The French government knows how to recognize the creative genius of one of that country's artists.
Between Nov. 19 and Dec. 21 in 14 theaters, concert halls and churches in Paris, ranging from the Opera and the Cathedral of Notre Dame to the Theatre des Champs Elysees and the Salle Wagram, a series of 22 concerts will present every note of music written by Olivier Messiaen.
There will also be a program of new music in his honor by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, and others who have studied with Messiaen.
The outpouring, which is unprecedented in scale for any composer during his lifetime, honors Messiaen as he nears his 70th birthday on Dec. 10. These tributes are by no means confined either to Paris or, indeed, to France.
Musical organizations in over 20 French cities from Bordeaux to Nice are presenting similar programs, while in this country, orchestras in Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, New York and Washington, as well as Montreal and several college campuses, have been hosts to Messiaen. The last of these, before the composer returns to France for the beginning of his official recognition there, will be in the Kennedy Center this week on Tuesday through Friday.
Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony are giving over the first half of this week's concerts to two works of Messiaen: "The Ascension" and "Exotic Birds." The first of these was the composer's first large success, a suite of four movements he began composing shortly after he was appointed organist of the Church of the Trinity in Paris in 1931. Within four years, Messiaen had rewritten it for orchestra, making one significant change.
Of the original four movements, the third, a scherzo called "Allebuia on the Trumpet. Alleluia on the Cymbal," was so intimately wedded to the keyboard idiom that, unlike the other three movements, it resisted any attempt toward orchestration. Retaining the Biblical verse that inspired it, "The Lord is gone up with the sound of a trumpet, O clap your hands all ye people, shout unto God with the voice of triumph," Messiaen produced an orchestral sherzo of equal brilliance, but one that takes advantage of the trumpets and percussion section of the orchestra in some dazzling dance figures.
In another inspired stroke, the composer wrote the final movement, called "Prayer of Christ Ascending to the Father," entirely for strings. It is one of the most glorious episodes for full string ensemble in all music, rising slowly to a luminous nimbus of sound that gradually disappears into silence. Long a favorite with organists, it is not suprising that "The Ascension" should have appealed to Leopold Stokowski, himself an organist, who recorded it twice during his long career.
In "Exotic Birds," Messiaen turne to another of his principal sources of inspiration, bird songs. This work, written in 1955, is scored for piano solo and wind instruments. The soloist this week will be Yvonne Loriod, who has been her husband's chief pianistic exponent in many orchestral works in which he has given the piano special prominence.
To talk with Messiaen about his music or to read his lucent exposition of various works is to glimpse the working processes of one of the greatest musicians of the world today. He has spoken of birds as "the greatest of all nature's musicians." Noting their miraculous gifts of vision - lateral and peripheral - and their infinitely varied colors. Messiaen has become so intimately acquainted with the songs of birds in every part of the globe that can speak with authority of "two Japanese birds: the kibitaki and the uguisu (the Narcissus Flycatcher and the Bush-Warbler.)" Or he names "the two best songsters among French birds: the Song Thrush and the Skylark." More than knowing their songs, however, is the incredible intricacy with which he has woven them into some of his most complex scores.
The songs of birds stand, in Messiaen's mind's eye, next to the whole spectrum of colors when he speaks of music:
"When I listen to music, and even when I read it, I have an inward vision of marvelous colors - colors which blend like combinations of notes, and which shift and revolve with the sounds. For example, a certain series of chords may be red touched with blue; another will be milky white, decorated with orange and edged with gold; another will be green, orange and violet in parallel stripes; another will be pale gray, with reflections of green and violet . . ."
A line or two later, Messiaen adds what many others have discovered: "By means of a drug - peyotl - extracted from a small Mexican cactus, it is possible to transform aural sensations into colored visual sensations."
Central to Messiaen throughout his lifetime as in his music, however, is his conviction of the need for "the emotion and sincerity of musical work which shall be at the service of the dogmas of Catholic theology." Thus from the days of his first organ composition, entitled "The Celestial Banquet," over a period of nearly 50 years Messiaen has written "The Nativity," "Visions of Amen," "Three Little Liturgies of the Divine Presence," "Twenty Aspects of the Infant Jesus," "Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum," "The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ" and "The Mystery of the Holy Trinity."
In these other works there is much that revolves around and explores the composer's mystical philosophy, and ultimately emerges in his music as an expression of realms of thought no other composer has ever attempted to set out so explicitly in musical terms.
Few if any of Messiaen's pupils follow him into all, or even some of these worlds. Boulez has pronounced the pre-occupation with bird songs a troublesome excursion he would prefer omitted. And if the long view of theological and philosophical argument that has over the centuries surrounded "the mystery of the Holy Trinity," produced libraries of profound thought to say nothing of several heresies, it is difficult for many to travel with Messiaen as he dissects some of the most abstract aspects of the mystery and then proceeds to write music purporting to illuminate the matter.
One of the joys of music is that we are all free to listen to the composer's notes without worrying about, or perhaps even knowing, what lay behind their gestation. One hundred listeners to the Bernstein "Mass" are likely to give you 100 interpretations as to its true "meaning."
The genius of Messiaen is that in his greatness - as teacher, as organist, as composer - he has produced music acclaimed for its originality, music instantly recognizable as his and his alone, music many pages of which contain singular beauties not to be heard in any other. It is not only appropriate but happily inevitable that the world should join his native France in greeting this modest man of spiritual power.