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Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Maritain, Stravinsky and Messiaen

I'm currently reading Visions of Amen: The Early Life and Music of Olivier Messiaen by Stephen Schloesser. As Vincent P. Benitez writes, 'Schloesser investigates Messiaen's intriguing 'ultra-Catholic avant-gardism' to uncover what might have influenced the composer as he created his early pieces, leading readers to a greater appreciation of Messiaen's later works.'

One of those early influences, according to Schloesser, was Jacques Maritain through the reading of Art et Scholastique in 1927. Robert Fallon has also written about this same connection in an essay entitled Composing Subjectivity which explores Maritain 's poetic knowledge in Igor Stravinsky and

'Maritain and Stravinsky first met after a concert on 10 June 1926, at the time that Stravinsky was writing his first work with a religious text, a Pater Noster for four-part chorus. That year, Cocteau published his Lettre a Jacques Maritain and Maritain his Reponse a Jean Cocteau; both volumes are dedicated to Stravinsky. By the end of April 1927, Stravinsky had returned to the Orthodox faith that he had abandoned in his youth. He later wrote that "Jacques Maritain may have exercised an influence on me at this time [ 1926]. " Though Stravinsky denied that Maritain played a role in his conversion, his assistant Robert Craft says that Maritain did exert some influence on his return to the Church. In May 1927, Stravinsky's opera oratorio Oedipus Rex, a collaboration with Cocteau, premiered in Paris. Following Oedipus Rex, however, Stravinsky's attitude toward Maritain became ambivalent. In 1928, he wrote to one of his patrons, Victoria Ocampo, that Maritain's entourage nauseated him. In another letter he describes Maritain as:

"one of those people of superior intelligence who are lacking in humanity, and if Maritain himself does not deserve this judgment, certainly it applies to a great deal of his work.

Maritain is still attached to the nihilism of his youth, and this can be sensed in all of his books, despite the great value of his work in Christian and Thomist thought."

Stravinsky's famous Norton Lectures of 1941, delivered at Harvard University and later published as Poetique musicale, refer several times to Maritain and borrow his neo-Thomistic definition of a composer as a medieval artisan who orders and disciplines his craft. The book's considerable debt to Maritain includes quotations from the very same passages from Baudelaire, Poussin, Bellay, and Montaigne that Maritain had used in Art et Scholastique two decades earlier ...

Unlike Stravinsky, Messiaen never met Maritain, though by his own account he did read one book (probably Art et Scholastique) by him in 1927. He said it was "a book of high philosophy that seemed very difficult to me," but admitted having benefited from it. Maritain's influence is suggested in Messiaen's views on artistic imitation, his skeptical attitude toward science, his apparent interest in Emmanuel Mounier's personalist movement, and his rhetorical use of terms such as "poetic intuition."

Among Messiaen's early works, La Nativite du Seigneur (1935) most strongly suggests Maritain's influence in its Thomistic theme of truth. Like Oedipus Rex, La Nativite opens a window onto Messiaen's epistemology. Comprised of nine movements for solo organ lasting twice as long as any composition he had yet written, La Nativite quickly entered the organist's repertoire and remained one of his favorite works. Though it bears no dedication, Messiaen later said it was written in homage to his teacher Paul Dukas.'

Fallon also notes that 'Olivier Messiaen's father, Pierre Messiaen, did know Maritain, whose books quote English Romantic poetry in the father's translations.'

Schloesser notes that, 'Maritain's extended argument in Art and Schlasticism made two principal points: first, religion and the avant-garde are eminently compatible as they meet in the artistic and aesthetic arenas; second, there is no particularly "religious" form of art.' As a result, 'Maritain gave a Catholic artist licence to jettison received external forms and set out on an avant-garde path. One thing alone mattered: the eternal formal principle that radiated clarity ... from within and gave unity and meaning to the organic whole.'


Olivier Messiaen - La Nativite du Seigneur.

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