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The Reinvention of Religious Music

Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough Toward the Beyond

Sander van Maas

Publication Year: 2012

Present-day music studies conspicuously evade the question of religion in contemporary music. Although many composers address the issue in their work, as yet there have been few attempts to think through the structure of religious music as we hear it. The work of Olivier Messiaen is well known for its inclusion of religious themes and gestures. On the basis of a careful analysis of Messiaen’s work, this book argues for a renewal of our thinking about religious music. Starting from an analysis of his 1960s oratorio La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ, van Maas arranges a moderated dialogue between Messiaen and the music theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the phenomenology of revelation of Jean-Luc Marion, the rethinking of religion and technics in Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, and the Augustinian ruminations of Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-François Lyotard. Ultimately, this confrontation underscores the challenging yet deeply affirmative nature of Messiaen’s music.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title page, copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-x

At a time when culture has increasingly become the field of play where the opposing forces of secularization and religion meet, the question of the position of art is acquiring new meaning. Today, the secular status that art has held since the Enlightenment, and that was almost immediately contested ...

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p. xi-xi

This book would not have been written if I did not have the support of many people. Foremost, I wish to thank Hent de Vries, who over the years has inspired my writing and enriched my mind with his overwhelming erudition and grand-scale approach to matters philosophical and theological. I ...

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pp. 1-12

Is what is convincing also true? This classic question often preoccupied me when leaving the concert hall or church where, just before, a work by the French composer Olivier Messiaen (Avignon, December 10, 1908–Paris, April 27, 1992) had been performed. The question seems naïve, because the ...

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1. It Is a Glistening Music We Seek

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pp. 13-36

Olivier Messiaen is mentioned in many a twentieth-century survey in relation to the role he had in serialism. Around 1950 he was seen as a forerunner in the field of conceptual and technical innovations in music. During this brief period he produced works with often purely technical titles that to all ...

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2. Five Times Breakthrough

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pp. 37-60

The first chapter mapped the ‘‘program’’ of Messiaen and exploring the theoretical possibilities that he discerned for putting it to practice. Now it is time to turn to the question of how he endeavored to realize these possibilities. What does it look like in practice, this ‘‘glistening music’’ of ...

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3. Balthasar and the Religion of Music

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pp. 61-88

The connection between Messiaen and the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar is barely noticeable. Yet it is much stronger than can be inferred from the occasional reference to the latter (in comparison, Saint Thomas Aquinas figures much more prominently in the composer’s writings and ...

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4. The Gift of Dazzlement

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pp. 89-125

The notion of saturation surfaced more than once in the discussion of the dazzlement passages in Chapter 2. A saturated sound-image was created with Messiaen’s so-called turning chords (La Transfiguration, Part VIII); along with that, different forms of chromatic saturation were mentioned, as ...

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5. The Technics of Breakthrough

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pp. 126-157

The varied and conflicting vocabularies Messiaen uses when speaking of his own work are a reflection of the complex cultural-historical background that informs it: secularization, individualization, modernism, postmodernism, and technology, to name a few. In the opening paragraph of his ...

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6. The Circumcision of the Ear

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pp. 158-178

Messiaen’s discourse on éblouissement and the possibility of a breakthrough toward the beyond is surprisingly radical. This is not only because the composer calls attention to the actual possibility of religious music—and in a certain sense hyperreligious music, for Messiaen places it above religious ...

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Epilogue: On Affirmation

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pp. 179-180

As Christian Asplund is right to emphasize in an article in which he compares the aesthetics of Cage, Bach, and Messiaen, the music of the last composer does not appeal to a sense of interiority in the way Bach’s music does. It seems as though in Messiaen’s music the vertical plane of stained-glass ...


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pp. 181-220


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pp. 221-229

E-ISBN-13: 9780823246526
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823230587

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2012