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

By Benitez, Vincent | Notes, June 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Benitez, Vincent, Notes


The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough Toward the Beyond. By Sander van Maas. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009. [224 p. ISBN 9780823230570. $55.] Notes, bibliography.

In The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen's Breakthrough Toward the Beyond, Sander van Maas considers the musical, philosophical, and religious qualities of Messiaen's music in order to ascertain music's potential capability of facilitating, in the composer's words, a "breakthrough toward the beyond." For van Maas, it is a matter of asking the question, "Is what is musically overwhelming also true?" (p. 2). He argues that scholarly work on the relationship between music and religion has been weak. Due to the increasing secularization of society, scholars have tended to regard musica sacra as a less than acceptable topic about which to write. Yet, for van Maas, this perspective is outdated due to the recent return of religion to the intellectual public sphere, prompting him to argue that now is the time to go beyond technical approaches to music in order to explore the radical possibility of music's capability of producing a foretaste of heaven on earth. Thus, van Maas proposes a daunting thesis in The Reinvention of Religious Music, one that requires a scholar who can negotiate the subtleties of the musicological, philosophical, and theological aspects of Messiaen's music with equal adeptness. Despite the inherent limits of its thesis as well as a few shortcomings associated with its musicological discussions, the book is a successful interdisciplinary study of religious music in contemporary society.

After laying out the book's scope and organization in the introduction, van Maas explores Messiaen's writings (especially the Conférence de Notre-Dame of 1977) in chapter 1 ("It Is a Glistening Music We Seek") in order to determine the goals and objectives that the composer had in mind when writing his music. In the second part of the chapter, van Maas considers Messiaen's ideas regarding the relation between music and religion, closing with an exposition of his "privileged figures" that connect the musical with the religious (pp. 28-36): a lack of truth (défaut de Vérité ) in music, the analogy of the marvelous (le merveilleux), and the experience of dazzlement (éblouisse ment) by an excess of truth (excès de Vérité ), which leads to that "breakthrough toward the beyond." The first figure, music's lack of truth, suggests that through a negative relation with the divine, music refers beyond itself to something more elemental and real. The second figure, the marvelous, is more positive in determination. It suggests those analogies with the divine that a believer may encounter while in the world. The third figure is the sensation of dazzlement that overwhelms a believer's sensory perceptions and thought, analogous to what one experiences while observing stained-glass windows (such as those at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris) where biblical images are rendered incidental. Through his colored-hearing synesthesia, Messiaen translates the transformative experience of dazzlement into music, which gives believers an inkling of the perpetual dazzlement they will experience when they know Christ as resurrected beings.

Chapter 2 ("Five Times Breakthrough") embarks on analyses of five passages from Messiaen's oratorio La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965-69) that the composer identified as examples of breakthrough in the Conférence de Kyoto of 1985. For this reviewer, this is the weakest chapter in the book. Because of the lack of music examples and illustrative figures in the chapter (and for that matter, throughout the book), van Maas's analytical discussions are at times laborious to read, lacking the clarifying detail that music examples and figures could help supply. He relies too heavily, moreover, on Messiaen for his examples of dazzlement and breakthrough. As a result, these discussions are somewhat disappointing, conveying the impression of an uncritical approach to Messiaen's attempts to put dazzlement into practice. …

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