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Olivier Messiaen: The Crystal Liturgy / La Liturgie de Cristal

img  Tobias Fischer

During his lifetime, not everyone thought of Olivier Messiaen as a genius. At the premiere of his monumental opera „St Francis de Asisi“, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for one, was deeply unnerved by his ostensible distance, his bizarre concepts, his incomprehensible directions and what seemed to Fischer-Dieskau the cosmic kitsch of his music. After the performance, he consciously let off steam towards the composer and his inseperable wife Yvonne Loriod.   „And I hope he heard it“, the legendary German Baritone sneered at Messiaen in a conversation with an editor for German daily FAZ. He certainly wasn't the only one who thought Messiaen a rather odd duck. Even some of his own pupils, including Pierre Boulez, at one point or another turned against him. And even today, with the „Turangalîla“ symphony a standard at concert halls and despite entire concert series built around his ouevre, interest in his work has remained restricted to a dedicated elite. Love him or hate him, there's nothing in between: Director Olivier Mille, for one, considers him nothing less than one of the two greatest composers of the 21st century.

Quite clearly, then, „La Liturgie de Cristal“ does not profess to be an objective portrait. It is quite clearly the work of a fan. Mille has sifted through hours and hours of archival material, loosing himself in the vision of a man who, as a Frenchman through and through, came to find some of his deepest inspiration in the rocky outbacks of the USA. On the other hand, it is by no means an uncritically reverential hommage either. It does show Messiaen's humour, whit and profoundness. But it also depicts his eccentricity, wilfulness and purposefully stylised public persona. Over the course of roughly 80 minutes, one can see the artist whistling and jesting, noting down bird talk in the forrest and discussing concepts with his students, giving an interview to a teenager as a young man and to a professional journalist shortly before his death, playing the organ at the church of La Trinité in Paris and listening to Loriod demonstrating his techniques at the Piano.

The single-most important Leitmotif of his life, as seen through the lense of Mille, is his obsession with birds and they way their sounds would come to directly influence his composing. Even though he doesn't actually say so explicitily, it is the richness of their vocabulary which attracted him to their chant, the simultaneous otherwordliness and familiarity. Messiaen was intrigued by how the multitude of different bird voices reaching the human ear would sound entirely natural despite, rationally, constituting a random and cacophonic conglomerat of unrelated noises. This idea of every single voice speaking for itself but somehow, mysteriously contributing to a unified, cosmically resonant sound spectrum, would come to guide him to write a plethora of pieces which sounded equally playful and progressive, wilful and wondrous, seamless and torn-apart.

It is interesting to note that, at the same time, „La Liturgie de Cristal“ remains remarkably vague about all the other big subjects of Messiaen's life. There is hardly any mention of the roots for his religious fervour. His concept of colours is revealed to be definitely non-synaesthetical, but otherwhise remains conspicuously obscure. His seminal experiments in the field of serialism were probably deemed too scientific and specific for the film, thereby leaving out a monumental part of his contribution to music theory. What kind of a man was he in private? Which factors shaped his development as an artist? What were his own influences? In which way was he a part and catalyst of the musical community of his time? Which events made him decide to go out to the USA and write Turangalîla and what did that work mean to himself? It's anybody's guess.

Mille is certainly only partly to blame. Mainly a posthumous presentation, he was forced to confine himself to the extensive archival film material left after Messiaen's passing away. In a way, this has consequently created a bias towards the issues which Messiaen himself thought most rewarding – a field which not always coincided with the interests of his listeners. Interviews with some of his friends, including Loriod relating how she fell in love with him, only barely reveal more than the superficial. But somehow, they manage to convey a coherent biography nonetheless.

Perhaps the reason for why so much remains shrouded in darkness is that there was, in fact, no rupture between the private person and the public persona with Messiaen. And rightly because he apparently kept some of his deepest and most intimate thoughts hidden even to his dearest friends and relatives, they have retained their allure until the present day. There are myriads of webpages paying tribute to him, libraries full of books and twitter accounts exclusively dedicated to collecting and redistributing information about him and his work from around the world. Whatever people thought of him during his lifetime, Messiaen's status is bound to keep growing for years to come.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ideale Audience

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