illustrations). $24.95. Twelve years ago, critic Philip Ramey wrote on the music of Olivier Messiaen and compared it to the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, in that no one ever seems middle-of-the-road on either subject. It's a point very well taken, all the more interesting because the two are so completely opposite. Bruckner's symphonies (and the disposition to listen to them) are made of the most patiently placid devoutness. Messiaen is devout, to be sure, but registers in the stratosphere scale of emotional content.

The French organist and composer, born in Grenoble in 1908, belongs to that group identified, a little or a lot, with the ecstatic in music. From Hector Berlioz in the early decades of the 19th century, to later men like Alexander Scriabin, Charles Ives, Frederick Delius, Herbert Howells, Ernest Bloch, and to a lesser extent, even Ralph Vaughan Williams -- and into our own era with such as George Crumb and Joseph Schwantner -- the ``school of the ecstatic'' has been, if a blind alley for imitators, at l east a familiar one. We recognize that trait in those composers who, like the quintessentially ecstatic Delius, cling in their music to a vision of things beyond the pale of this earthly scene, and in whose music the earthbound is sometimes barely given heed.

At all events, London Times critic Paul Griffiths is by no means a fence-rider in this analytical monograph on Messiaen -- an exhaustive study obviously born of an intense devotion. Griffiths is a music critic known more often for his keenness than for the astuteness of his observations, and it is interesting to see him approaching Messiaen the man and musician with as much delectation as when he launches elsewhere into his airy dismissals of composers he doesn't happen to care for.

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This is an important book, especially for Messiaen devotees. It is highly technical, not an ``easy read,'' by any stretch. It is not a biography as such, but a monograph addressing practically every movement of every work of Messiaen's, from the standpoint of his exotic modes of melodic scale and rhythm, and his concepts of duration, all tied to his deeply felt, if freewheelingly applied, pantheism and Roman Catholic mysticism.

Griffiths's graceful writing takes full account of Messiaen's commitment to the fusion of European musical method and Oriental concept. Messiaen constitutes a fairly important chapter in the history of the West's preoccupation with the East, and the book's raison is a frank and detailed look at the composer's principle of ``permanence rather than progression.'' It may be a moot point, whether that is a concept successfully translatable into sound. (Wouldn't the music of the spheres, so aime d-at in works like ``La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur J'esus-Christ,'' be rather more of a grand silence, literally taken?) Nevertheless, Griffiths also takes pains to point out that Messiaen's influence on modern composers has been at least as widespread in its own way as that of any other major modern master -- Stravinsky, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Hindemith included.

Among the things of general biographical interest is the mention of Messiaen's slightly slipshod early training. It is a recurring factor in the lives of pioneering types that naive, self-educative beginnings set the stage for a habit of placing high premiums on freedom and antidogma. Much in the current Minimalism madness is actually traceable to Messiaen's work in the '30s and '40s, but his sensitivity to form and tradition, even while discarding them, certainly runs much deeper than in a good many la tter-day Minimalists.

Griffiths is definitely sympathetic to Messiaen's other-world ethic, but ``The Music of Time'' is one of the most evenhanded works of advocacy around -- surprisingly so for him. In his study of the gestalt Messiaen, he is correct about so much of what he asserts and defends -- and of one thing in particular: that Messiaen must ultimately be judged not merely on the ``composer aesthetic'' side of his output, but also on the basis of his religiosity and its contribution to the piety of the world. For thos e up to investigating all that, this book will surely be a central tool.

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