Yesterday I was travelling and I was listening to an interview on the BBC about the great 20th century organist and composer, Oliver Messiaen. I was struck by the discussion on the use of color in his music. For Messiaen, in his music-making the word color isn’t a generic term but extraordinarily specific. Just as he sometimes wrote the names of the birds whose song had inspired him in his compositions for organ, so he also wrote the colors of chords and phrases to attempt to explain what he was feeling as he heard the music: such as, “blue-orange,” “red and violet,” “yellow topaz,” or “bright green.”
In a church next door to the Museum of Modern Art we might assume that the concept of color belonged there rather than in a musical composition but, for Messiaen, it was an integral part of his musical creativity. And more than that, it was part of his everyday life for a man who, in later life, delighted in wearing bright Hawaiian shirts and large knitted scarves in a kaleidoscope of colors. Messiaen had a condition called ‘synesthesia,’ when the brain involuntarily links one sensory experience automatically with another. “I see colors when I hear sounds,” he once said, “but I don’t see colors with my eyes. I see colors intellectually, in my head.”
Speaking about Olivier Messiaen’s remarkable piece ‘Quartet for the end of time,’ written for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, Clarinetist and Professor at the Royal College of Music, Michael Collins, describes the sudden revelation he had of Messiaen’s use of color in music:
‘The first time I played the Messiaen Quartet for the end of time many, many years ago, Messiaen was in the audience sitting in the front row and can you imagine playing such a piece with the composer a couple few away from you? I mean, it was such an uplifting experience not only to be on the platform playing this incredible work but to have to have him sitting just a few feet away. Before that moment I never understood the word ‘color’ in reference to music. In the solo clarinet movement there is a moment where the clarinet has to play from absolutely nowhere four p’s then a crescendo on one note to four f’s and he said, “I would like you to think you going through every single color of the rainbow.” And from that moment to this present day I now understand the word color in music. Thank you, Messiaen for that.’ 1.
And his use of color, like his use of nature, was inextricably linked with his faith. Writing for the London Times at the centennial of the composer’s birth last year, Michael Brown described it thus: “Messiaen was no pinstriped, black-and-white composer… One way or another, every color in Messiaen’s eyes led him towards the God of his steadfast Catholic faith; and every major piece he wrote found God’s reflection in the cut and sheen of crystals, the geological marvels of America’s national parks, the ebullient plumage of birds (in Messiaen’s view the world’s greatest musicians), or the simple miracle of light trapped in a drop of water.” 2.
Why is this so significant? One word – Hope. Quartet for the end of time was written while Messiaen was a German prisoner-of-war, from 1940-1941, in Stalag 8A. His musical ensemble was dictated by the very few instruments and instrumentalists to play them. For one who could see colors when he heard sounds this must have been a profound moment for him. In the darkness and the squalor, he glimpsed a vision of the New Jerusalem. His quartet is inspired by the Book of Revelation where we read about how God will wipe away all tears and make all things new. Significantly, God sits enthroned above the rainbow – for Messiaen, the symbol of God’s presence in all his created things and a symbol of hope:
“At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.”
And what is everyone around the heavenly throne doing? They are worshipping! They are singing songs of praise to the one who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb that was slain. In our first lesson, Solomon and the people of Israel solemnly dedicated a House of Prayer to the Lord. The result of their faithfulness and worship is that fire came down from heaven to consume the burnt offering before they were able to offer it themselves and God’s glory filled the house. The image of the heavenly Jerusalem, with the echoes of the worship of God in the first Temple of Jerusalem, is the inspiration not only for Messiaen but for us, too, as we worship God and, on a day, when we commission a new Organist and Director of Music.
Our Mission statement is simple – “To worship, love, and serve our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage.”
And note that worship comes first, for it is by offering ourselves to God in worship, and worshipping to the best of our ability that we are able to learn how to love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ in one another and the world around us.
Jeremy, help us to discover the colors of music. Open our eyes and our ears and our hearts and our voices to the rainbow of God’s presence in our worship and in our music-making. Help us to discover the presence of God not just in this beautiful church but in our daily lives. Help us to deepen our spirituality so that we are truly Christ-like in our actions, so that our worship and music-making is an inspiration for us to put our faith into action.
Of course, my friends, music is not an end in itself; the liturgy comes first, but music in the liturgy takes our worship to a deeper level and to a powerful experience of God’s presence. Liturgy and music together take us from the mundane and into the worship of heaven where, in the vision of St John the Divine we join the whole company of angels and Saints: ‘Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”’
Jeremy, our prayer is that your making of music here will not only nurture the young but allow you to grow too – to grow in your skill and to grow in your faith. That your ministry will be truly blessed and that you will help us to sing a new song and glimpse the glory of God. That, like Messiaen, even if you are tested and go through dark times, your faith will allow you to glimpse the rainbow of God’s redeeming creativity through that darkness and discover afresh how music can transform and transfigure our fragile lives.
Finishing his article in the Times, Michael Brown says this about Messiaen; may it be an inspiration to each one of us here today:
“The man in the Hawaiian shirt who threw away music’s rulebook, opened his ears to the birds, and journeyed from the canyons to the stars seeking the colors of glory.”3.
1.Interview with Clarinetist Michael Collins: BBC Music Online, October 19, 2018
2.Geoffrey Brown, ‘How Olivier Messiaen heard in colour,’ – The Times, October 1, 2008