The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough toward the beyond

The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough toward the beyond

The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough toward the beyond

The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough toward the beyond


On the basis of a careful analysis of Olivier Messiaen's work, this book argues for a renewal of our thinking about religious music. Addressing his notion of a "hyper-religious" music of sounds and colors, it aims to show that Messiaen has broken new ground. His reinvention of religious music makes us again aware of the fact that religious music, if taken in its proper radical sense, belongs to the foremost of musical adventures.

The work of Olivier Messiaen is well known for its inclusion of religious themes and gestures. These alone, however, do not seem enough to account for the religious status of the work. Arguing for a "breakthrough toward the beyond" on the basis of the synaesthetic experience of music, Messiaen invites a confrontation with contemporary theologians and post-secular thinkers. How to account for a religious breakthrough that is produced by a work of art?

Starting from an analysis of his 1960s oratorio La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ, this book 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.


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 by the adversaries of this revolution, has come increasingly under pressure. a development comes into view, not only in the visual arts but also and especially in music, that actualizes the question of the religious meaning of music or of listening to music. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the work of a number of composers with an explicit religious thematics has reached the West, and it seems that, within the canon of Western European and North American traditions, there is less diffidence in publicly touching upon religious and spiritual themes. Such developments once again make clear that involving religious perspectives in the practice of creating and (to a lesser extent) performing music has never fully disappeared; that even those moments in the history of twentieth-century music that were, ostentatiously, among the most antireligious or areligious were accompanied by a certain religious-spiritual discourse all the same.

Academic thought on the relation between music and religion, however, appears to be seriously anemic. Musicology—whether historical, formalist, or “new”—seems to have lost the sense for studying music as a phenomenon with a certain penchant for religion. the social process of secularization and the diminished significance of religious practice and theology entailed by this have created circumstances in which publicly testifying to the possibility of a musica sacra has become increasingly less acceptable. Musicography (both inside and outside academia) has followed this dual trend, discarding religious music as the subject for critical and systematic study. As a phenomenon with a relation (frequently either underestimated or overestimated) to the religious, music forms no subject for debate, unless it be either in circles of all too credulous music lovers who, wholly in the spirit of the Enlightenment, are guided by their own individual opinions, or with those who . . .

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