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Messiaen’s Final Works
by Christopher Dingle
Ashgate Publishing Limited
ISBN: 9780754606338
369 pages
£65.00 Hardcover

This is a terrific book. My Messiaen credentials don’t go much further than being a huge life-long fan, but reading some passages here do take me back to my last year as a student at the Royal Academy of Music. This was March 1987 (see gallery), and among other things I had the privilege of playing the piccolo solo in Les ressucités et le chant de l'étoile Aldebaran, the gorgeous eighth movement of Canyons aux Etoiles – with Yvonne Loriod on piano and conducted by John Carewe. That was an unforgettable festival. Messiaen was not particularly well and arrived a day or so later than planned, but it was perfectly timed for me. Most of the top flight flute players were off earning money by then, and while as a principal study composer I’d been ignored as a flautist for most of my time at the RAM I had recently nearly won quite a significant woodwind prize and people suddenly realised I could be used as a substitute, so I was enthusiastically put in to ‘dep’ in numerous performances. The only reason I go into this is that, having seen and heard the Great Man talk and describe the birds depicted in his music as we rehearsed, we were all allowed just the briefest but the most indelible of glimpses into his inner world. I remember one of the staff doing their best to translate what he was saying, but it was unnecessary – you could sense we all understood and absorbed what he was explaining, and the clumsy English versions which followed merely led to fidgeting and unrest – time is short, let the man speak...!
Little did we know, however, of the artistic struggles and discoveries which were occupying Messiaen in those final years. Christopher Dingle’s book covers the period from Messiaen’s completion of his great opera Saint François d’Asisse in 1983 to his final work, incomplete at the time of his death, the Concert à quatre. It doesn’t aim to cover biographical details in great depth, but does provide more than sufficient information to put works into context and give reasons for their genesis, or to posit causes and describe sources for some of their content.
To paraphrase the pub sign, you don’t have to be a musician to read this book, but it helps. With plenty of musical examples and analytical comment, you will have to decide for yourself if you will ever be able to make head or tail of sentences such as, “The fifth phrase (rehearsal figure 24 – see Example 7.3) begins with strong elements of F# major – the harmony that had bridged D? major and B? major in the introductory chorale summons – before returning to the chorale in the opening B? major based Transposed Inversion chord, via its tritone counterpart, E major.” It’s not really fair to drop in a sentence like that out of context and Dingle is in no way trying to bamboozle us with acres of scholarly jargon, but hopefully you get my drift about having some kind of musical ‘in’ when examining and fully appreciating these kinds of analysis. What the author indeed does is provide as much context as possible, and even the more technical of his observations become enlightening as a result.
What I really like about this book is that, from the outset, it makes us think. Dingle begins: “Endings tend to suggest finality; Messiaen’s endings especially so.” This is however as much a question as statement. We ascribe prescience of passing to late or final works in other composers, but in the cases of Mozart or Beethoven their plans clearly went beyond their last days. Messiaen became convinced that Saint François d’Asisse would be his final work, but what indeed had he died at the age of Mozart or Beethoven? Our perspectives on the phases of composer’s lives and the content of their late works can be artificially imposed, but in Messiaen’s case there is clear documentation of his state of mind in 1983, and Christopher Dingle takes us into his final creative phase with the unique aspects of his last works as one of the premises on which this book is based.
While reading this book my ideas about writing a review for it often fell little short of typing it out again in full – it’s that good. To put it in an entirely inadequate nutshell, we are shown many ways in which Messiaen’s language and the musical colours and themes he tackled have both relationships and differences with his earlier phases. Subtleties of orchestration and instrumentation are dealt with, and since sonority was so important to Messiaen these aspects can be equally as important as the notes themselves. There is an apparently paradoxical nature in Messiaen’s late works. They are frequently restrained, intimate and pared-down, and an encapsulation of the essence of his style and technique, yet there are also features which show new complexities. Allowing himself greater freedom, analysts have to deal with a composer prepared to allow his intuitive sense to govern at a higher level than before. Messiaen’s music is moored securely to his substantial theoretical writings, but it would appear he loosened his ties to fixed points somewhat after the completion of Saint François d’Asisse.
Christopher Dingle is by no means dogmatic in his approach to his subject, and this for me is another very strong aspect of this book. As with any art, the interpretation of great music has to be subjective at certain levels, and even in points of detail. Where there is doubt this is admitted to, and Dingle speaks of “an attempt to” rather than “this is” when for instance dealing with the vast subject of a work such as Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà… These are however all highly detailed and thoroughly essential ‘attempts’ for anyone seeking to know more about Messiaen and the works of his senior years.
As well as filling out our knowledge and appreciation of what went into Messiaen’s late works, this book is also a magnificent resource. Dingle’s texts are a testament to his widely read and thorough expertise, and including interview comments from artists such as the pianist Peter Hill who worked closely with Messiaen and knew him well. There are appendices listing the instrumentation of all of these pieces, complete listings of the birds to be found incorporated into each score and where they can be found (though not to the bar number) and translations of their names into English. There are also fascinating transcriptions of texts from Messiaen’s Cahiers, jotted while he was in Australia, as well as a magnificent discography, though it’s always a nice little plus to find you own something not on the list, in this case my copy of an obscure and unavailable but rather good recording from 1992 of Livre du Saint Sacrement played by Piet van der Steen as part of the Dutch VPRO broadcaster’s La jeune France series.
Do I have any criticisms? Not really. Even with the surfeit of tables and musical quotes the layout is very good, and only getting through pages 90-91 is a little like threading the eye of a needle. Keener eyes than mine may yet spot an error or two but I can’t say I found any. Christopher Dingle’s writing style is neither overcomplicated nor condescending, and his arguments are sensible and founded on evidence. Turn to almost any page at random and you will be given a significant, useful and inspiring education on this subject. Dingle has an excellent published track record in expertise on Messiaen, having already written a biography The Life of Messiaen (Cambridge University Press), as well as further publications from Ashgate including as co-editor of Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art and Literature.
You can listen to and appreciate great music for what it is and leave it at that. You may even feel that picking apart a composer’s language and examining their intentions too closely may even act as a barrier to your sense of wonder at their creations. I have never found this to be the case though, and when offered the opportunity to learn more I always come away feeling that an added layer of understanding about a composer or a specific work provides more depth to my feelings about them. In the same way that the colour of a fundamental tone informs the upper harmonics of a note, so a good text on any phase of a composer’s life can inform the entirety of his creative output, and in a similar way it can free up the woolly and vague ideas and preconceptions we may have about certain pieces of music. Christopher Dingle’s Messiaen’s Final Works does exactly this. You may for instance have once heard that Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà… was a kind of retrospective: Messiaen re-living or reviving old stuff in order to bring out something substantial in his dotage. With Christopher Dingle’s book you realise how far this is from the truth, and your interest and appreciation will be opened out to new horizons, bringing us indeed closer to those Illuminations of the Beyond…
Dominy Clements