Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

Model offered to Pope Leo XIII in 1888 of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll's projected organ for St Peter's Basilica

Model offered to Pope Leo XIII in 1888 of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s projected organ for St Peter’s Basilica

OK, so the performing style of the Sistine Chapel Choir might not have been to everyone’s liking (judging by the Facebook comments I saw, some people had the impression they were hearing the Bayreuth chorus singing Parsifal). And whenever I hear the music for large-scale liturgical celebrations at the Vatican, I cannot help regretting that the plans of the great 19th-century French organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll to construct an instrument truly worthy of St Peter’s Basilica never came to fruition. But these musician’s pet peeves aside, there can be little doubt that with yesterday’s inauguration of Pope Francis we were witnessing history in the making.

As has been pointed out by many commentators, Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of Papal name could not be more resonant. ‘Francis’ carries a unique spiritual cachet that commands immediate attention both inside and outside Roman Catholicism, to such an extent that the choice of the Italian saint’s name by any Cardinal designated for the Petrine office has widely been regarded as off-limits. When my own personal hero Olivier Messiaen decided to write his opera St François d’Assise (a project to which he devoted eight years of his life and a scarcely believable quantity of ink), he did so after first having wanted to write a piece on the life of Christ. Judging that his conscience would not allow him to put God the Son on stage, he opted for Francis out of the belief that he was the figure in Christian history who most clearly mirrored Jesus’s life. That is an opinion which is surely widely shared – for many, the word ‘Francis’ is a synonym for a call to Gospel poverty. For efforts towards reconciliation and peace with Islam. For a responsible theology of Creation and care for the environment. For a call to rebuild the Church.[1]

Only time will tell whether Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Papacy will live up to the huge expectations created by his momentous choice, but for the moment it is remarkable to see how expressions of support for his election have been coming from some surprising quarters. A recent article in Christianity Today (a magazine catering for a constituency not historically known as favourable to things Roman) entitled ‘Argentine Evangelicals Say Bergoglio as Pope Francis is ‘Answer to Our Prayers’ is a case in point. This comes as especially heartening given that it is no secret that relations between the Catholic Church and Protestants (particularly non-denominational groups) have been strained in recent years in Latin America.

Grotto of Saint Francis, La Verna (photo: Geobia)

Grotto of Saint Francis, La Verna (photo: Geobia)

For musicians, Francis of Assisi is a figure with a special pedigree. I have already mentioned Messiaen, but he is far from being the only composer to have felt an affinity with Franciscan spirituality, a tradition which dates back at least as far as Franz Liszt (although my own compositional catalogue contains no overt references to the saint as yet, I was deeply impacted by my two visits to La Verna, the site of Francis’s reception of the stigmata, where I had the privilege of giving recitals at organ festivals in 1993 and 2004).

Gubaidulina Canticle coverAmong living composers Sofia Gubaidulina, on whose ‘kenotic music’ I have commented elsewhere on this blog, is perhaps the most eminent musical devotee of Il Poverello, having written a large-scale Canticle of the Sun for cello, choir, percussion and celesta dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovitch. Further back in time, another well-known French example is Francis Poulenc, composer of Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d’Assise, while Messiaen’s own interest in the saint was almost certainly influenced by that of fellow organist Charles Tournemire (1870-1939), an unjustly-neglected figure (to whom I will be returning in future posts) whose importance for the history of French twentieth-century has arguably been considerably under-estimated. Tournemire’s prolific output not only includes the massive liturgical cycle for organ (51 offices totalling 14 hours in playing time!) L’Orgue Mystique , but also eight symphonies – of which the monumental Sixth and Seventh on their own ought to be enough to secure the composer’s place in history, and several oratorios including an Il Poverello di Assisi.

Charles Tournemire, who in later life joined a lay Franciscan order, was not only a composer but a man of immense literary culture and encyclopedic interests. Interestingly,  like many French Catholic intellectuals in the early decades of the last century, he was an avid reader of the writing of the radical pamphleteer and famous pauper Léon Bloy (1846-1917) (whom Tournemire considered a prophet), who was quoted by Pope Francis during his first homily on the day after his election. The new Pontiff’s improvised words have since gone viral on the internet as a possible indication of things to come from the new occupant of the Throne of Peter:

‘We can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a compassionate NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.’[2]

Léon Bloy, 1887

Léon Bloy, 1887

For those who know anything about Bloy’s life and writings, the new Pope’s quotation of him right at the outset of his Papacy is startling. Not least because Bloy’s reading of history and world events was indelibly stamped by his commitment to the importance of the apparitions of Jesus’s Mother to two French peasant children in the Alpine countryside at La Salette in 1846. For much academic theology today which either ignores such phenomena altogether or sees them as mere superstition, it may seem incongruous that one of France’s foremost writers should have based his life’s work on an uncomprisingly mystical view of reality. This was however clearly not a contradiction for many leading French intellectuals of the early twentieth-century including the playwright Paul Claudel, novelist Georges Bernanos, scholar of Islam Louis Massignon and Bloy’s godson, philosopher Jacques Maritain, all of whom regarded La Salette as being of prime importance.

La Salette

La Salette

There are signs emerging that Pope Francis may well have something in common with Léon Bloy and his intellectual progeny in terms of an openness to Christian mysticism; details have begun to surface from official Vatican sources, reported by eminent ‘Vaticanista’ Robert Moynihan, about Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s personal faith journey which stress the importance of a mystical experience at the age of 17 for his life’s vocation. Furthermore,  Pope Francis has in the recent past not been afraid to associate himself with figures linked to the alleged Marian apparitions in Medjugorje currently under investigation by a Vatican commission headed by Cardinal Ruini. The notion that Cardinal Bergoglio may have shown hospitality to the Medjugorje visionaries (similar to that demonstrated by Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna) may be irritating to some, but it appears to have a basis in documented events during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

To know of this mystically Marian dimension of Pope Francis’s spirituality while also seeing that he has also had relations of unusual institutional warmth with Anglicans and is a personal friend of the famous Protestant evangelist Luis Palau strongly suggests that we are living at a historical juncture when boundaries previously thought impermeable may be breaking down. Which, at a moment in history when the universal Church has both been under attack from aggressive secularization and undermined by internal scandal, ought to be extremely good news. It is also a time at which the potentially explosive idea that God may well be communicating with us not only through ancient Scripture but through contemporary prophetic witness (and the insights of near-death experience reports, many linked to experience of religious conversion) seems to be making a comeback, of which Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the Papacy may well turn out to be a part.[3]

‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ ?

The views expressed on ‘Da stand das Meer’ represent the author’s private opinions, not necessarily those of any institution with which he is associated.

NOTES

[1] A good example of the appeal of Francis of Assisi across denominational lines is the acclaimed novel Chasing Francis by Anglican Ian Morgan Cron, which includes testimonials from figures as different as Rowan Williams, Tony Campolo and Richard Rohr.

[2] http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-1st-homily-full-text

[3] The sales figures for books relating near-death experiences suggest that this is something of a social phenomenon. A prime example is Proof of Heaven by former Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon Eben Alexander III, who was featured in Newsweek magazine in October 2012 and who recently appeared at an NDE conference in Marseille. The latest addition to the debate about mystical perception of the ‘supernatural’ is the challenging autobiography of the Greek Orthodox author Vassula Rydén, currently in the US on a book tour, entitled Heaven is Real but So is Hell , of which you can read my review here.


Eyeless in Paris

One of the periodic delights of living in Paris is the experience of showing visitors around this sometimes infuriating but undoubtedly stunning city. As with any great metropolis, it is all too easy to be made oblivious to Paris’s exceptional cultural richness by the daily routine of what is classically termed métro-boulot-dodo. Until, that is, you find yourself sharing the sights with those who are not so blasé about this incredible location for lovers of history and art. So it was with a properly renewed sense of wonder that we returned home after visiting two of Paris’s most astounding locations with family guests from the other side of the Eurotunnel .

The first was the renovated Musée d’Orsay, perhaps the world’s most concentrated collection of epoch-making visual art from the period 1848-1914; for anyone who knows even a little about the history of painting there is a sense of sheer overload in being in an enclosed space with so many masterpieces of figures such as Corot, Manet, Monet, Dégas, Cézanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh …, any one of which would be the pièce de résistance in a lesser museum. It is not merely that the Orsay’s canvases are supremely beautiful in purely aesthetic terms, but also that each one carries rich human associations as a chronicle of the lived historical experience of an era. As the philosopher John D. Caputo (perhaps the foremost living Anglophone interpreter of what he terms the philosophical ‘witch-doctors’ of the Parisian rive gauche) likes to remark, something is ‘getting itself said’ through this art which goes beyond the purely personal vision of the artist.

To use another philosophical parallel, there is a sense when standing in front of the paintings in the Musée d’Orsay of what Jean-Luc Marion has famously called a ‘saturated phenomenon’, something which overwhelms our cognitive capacities by its excess, its sheer weight of what might be termed ‘radiance’ or ‘splendour’, to give a rough translation of the word Herrlichkeit which was so central to the thought of Jean-Luc Marion’s theological mentor Hans Urs von Balthasar.

For me perhaps the best exemplification of this in the Orsay is Van Gogh’s unforgettable Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône, painted in Arles in 1888, which makes an impact when seen in the museum which is quite different from anything that can be conveyed by a reproduction of the picture. The sheer intensity of what one might call Van Gogh’s ‘meta-colours’ and the unbelievable thickness of the paint create the impression of what the Welsh 17th century poet Henry Vaughan famously described in his Night as a ‘deep and dazzling darkness’ which is more than simply physical and which evokes something akin to a state of mystical consciousness.

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Vincent van Gogh ‘Nuit Etoilée sur le Rhône’, 1888

Our appreciation of a sense of the numinous within Van Gogh’s Provençal night sky is obviously bolstered by our biographical knowledge of the painter’s profound spirituality (which I already discussed in relation to Makoto Fujimura’s provocative reading of his other ‘Starry Night’ picture in my post ‘Fujimura’s Refracted Light’ ). Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of the ‘saturated phenomenon’ can however also be powerfully felt in wholly ‘secular’ pictures such as Monet’s light-drenched series of views of the Japanese bridge in the garden at Giverny. Interestingly, Marion himself, in his highly thought-provoking reflections on visual art published as La Croisée du visible, interprets Monet’s form of saturation in anti-metaphysical terms, as a reduction of painting to the data of immediate consciousness, excluding  any other ‘object’, i.e. subject-matter. This is most apparent in his reading of Monet’s studies of the façade of Rouen Cathedral, in which the object is evidently not the cathedral but the play of light itself as experienced by the painter:

‘The portal of Rouen Cathedral does not appear differently lit during the course of the same day; on the contrary, even at high noon, it never stops disappearing; and less so by dazzlement (éblouissement) than by virtue of being all too perfectly recorded. To talk of dazzlement implies that one is constantly aiming at an object and therefore regrets that the excess of light prohibits a clear view, but here it is not a matter of seeing, through the excess of light, the intended object of a cathedral. It is about receiving this light itself, as perceived, in the place of and instead of any illuminated objective.'[1]

Monet-La-Cathédrale-de-Rouen-Le-Portail-et-la-tour-Saint-Romain-plein-soleil-203x300

I can certainly understand Marion’s take on Monet’s Rouen series, in which it is additionally evident (a point so obvious that Marion does not even comment on it directly, although it reinforces his general interpretive line) that the whole spiritual significance of the Cathedral and the sculptures on its facade is of no interest to the painter whatsoever. Here the contrast between Monet and the symbolist school of French 19th century art is very striking in terms of the way in which the relationship between the visible and the invisible is approached; Marion defines impressionism’s fascination with light and shade as making the invisible (i.e. the medium of vision) visible at the expense of the object itself, which is effectively collapsed into the perception of the artist who is no longer trying to see anything ‘behind’ what is perceived by immediate consciousness. In other words, Marion claims that such painting does not point to anything beyond itself – Monet therefore both epitomizes and to some extent triggers modern art’s tendency to demolish any reference to a transcendent depth other than what is immediately perceptible. To this Marion opposes the Biblical and early Christian tradition of the icon, whose essence is to turn the viewer’s attention away from itself to its invisible prototype, the paradigmatic case being Christ as the eikon of God, the suffering servant of Isaiah 52-53 who allows himself to be disfigured in order to draw us to the Father.[2]

However, returning to Monet’s Japanese bridge, it could be argued that a somewhat different interpretation is also possible. In contrast to what are to my mind the predominantly technical, if impressive, explorations of the pointillists such as Seurat and Signac, Monet’s paintings should surely not be regarded as devoid of depth. I for one (albeit bringing my own world-view and prior experience with me to the Musée d’Orsay) would be more inclined to say that regardless of Monet’s own atheism, the saturation with light emanating from his canvases can strike the spectator as a powerful form of this-worldly transcendence endowed with its own sense of mystery and depth even if there is no reference to anything beyond an ‘immanent frame’, to use Charles Taylor’s useful term when discussing the historical process of secularization in Western culture. I can agree with Marion that the ‘medium of vision’ does take precedence over subject-matter, and symbolic reference is nowhere to be found, but there is still ‘dazzlement’ – as Marion himself admits – to the extent that light itself has been elevated to transcendent status. This is not a simple case of ‘disenchantment’, not a full-blown attack on transcendence per se such as can be found, say, in Manet’s coldly lit Olympia (as I discussed in relation to Jacques Ellul’s insightful interpretation of Manet in The Empire of Non-Sense ).[3]

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Claude Monet, ‘Le Bassin aux Nymphéas’ (Princeton University Art Museum)

__________________

This concept of dazzlement/éblouissement , explored theologically in a manner very similar to that of Marion, also appears in the writings of the composer Olivier Messiaen. In a lecture given in Notre-Dame de Paris in December 1977 he uses it to convey his intuition of a link between colour and religious experience, referring to the second mythical location which we visited last weekend, the Sainte Chapelle built by Louis IX in the 13th century, of which I highly recommend taking a virtual tour that you can access by clicking here . Messiaen first encountered its iridescent windows when he was 10 years old, an experience which he describes as foundational –

‘What is going on in the stained glass of Bourges [Cathedral], the great windows of Chartres, in the rose windows of Notre-Dame de Paris and in the marvelous, incomparable stained-glass of the Sainte Chapelle? Firstly there is a host of figures, large and small, telling us the life of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin, the Prophets and the Saints: a sort of catechism in images. This catechism is enclosed in circles, heraldic shields, trefois; it obeys colour symbolism, it contrasts, superimposes, decorates, teaches, with a thousand intentions and a thousand details. Well, from far away, without binoculars, without ladders, without anything to aid our weak eyes, we see nothing: just a totally blue, green or purple stained-glass window. We don’t understand, we are dazzled.

‘God dazzles us with an excess of Truth’, says St Thomas Aquinas.'[4]

Sainte-Chapelle1-225x300

Stained-glass, Sainte-Chapelle

Messiaen goes so far as to describe his experience of dazzlement, which he closely links to the phenomenon of synaesthesia (the simultaneous perception of sound and colour), as a ‘breakthrough towards the beyond’ (‘percée vers l’au-delà’). The humbling of our senses and our understanding that we feel in the presence of overwhelming sensory beauty opens us, Messiaen contends, to the transcendent reality of God:

‘All these forms of dazzlement are a great lesson. They show us that God is above words, thoughts, concepts, above our earth and our sun, above the thousands of stars around us, above and outside time and space, all these things which are as it were attached to Him. […] And when musical painting, coloured music, sound-colour [le son-couleur] magnify him through dazzlement, they participate in the beautiful praise of the Gloria, saying to God and Christ: “You alone are Holy, You alone are the Most High!” On inaccessible heights. In so doing, they help us to live better, better to prepare our death, better to prepare our resurrection from the dead and the new life which awaits us. They are an excellent “passage-way”, an excellent “prelude” to the unsayable and the invisible.'[5]

Messiaen’s lecture concludes by an affirmation of hope in the Beatific Vision in the risen life, which will be ‘a perpetual dazzlement, an eternal music of colours, an eternal colour of musics’.[6]

Messiaen-Conference-de-Notre-Dame-210x300

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Eight years after Messiaen made his remarks, an art professor named Howard Storm was visiting Paris with a group of his students from Northern Kentucky University. An atheist for whom the only contact with spirituality was his own artistic experience of the mysterious variability of ‘inspiration’ from one day to the next, he would later recall finding himself strangely overcome with emotion on seeing both the Sainte Chapelle and the Monet water-lilies in the Orangerie of the Tuileries gardens. However, on that 1985 trip Howard Storm would unexpectedly find himself undergoing a life-changing liminal experience (recounted in his book My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life) which, as we will see in the next portion of this post, would not only provide him with a stunning personal confirmation of Messiaen’s words in Notre-Dame de Paris concerning the ‘eternal music of colours’, but which is now regarded by many as one of the most dramatic near-death experiences in modern times …

Howard-Storm-descent-cover-200x300

NOTES

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, La Croisée du Visible (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996), 32. Translation mine.

[2] ‘The question can be formulated as follows: where, originally, can an image be found which divests itself of its own visibility in order to let another gaze break through it? The answer is clear: the Servant of Yahweh allows himself literally to be disfigured (to lose the visible splendour of his own face) in order to do the will of God (which only appears in his actions). The Servant sacrifices his face – he allows his ‘image’ to be unmade: ‘there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured … his form marred beyond human likeness’ (Isaiah 52:14; cf. Psalm 22:7). By effacing all glory from his own face to the point of obscuring his very humanity, the Servant allows nothing to be seen of him other than his acts, the latter resulting from obedience to the will of God and thus allowing it to be made manifest’ (ibid., 109. Translation mine).le

[3] The closest musical parallel to Monet in this respect is perhaps not Debussy, whose frequent association with ‘impressionism’ is misleading to the extent that it obscures his alignment with symbolist currents (particularly evident in Pelléas et Mélisande), but Frederick Delius, who lived in the French village of Grez-sur-Loing near Fontainebleau from 1897 to 1934 together with his German painter wife Jelka. Notoriously opposed to Christianity and an avowed disciple of Nietzsche, Delius’s music is provocatively anti-theistic but remains ‘spiritual’ in a similar fashion to the ‘transcendentalism’ of figures such as Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass provided the text for Delius’s haunting Sea Drift (1903-4).

[4] Olivier Messiaen, Conférence de Notre-Dame (Paris: Leduc, 1978), 12.  Translation mine.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 15.

Monet La Cathédrale de Rouen Le Portail et la tour Saint-Romain plein soleil

Music and Transfiguration

Anton Bruckner, 1894

One of the pieces of music which has most haunted me in the classical repertoire over the years is Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Particularly the third movement with its extraordinary ecstatic tutti outburst shortly after the opening. I thought of it again today, as August 6th is the Feast of the Transfiguration: I have always associated that incredible and wholly unprepared blaze of light with the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. I see this as the most eschatological moment in nineteenth-century music, as if Anton Bruckner, who termed the Adagio of his Ninth Symphony his ‘farewell to life’ was suddenly granted a glimpse of Christ in the glory of his Resurrection, a foretaste of the life of the world to come given ahead of time. One conductor who seized this dimension of Bruckner’s symphonism with special acuity (whatever you may think of him in other repertoire) was Sergiu Celibidache, who made a penetrating comment on the composer in the film Celibidache’s Garden:

”For him, time is different from what it is for other composers. For a normal person, time is what comes after the beginning. Bruckner’s time is what comes after the end. The apotheoses of all his finales, the hope of another world, the hope of being saved, of being once more baptised in light – all this exists nowhere else’

the Alpine snowfields of La Meije - the inspiration for Messiaen's 'La Transfiguration'

A second composer who also seems to experience time differently from the rest of us was Olivier Messiaen (who curiously had no interest whatever in Bruckner’s music), who regarded the Transfiguration as the most significant moment in the history of our planet. His monumental oratorio of the 1960s La Transfiguration constitutes one of the high points of his output and his synthesis of music and theology.  This incredible work is too rich and complex a subject to be tackled in this post, but anyone out there undaunted by the French language and a fairly heavy dose of theology and philosophy can take a look at http://www.zshare.net/download/79078168ca4b03c3/

Icon of the Transfiguration Theophanes the Greek, 15th century

The Feast of the Transfiguration has traditionally been highly important for Eastern Christianity, which has always viewed redemption in terms of the transfiguration of the whole cosmos under the Lordship of Christ. However, there has also been something of a re-discovery of late of the notion of transfiguration in Western theology. A striking example is provided by the great German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in his description of experiences as a teenager which led him to Christian faith. The most significant of these (occurring perhaps not coincidentally after a music lesson) linked Epiphany and Transfiguration:

‘The single most important experience occurred in early January 1945, when I was 16 years old. On a lonely two-hour walk home from my piano lesson, seeing an otherwise ordinary sunset, I was suddenly flooded by light and absorbed in a sea of light which, although it did not extinguish the humble awareness of my finite existence, overflowed the barriers that normally separate us from the surrounding world. Several months earlier I had narrowly escaped an American bombardment at Berlin; a few weeks later my family would have to leave our East German home because of the Russian offensive. I did not know at the time that January 6 was the day of Epiphany, nor did I realize that in that moment Jesus Christ had claimed my life as a witness to the transfiguration of this world in the illuminating power and judgment of his glory. But there began a period of craving to understand the meaning of life, and since philosophy did not seem to offer the ultimate answers to such a quest, I finally decided to probe the Christian tradition more seriously than I had considered worthwhile before.’ (‘God’s Presence in History’ in Christian Century, March 11, 1981)

This same theme of Transfiguration can be found in words written by Pannenberg fifty years later which musicians and other artists of faith would do well to meditate, and not only on August 6th. Some, indeed many of us have been privileged, like the first disciples, or Bruckner, Messiaen and Pannenberg, to experience a fragmentary anticipation of the coming glory of God through artistic beauty, human relationships and Christian community; would that our lives would transfigure the reality around us, however minutely, for the healing of a world in pain:

‘The comprehensive vision of a transformation of all things in the light of God’s glory can serve, among other things, as a clue to the specific character of art in the context of a Christian culture. It is the transfiguration of present reality, a transfiguration that includes the element of judgment as well as glorification. in the greatest works of Christian artists in the history of Christian culture such a transfiguration of present reality was achieved and thus intimations were present of the Christian eschatological hope’ (Wolfhart Pannenberg, ‘The Task of Christian Eschatology’ in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds), The Last Things: Biblical & Theological Perspectives on Eschatology, pp. 11-12.

Damaged instruments

In May I had the privilege of attending a remarkable two-day conference at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London entitled ‘The Holy Spirit in the World Today’. The line-up of presenters was mouth-watering, including Archbishop Rowan Williams and his wife Jane, together with Miroslav Volf (Yale Center for Faith and Culture) and Jürgen Moltmann, whom we had just hosted at the American Church in Paris, where he gave three extremely personal and moving ‘Reflections on the Cross’ in March. My review of the event (only scratching the surface) has just been posted on-line at http://dev.stmellitus.org/sites/stmellitus.org/files/Holy_Spirit_Conference_Review_0.pdf . Musical metaphors were many, not least at the end of a powerfully imaginative presentation by Professor David Ford (Cambridge), who finished by reading out an evocative poem entitled ‘Flight Line’ from a collection by contemporary Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail entitled ‘Our Double Time’ (which I’ve just ordered); jazz, one of O’Siadhail’s central interests, is for Ford a metaphor for the improvisatory work of the Holy Spirit. This connection between spirituality and spontaneous musical expression is one which has fascinated me ever since I myself first began improvising at the organ and piano many years ago; last year I had some very stimulating conversation (after an equally stimulating jam session) about this with German saxophonist/composer/fellow Bonhoefferite Uwe Steinmetz, who has initiated a remarkable new late-night concert series called ‘In Spirit’ (www.in-spirit.eu) at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin combining spiritual reflection with cutting-edge jazz. The subject of the rich theological implications of improvisation is one to which I hope to return in future posts.

Perhaps the most immediately striking thing about this Berlin City church is its architectural form, with a modernist octagonal structure standing alongside the ruins of the former church, left as a war memorial. Which leads back to the Holy Trinity Brompton conference; the most moving moment of the event from a personal point of view came on the second morning, when a time of meditative prayer was unexpectedly introduced by the fifth movement (Louange à l’éternité de Jésus for ‘cello and piano) from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Until this stage in the proceedings the worship at Holy Trinity Brompton had been ‘contemporary’ in the popular rather than classical sense, so this was a very welcome affirmation of the continuing relevance of Western art-music in the life of the Church. As speaker Ken Costa (Chairman of Alpha International and a former member of the Advisory Council of the London Symphony Orchestra) remarked, one of the most striking things about the work’s legendary first performance in the Stalag VIIIa POW camp in Silesia in 1941 was the fact that this ecstatic music of yearning for the eternal was first played on damaged instruments. It is difficult to imagine a more potent symbol of the ‘groaning of creation’: the encounter of divine transcendence and this-worldly brokenness in which the Spirit him/herself somehow mysteriously participates at a level deeper than that of words –

‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. […] We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.’ (Romans 8:22-23, 26)

Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen (1924-2010)

During the last couple of months I made two visits to the church of La Trinité in Paris that will remain in my memory for a long while. The occasion for the first was an interview with Tom Service of BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters and organist Carolyn Shuster-Fournier regarding the relationship of music and theology in the life and work of composer Olivier Messiaen, who was organist at La Trinité between 1931 and 1992 (we hope to post an extract from this BBC broadcast on www.sdgmusic.org shortly). The second was the funeral of the pianist Yvonne Loriod, who died on May 17, 2010 at the age of 86. Undoubtedly one of the greatest musical performers of the twentieth century in her own right, she was also Olivier Messiaen’s second wife, inspiring some of his finest works such as the Visions de l’Amen for two pianos and the monumental piano cycles Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus and Catalogue d’Oiseaux, as well as completing his late Concert à quatre (1992) and overseeing the posthumous publication of his mammoth seven-volume compositional treatise.

Yvonne Loriod, who met Messiaen as his student at the Paris Conservatoire in 1941, came into the composer’s life at a particuarly bleak time for him, shortly after his release from the Stalag VIIIa camp in Silesia where he had been held as a prisoner of war during the winter of 1940-41 and where his Quartet for the End of Time received its legendary first performance. This was also the period in which Messiaen’s first wife Claire Delbos began to show the first signs of mental degeneration that would ultimately lead to the total loss of her memory and her institutionalization until her death in 1959. That Messiaen survived the trauma of this experience and the stress of bringing up his son Pascal (b. 1937) was due in no small measure to emotional support and practical help during Claire’s long illness on the part of Yvonne, who also played an active role in caring for the composer’s wife. In an interview with Antoine Goléa published in 1960, Messiaen described Yvonne’s impact on him as a musician and a human being:

‘A unique, sublime pianist of genius whose existence has transformed not only the composer’s [i.e. his own] writing for the piano but also his style, his vision of the world and his ways of thinking.’ (In Antoine Goléa, Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Juillard 1961), 147)

The two were married in 1961; a comment made by Madame Loriod-Messiaen in an interview with Michael White in 1999 for The Independent on Sunday on the two decades prior to their wedding, in which the joy of their fabulously productive musical and spiritual collaboration was tempered by the tragedy of Claire’s slow demise, tells its own story: ‘So we cried. We cried for 20 years until she died and [we] could marry.’

The last few years of her life, spent at a hospice outside Paris run by the Petites Soeurs des Pauvres, were extremely difficult ones of poor health and mental decline, so there was a great sense of release and solemn joy in contemplating her passage to the eternal life of which both she and her husband spoke so eloquently in word and music throughout their lives. I only met her Madame Loriod-Messiaen once, already greatly diminished by illness, at an organ recital at La Trinité on the 16th anniversary of her husband’s death, at which I had the somewhat overwhelming task of giving a pre-concert talk that was effectively a memorial eulogy, and which you can find here (in French only: http://www.zshare.net/download/777757543d86e8e3/).

I was unfortunately unable to stay until the end of the funeral, but at least had the time to hear Olivier Latry of Notre-Dame Cathedral play excerpts from Messiaen’s L’Ascension and Livre du Saint-Sacrement, as well as a moving homily (which can be read by clicking here: http://latriniteparis.com/IMG/pdf/Homelie_Messe_funerailles_YLM.pdf ) given by Père Jean-Rodolphe Kars, Catholic priest, former concert pianist and one of the foremost musical and theological authorities on Messiaen’s work. I vividly remember first meeting him at a press conference that John Nelson and I attended, launching La Trinité’s Messiaen centenary cycle of concerts throughout 2008 that ended with his Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine and the first performance of my own oratorio Et iterum venturus est written in Messiaen’s memory. The press conference itself was attended by virtually nobody on account of a public transport strike in Paris that morning, yet Père Kars made a huge impression on John and myself by his evident passion for Messiaen’s music and profound remarks on its spiritual significance.

Among the faces in the congregation at the funeral were many I recognized from the concert on December 9, 2008 on the eve of what would have been Messiaen’s 100th birthday, including Michel Béroff (Madame Loriod-Messiaen’s successor as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, with whom I studied briefly in 1991) and his father, who had attended the première of the Trois Petites Liturgies in 1945, at which the young Yvonne Loriod had played the virtuosic solo piano part.

Père Kars ended his homily by quoting two excerpts from Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen’s commentaries on pieces from her husband’s cycle Eclairs sur l’au-delà that are highly revealing for the light they shed on her own spirituality  The first refers to the movement entitled ‘The path of the invisible’ (Le chemin de l’invisible):

‘This path must be followed all one’s life. One only arrives at the end at the moment of death […] The impression of a crowd climbing a mountain […] No rest in this piece […] The path is long, the climb is hard. Only Christ can enlighten this arid, stony way leading to Peace at the top of the luminous mountain.’

The second concerns the piece ‘Christ, light of Paradise’ (Le Christ, lumière du Paradis):

“Arrival, Happiness, Paradise, the Light which is Christ and which lightens Eternity […] This final [piece] is the whole of life’s destination [aboutissement]. The page is turned, the earth is afar off, time is abolished: a present of unending happiness. The infinite Love of Christ in the soul contemplating him.’

More information concerning Yvonne Loriod can be found at http://www.oliviermessiaen.org/Loriod.htm