Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Preface

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Preface

Article excerpt

THE CONTINUING POWER of artistic traditions rooted in faith to serve as a reaffirmation of hope has been manifested in remarkable ways in contemporary music. In the last decade of the twentieth century, two great Catholic composers left us final orchestral works that express a profound eschatological vision. Olivier Messiaen's Illuminations of the Beyond was completed approximately nine months before his death in 1992, and as was customary for Messiaen both the title of the work as a whole and the titles of its eleven sections provide textual support to guide the listener's understanding of the spiritual direction of his composition. Alfred Schnittke's Symphony No. 9 was left as a barely decipherable and incomplete score when he died in 1998, and only through remarkable efforts was the symphony eventually brought to life as what his widow, Irina Schnittke, considered his "musical testament," and as a work that he wrote as though "for his departure," in her words. The work was first performed in 2007 in Dresden. (1)

Messiaen in his last published interview in January 1992 described his approach to the composition of Illuminations of the Beyond: "I imagined myself in front of a curtain, in darkness, apprehensive about what lay beyond: Resurrection, Eternity, the other life." (2) The working title as early as 1988 for the work had been "Paradise," indicating Messiaen's intention to provide a musical heavenly vision (362). But the title also indicates modesty in the claim for the possibility and scope of such a vision: the term "Eclairs" in the French title of the work indicates a way of seeing through "flashes" or, as in the standard English translation of the title, "illuminations" (363), as though glimpsing aspects of what is essentially mysterious. Messiaen appended quotations from the biblical book of Revelation to six of the eleven sections of the work to provide textual support for the flashes of illumination evoked by the music, including "Vision of Christ in Glory" (section I), "The Chosen Marked with the Seal" (section IV), and "Christ, Light of Paradise" (section XI). Messiaen also incorporated his lifelong study of the musical and mystical dimensions of birdsong in the work, drawing especially upon ornithological work conducted during a six-week tour of Australia in 1988 (365). Section III is titled "The Lyrebird and the Bride-City," and is based on Messiaen's encounter with the lyrebird in Sherbrook Forest near Melbourne and in Tidbinbilla, near Canberra. Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone supply this interpretation of the encounter in Sherbrook Forest: "In the shadow of the stands of eucalyptus, which seemed like some giant outdoor cathedral, the lyrebird's ritual suggested to Messiaen the Heavenly City preparing itself as the bride of Christ" (369). (3)

This great work brings to a kind of culmination the musical language and resources cultivated by Messiaen throughout his life in the service of his intense and deeply contemplative faith. Admittedly, the work in its most difficult sections makes great demands upon the listener. For instance, section II titled "The Constellation of Sagittarius" features a repeated sequence of four short complex sets of stanzas, including two with multiple superimposed layers, intended to describe, according to Messiaen, the "stars and nebulae" in this constellation located "in the centre of our Galaxy." Section IV, "The Chosen Marked with the Seal," involves multiple strings simultaneously playing three layers of rhythmically and harmonically complex music along with bells, gongs, and cymbals evoking, according to Messiaen's notes, a scene from chapter 7 of Revelation.

But the work especially in its key moments exerts a direct expressive power. Section V, "Dwelling in Love," presents sixteen muted violins with harmonies provided by the other strings playing an extended gentle melody gradually rising to a very high pitch; the sense of abiding divine love drawing one toward the source of that love is palpable. …

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