In 1967 Olivier Messiaen, the composer of the celebrated
Turangalîla symphonie, agreed to collaborate on a book
of conversations. These conversations, with the journalist and music
critic, Claude Samuel, were revised and augmented in 1986 and enriched
by new chapters, a discography and bibliography. This is a richly detailed,
thought-provoking book, full of insight about the very nature of music;
it is an absorbing read, endlessly fascinating. Messiaen is revealed
as a deeply committed Catholic, a brilliant teacher (his students included
Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis), a meticulous
artist with an informed scientific analytical mind, and a humble humanitarian
with a love of the earth, its landscapes and its animals, especially
The early chapters look deeply into colours and music,
and into rhythm and accent, into harmonies and orchestration, and in
later chapters, the satisfaction of teaching and about his compositions
particularly his grand operatic fresco Saint Francis of Assisi.
Especially fascinating and enchanting are his conversations about his
love for birds. He relates how he has studied so many species in Europe
and America and the Far East, their songs and lives and habitats.
I will just mention two things at random that impressed
me. In talking about Des canyons aux étoiles he describes
how when he was commissioned by an American art devotee, Miss Alice
Tully - "you know how insufferable I am, so as always I refused."
In an attempt to persuade him, Miss Tully invited him to a lavish dinner.
She related to her assembled guests how she had been gone to India to
simply shake the paw of a lion (and when she did so, her host, a maharajah
and his whole court ran away). This Androcles-like story so impressed
Messiaen that he agreed to take on the commission. This necessitated
him going to America which he detested – that is urban America. But,
without equivocation, he travelled into the wilderness of Utah, to Bryce
Canyon where he was influenced by the colours and extraordinary formations
of the rocks plus the birdsong and the starry night sky to compose Des
canyons aux étoiles (From Canyons to the Stars).
He opined that Bryce Canyon was "truly the most beautiful thing
in the United States" and spent some weeks there.
And just one or two of the many intriguing questions
that Samuel poses:-
C.S. "Why do you compose? What does the
act of creating mean to you?"
O.M. "I have often been asked that question,
and I find it rather useless; it seems to me, really that a composer
writes music because he has to…"
C.S.. Does interplanetary travel interest you?
O.M. Yes, it’s phenomenal, but I believe I’ll
accomplish it after my death, when distance and matter no longer hold
sway over me.
An absolutely fascinating thought-provoking book, covering
many diverse subjects. Not an easy read in parts – it is quite technical
in its musical language. A book that satisfies and one that you can
dip into and return to time and again.