Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), born in Avignon, France, was one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Messiaen's music has an undeniable individuality, his harmonies and compositional choices a kaleidoscope of color and textures: surely a result of his synesthesia, his devout Catholic faith and belief that music was a glorification of his beliefs, and his love of ornithology. Messiaen was known to integrate meticulously transcribed bird songs into his music. Messiaen's music often has a visceral impact on his listener, conjuring up emotional reactions to these fascinating elements mixing together.
During the second world war, Messiaen was held as a prisoner of war. While he was held captive, Messiaen composed a piece for instruments that were available to him: a cello, piano, violin, and clarinet, the "Quartet for the End of Time." We will be performing the last movement from this work, "VIII Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus," which is written for violin and piano.
This movement is almost unbearably slow, with a tender but unyielding heartbeat in the piano, a constant climb which nudges along the violin melody - a soulful searching, ascending to the highest peaks imaginable.
Messiaen had personal connections to Utah, and so performing this pinnacle work here in Eden becomes ever more poignant. Messiaen saw a picture of Bryce Canyon once in a book and was inspired him to visit this national phenomenon. In 1972, Olivier Messiaen walked the exquisite and formidable landscapes of Utah and Arizona – Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks, and Zion Park. While in Bryce Canyon, transcribing bird calls, he was so taken by the landscape that he wrote "Des Canyons aux Étoiles" (From the Canyons to the Stars), a ninety minute work of incredible imagination, written for solo piano, solo horn, solo xylorimba, solo glockenspiel, and orchestra.
Messiaen's words: “From the Canyons to the Stars - that is to say, ascending from the canyons to the stars – and higher, to the resurrected in Paradise – in order to glorify God and all His creations. The beauties of the earth (its rocks and birdsong), and the beauties of the physical sky and the spiritual sky. Consequently, it is above all a religious work, a work of praise and contemplation. It is also a geological and astronomical work. The sound-colors include all the hues of the rainbow and revolve around the blue of the Stellar’s Jay and the red of Bryce Canyon. The majority of the birds are from Utah and the Hawaiian Islands. Heaven is symbolized by Zion Park and the star Aldebaran.”
Messiaen on his synesthesia:
"It's true I see colors, it's true they're there. They're musician’s colors, not to be confused with painter's colors. They're colors that go with music."
Photographer Deborah O'Grady speaks about Messiaen, and her project creating a visual art installation to accompany a performance of Des Canyons aux Étoiles by the St. Louis Symphony.