> Olivier Messiaen - Music and Colour [IL]: Book Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Book Review

Olivier Messiaen Music and Colour

Conversations with Claude Samuel

Amadeus Press, 296 pages Hardback ISBN 0-931340-67-5

AmazonUK £22.50

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 birds.

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, its phenomenal, but I believe Ill 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.

Ian Lace

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