In Olivier Messiaen: Texts, Contexts, & Intertexts (1937–1948), the late Richard D. E. Burton (1946–2008) interprets the music of Olivier Messiaen’s early to middle years in relation to the French Catholic intellectual environment then current in France. He reveals insights that go beyond typical scholarly portrayals of Messiaen as a devout, religious musician with only superficial connections to the French culture around him, or even as a musician who was spiritual in name only. In other words, assessing Messiaen’s Catholicism in relation to his compositional aesthetics is not simply a matter of restricting one’s view to his self-professed religiosity. To grasp the fullness of its import, associating his Catholicism with its wider cultural landscape is essential. Utilizing his substantial expertise in French culture, evident as a Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Sussex University, Burton uncovers recurring scriptural references and allusions to theological writings in this particular corpus of Messiaen’s music.
Burton regards Messiaen as “a very traditional Catholic” (p. 14, n. 17) whose music stemmed from a “lifetime of daily reading of the Bible” and “attendance at Mass” (p. 18), but declares the composer to be somewhat aloof in relation to the socio-cultural times of his Church. To describe Messiaen’s relationship with the Church, Burton invokes a vertical–horizontal metaphor related to the Cross of Christ, which Messiaen actually notated in musical terms with accompanying annotations (“verticalité de la croix” [vertical dimension of the Cross] and “horizontalité de la croix” [horizontal dimension of the Cross]) in a birdsong notebook dating from 1977 (Olivier Messiaen, Cahier de notations de [End Page 279] chants d’oiseaux, Ms. 22988, Fonds Messiaen [Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France], 3). Simply put, the vertical dimension of the Cross inspires the Catholic believer to seek God directly in order to encounter the splendor of the divine. On the other hand, the horizontal dimension is an indirect approach, encouraging the believer to contemplate visible realities in order to grasp the invisible mysteries reflected by them. Burton knowingly or unknowingly employs this metaphor to describe how Messiaen, the staunch Catholic, was detached from the religious tenor of his times. He characterizes Messiaen as pursuing a “‘vertical’ relationship with God at the expense of his ‘horizontal’ relationship with other human beings, other than his intimates, in history” (p. 77). Indeed, Burton claims that Messiaen was the “polar opposite” of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, an atheist, activist, and leftist who was hostile to birds or birdsong (p. 68).
In five chapters, Burton considers Messiaen’s works spanning Poèmes pour Mi (1936) to Cinq Rechants (1948), exploring the seminal ideas driving these pieces. Stemming from a non-musicologist who is deeply interested in Messiaen and his music from wide-ranging cultural perspectives, his readings have a certain élan. These chapters do not constitute a hagiography but are instead a captivating study of Messiaen in a vibrantly reframed context, with fascinating insights that will interest the professional musician and musical enthusiast alike.
In chapter 1 (“Agape and Eros (I): Poèmes pour Mi and Chants de terre et de ciel,” pp. 1–26), Burton explores a theme that is prevalent throughout his book, namely how the dynamic interaction of polar opposites measured in a spectrum of either religious or cultural values shape the character of Messiaen’s music. In Poèmes pour Mi, the composer’s first song cycle, Messiaen celebrates marriage as a reflection of the marriage of Christ and His Church. Uniting the separate elements of a Catholic marriage—whether it be husband and wife, or soul and body—is the “transcendent tertium quid” known as Agape (p. 8). Burton characterizes the ideal Catholic marriage, then, as a “symphony of opposites, a realization . . . of that cosmic love-principle . . . ‘that moves the sun and other stars’ ” (ibid.). There are also “forces and tensions” in Poèmes pour Mi that seek to disrupt this unity of opposites (ibid...