Uneven Beats: The University of Chicago presents a festival of Messiaen’s music

Endowed with a strong sense of synesthesia–the disorder in which senses are often heightened and confused–French composer Olivier Messiaen heard in colors. This rare gift affected the way he described his music. He equated clusters of tones with specific hues and analyzed his pieces as “progressions of color.” Perhaps this ability alone would have distinguished Messiaen, but his music, life story, and various eccentricities illustrate a personality that reflects the twentieth century’s path of revolution and discovery. Amid the post-WWII composers who increasingly alienated their listeners, Messiaen stood on the gentle side of atonality and serialism. The University of Chicago Presents will dedicate its first ever music festival to this fascinating yet relatively obscure composer.

The festival will honor the 100th anniversary of Messiaen’s birth, rather than devoting more time to the anniversaries of other popular composers, such as Haydn and Mendelssohn, also parts of the 2008-2009 season. Selecting Messiaen as the featured composer is an impressive and bold move, but considering the challenging nature of Messiaen’s work, it is a fitting choice for the school’s program.
“When I thought about the intellectual curiosity that is rampant at the university and the city,” explains Shauna Quill, the executive director of Presents, “it struck me that this was a man we could all delve into deeper from all sides: history, religion, music, ornithology, literature…it goes on and on.”

Since 1943, University of Chicago Presents has expanded to offer more performances with increasingly creative and comprehensive presentations. The final impetus for this festival was not necessarily raising sufficient funds or enthusiasm among organizers. According to Quill, “This festival is a natural extension of what we have been doing, but we’re taking advantage of the university’s scholarly and ensemble resources, so we are able to take it to a new level.”

With this festival, Presents invites us to appreciate modern classical music, which has failed to gain a mass audience since its beginnings half a century ago. Few recall Messiaen’s compositions, but music scholar Robert Fallon writes that, “among modernist composers active since World War II, Messiaen is arguably matched in importance only by Stravinsky and Ligeti…Messiaen has indisputably become as essential to the twentieth century as Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, and Verdi are to the nineteenth century.” Rather than explore the popular music of Haydn or Stravinsky, this festival will allow performers, scholars, and concert-goers to experience this music in the mainstream, as a community, for the first time.

The festival opens October 2 in Rockefeller Chapel with esteemed British organist Dame Gillian Weir, and on the following night the leading Messiaen performer in the world, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, will perform in Mandel Hall with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. But the unique strength of this festival lies in its use of non-Messiaen performances, allowing listeners to experience his impact from more than the standard perspective. On October 4, Contempo, the University’s contemporary classical ensemble, will investigate the composers he inspired; there will be French poetry on October 7; a two-day symposium beginning on October 3; and pre-concert lectures including one on the 11th by Peter Hill, a leading Messiaen scholar.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor emeritus and former Messiaen student Pierre Boulez once wrote, “Messiaen should be regarded as Western music’s first great theoretician of rhythm.” By incorporating elements of Gregorian chant, ancient Greek and Hindu rhythm, and by spending long stretches of time in the wilderness transposing birdsong, he developed an avant-garde, yet personal sound. We see this new musical perspective and his iconoclastic tendencies when he writes, “I totally despise even beats…I also detest jazz, because it depends on even beats. My music depends on uneven beats, as in nature. In nature rippling water is uneven, waving tree branches are uneven, the movement of clouds is uneven.”

The concert on October 5 will be marked by the conspicuous absence of this famous uneven percussion. It will feature “Quartet for the End of Time,” a chamber piece Messiaen wrote while in a German POW camp. The piece lacks a role for percussion because he wrote it for the clarinetist, violinist, and cellist he met while in captivity. Today, it is considered one of the most important works for chamber ensembles.

Pieces like this illustrate the unique ability of this festival to reflect on the previous century through a fresh, rich perspective. Quill calls Messiaen’s work “music of a life well-lived.” The music may not connect with all attendees, but there will be those, even if just a few, who will fall in love.