Messiaen At 100: A Song For The Solar System

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Wednesday's Pick

  • Song: "The Resurrected and the Song of the Star Aldebaran" (excerpt from "From the Canyons to the Stars...")
  • Artist/Composer: Olivier Messiaen
  • CD: From the Canyons to the Stars...
  • Genre: Classical

Essential Messiaen

  • Turangalîla-Symphonie: Kent Nagano/Berlin Philharmonic (Teldec 82043)
  • Quartet for the End of Time: Tashi (RCA 7835)
  • Apparition de l'Église Éternelle: Olivier Latry (Deutsche Grammophon 310102)
  • Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Teldec 26868)
  • Petites liturgies de la Présence Divine: Kent Nagano/French National Orchestra (Erato 12702)
Olivier Messiaen 300

On the composer's 100th birthday, hear his tribute to divine grandeur and "immense solitude." Olivier Messiaen; credit: AFP/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Olivier Messiaen; credit: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Olivier Messiaen's birth shouldn't be just another academic exercise in praise of a dead composer. The music of the mystical Frenchman, who died in 1992, reaches far beyond that.

In From the Canyons to the Stars Messiaen reaches out to the universe, sending brass, percussion and strings soaring from the depths of Utah's great rouge-colored chasms up to the heavens. The piece is essentially a 95-minute piano concerto inspired by Messiaen's visit to Bryce Canyon and Zion Park in 1972. Within its 12 movements, the composer reveals every facet of the sound world that makes him unique.

Massive columns of orchestral sound, carved in brass, stand tall amid swirls of color, jazzy riffs, and the skittish chirping of Messiaen's beloved birdcalls. He conjures both the spectacular grandeur of God's creation — he was a devout Catholic — and what he described as "immense solitude."

The eighth movement, "The Resurrected and the Song of the Star Aldebaran," strikes a meditative mood, with strings chanting a gently shifting melody while stars twinkle and birds twitter in the glockenspiel, piccolo and piano. Messiaen adds slithery harmonics to end phrases, as if a silken thread of light carries the song that connects the earthborn boulders and birds to a celestial afterworld.

On a more terrestrial level, Messiaen reaches beyond classical confines. Bjork is a fan, while Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood talks of his Messiaen epiphany at age 15, when he first heard the Turangalîla-Symphonie. Greenwood even applies the composer's signature instrument, the mechanical-electrical Ondes Martenot, in Radiohead songs such as "How to Disappear Completely." His Grammy-nominated score to the film There Will Be Blood contains more than a few nods to the French master.

Messiaen was something of a musical misfit. His ideas about melody, harmony and rhythm seemed to fall to earth out of nowhere, fitting into no particular school of thought. And yet he changed the way people thought about music as it exists in the infinity that was, for him, his God and the universe.

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Olivier Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles

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Olivier Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Deutsche Grammophon

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