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From the Mailbag: Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen Wikimedia Commons

From Ross Barentyne-Truluck:

As a long-time listener (and one-time supporter, which my retirement and fixed income no longer permits), I always look forward to the Advent and Christmas broadcasts of Pipedreams. But this year, I had to endure the soporific "La Nativité du Seigneur" by one of the most vastly overrated composers ever to live, Messiaen. Even the final movement, "Dieu parmi nous" is basically joyless. What a dispiriting way to begin the Holliday season. Off to find some Happy Christmas music to cleanse my ears.

From Michael:

Dear Ross,

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and obviously yours and mine seem to be in conflict regarding Messiaen. :) I found it interesting that I read your communication soon after having returned from an exceptional performance by Raymond Johnston, resident organist at St. Mark's Cathedral, Minneapolis, of the very piece of which you complain. The church was nearly full, and the audience, which sat in rapt attention throughout, gave Ray an immediate standing ovation at the conclusion of the 'joyless' finale.

I think perhaps that you deprive yourself of joyful experiences by limiting your definition of joy. While I will admit that some of Messiaen's later compositions do make extraordinary demands on listeners (and players), he 'got it right' with "La Nativité" in exploring and illuminating aspects of the Christmas story which go beyond the tinsel, bright lights, and cookies that tend to overwhelm the festival.

Yes, the Nativity of the Lord was/is a time of great joy, but it is only part of the story. The incarnate presence of this infant was not only to provide a moment for merriment, but it fulfills prophecy and looks forward to the inevitable events of Holy Week (the movement "Jesus accepts suffering"). Messiaen's charming tone paintings of "Virgin and Child," "The Shepherds," "The Angels," and "The Magi" embrace a 'sweet joy', and remind us of some of the mystical, awesome emotion which is inextricable from the Christmas tableau.

We who delighted yesterday in the opportunity to hear this score complete, in live performance, understood that the Joy of Christmas is celebrated, and understood, through many emotions. And, when in the final movement, we contemplated "God Among Us," we were thrilled, and truly overjoyed.

I'm sorry you have missed the boat. Perhaps this week's program will be more easily appreciated.


Thanks for your well written – and rapid – response to my opinion. I recently retired from a seven-decade career as a performing classical musician (sang my first solo in public when I was four) and I know my opinion of Messiaen is not shared among quite a few of my colleagues. Doesn't change how I feel. I have spent a great deal of time trying to understand what so many people, you obviously included, see and more importantly hear in Messiaen, without success.

I appreciate your point of view about Messiaen's story of the nativity encompassing much more than the actual birth, but to take this reasoning to its extreme, every time a baby is born, should the focus be on all the potential misfortunes the new human may have to endure in a lifetime, or on the joy of the moment? I could care less about "tinsel, bright lights, and cookies" and all the other over-commercializations of Christmas, but still feel that the celebration of Christmas should be focused on the joyful birth, not the entire life of Christ. The piece is, after all entitled "The Nativity of The Lord" (or however one translates Seigneur), not a study of His entire life. Save the rumination on Holy Week for ... Holy Week.

The comment about a performance that received a standing ovation also does nothing to alter my opinion. Concerts of all sorts happen all the time and receive standing ovations, which means nothing. As one of my friends likes to say, "there's no accounting for people's taste, or lack thereof". The only standing ovations that ever meant anything to me during my performing career were the ones that I received. Also, was the standing ovation for the performance or the work itself? Perhaps they were applauding the long-suffering patience and fortitude of Mr Johnson in having to spend so much time with the work? (I'm kidding - sort of.) And, if I have missed any boat, if it were filled with Messiaen supporters, I am beyond happy to have missed it and all others like it.

On a more positive (read "joyous") note I've been a mostly very happy listener to Pipedreams since the late eighties, when I used to listen to the program on WNYC on Sunday nights in New York City. Then when we moved to Florida, I had to listen online as no local station broadcast Pipedreams. Same thing out here in Washington, but thanks to I can now listen on my iPhone or iPad. Although I studied organ for a couple years, never called myself an organist, although I did master and play many times at weddings, the famous (infamous?) Widor Toccata. (Even for a pianist/non organist, the pedal part doesn't present that big a problem.) But I've always enjoyed listening to performances of organ music, both live and broadcast.

So, can we agree to disagree about Messiaen? I do applaud you for all the effort you have expended in bringing organ music to people and also for your hosting of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge. Although I attended evensong there a couple times, never had the opportunity to attend the festival, but have managed, one way or another, to listen to it almost every year for decades. And, as for Pipedreams, one joyless broadcast will not prevent me from continuing to listen


Best wishes for a happy (and joy-filled) Holiday Season!

Ross Barentyne-Truluck


Thanks for the well-reasoned retort and, yes, we can agree to disagree. As you aptly remind, "there's no accounting for people's taste, or lack thereof," on either side of our equation. :)

I'll only add that the same sensibility that has gone into crafting the other past PIPEDREAMS programs that you seem to have enjoyed all these years (bravo to you for your perseverance and loyalty!) also chose to inflict Messiaen on you last week. :) And, as I hope you will discover, THIS week's program has plenty of joyful music.

Into the New Year, with patience...



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