The Annual
Sunday 9th November 2008 at 3pm

 Glebe Music Festival

In conjunction with The Glebe Society Inc

Vaughan Williams and Messiaen (© Nigel Butterley 2008)
Great Hall, University of Sydney, Sunday 9th November 2008 at 3pm
Occasional Address by Mr Nigel Butterley AM Hon.D.Mus (Newcastle, NSW)

© 2008 Patricia Baillie

Anyone planning a concert programme devoted to just two twentieth-century composers would be unlikely to think immediately of putting Vaughan Williams and Messiaen together. Vaughan Williams was already twenty-eight when Queen Victoria died in 1901. He had studied with Max Bruch, composer of one of the most population 19th Century violin concertos, then collected English folksongs and went on to write music that seems quintessentially English. Messiaen seems very French, very Catholic, and developed a highly individual musical language based on his own modes (or scales), and incorporating ancient Indian rhythmic patterns and the song of birds.

The way each of them is held in regard among the significant composers of the 20th Century also differs considerably. Vaughan Williams became a much-loved figure in English musical life soon after eventually finding his musical voice in his late thirties and he remains revered most in English-speaking countries.

But it took a long time for Messiaen to be widely recognised as a really important composer, and not just a curiosity. As late as the 1970 edition of The Oxford Companion to Music he was dismissed in one paragraph: “He is a religious mystic of the extremest type, his works reflecting this, as they do also his highly personal theories on the methods of composition. He has had a strong influence on some of his younger colleagues.” But this year he is being celebrated throughout the world as one of the great composers of the century.


The fact that Vaughan Williams died in 1958, the year that Messiaen turned fifty, is a coincidence that gives us the opportunity to discover what they have in common, as well as how interestingly they complement each other.

Each lived a long life, and had a direct experience of catastrophic war – Vaughan Williams in Salonika in 1915, Messiaen in a prison camp in Silesia, where in 1941 he famously wrote and performed to a large, appreciative audience his Quartet for the End of Time - still a novelty in the sixties and seventies, but now widely performed, and appreciated even by conservative audiences.

Each composer became happily married in his early twenties, but quite soon Adeline Vaughan Williams began developing a crippling arthritic condition which left her bedridden for many years, and Messiaen’s wife Claire suffered a long decline from a degenerative illness diagnosed as cerebral atrophy.

Of course this had a huge impact on each composer’s life, but never explicitly on his music. After the death of his first wife in the 1950s each was free to marry again: Vaughan Williams to the poet Ursula Wood, whose words he set on several occasions, and Messiaen to the great pianist Yvonne Loriod, for whom all his piano works, since Visions of the Amen in 1943, had been written.

Vaughan Williams greatly enjoyed being involved in amateur music making, and to the end of his life he conducted regional choral societies, most famously in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. His large and varied output ranges from the nine Symphonies to small occasional works and a considerable amount of music for amateurs. It is interesting that The Lark Ascending, though not a work for amateurs, was given a warm-up premiere, in the violin and piano reduction, at a concert given by a country choral society, and the premiere with orchestra was in London a few months later.

Messiaen, on the other hand, like Ravel, wrote very little that is playable by people with only modest technique, and very few short occasional pieces; like the Rondeau written in 1943 as a test-piece for pianists, not long after his appointment to the Conservatoire. The two other piano pieces we heard are from the great two-hour cycle of Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus, written in 1948. They share the same theme, because the Star of Christmas and the Cross of Holy Week are symbols of Christ’s earthly life.

Messiaen himself was a fine pianist and organist – arguably the only major composer since Mendelssohn and César Franck to write significant works for organ. They are mainly large and very demanding, but as essential to any organ scholar’s repertoire as the works of Bach.

Early in the new century, Vaughan Williams, having gained a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge, began collecting folk songs from the old countrymen and women who still remembered them, and he gradually absorbed this very English influence into his own unmistakable style. But at thirty-five, Vaughan Williams decided he still needed some “French polish”, so he went to Paris to study with Ravel, mainly orchestration. Later he wrote, “After three months I cam home with a bad attack of French fever and wrote a string quartet which caused a friend to say that I must have been having tea with Debussy”. That is the String Quartet in G minor, which we have just heard!

But only two years later came an absolutely individual masterpiece, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and this, like the hymn-tune prelude we shall hear later, was a by-product of three years he had spent as Musical Editor of the new English Hymnal. IN the music of the Church, as Michael Kennedy points out, he recognised the only continuous musical tradition in English life.

The Lark Ascending, another small masterpiece from that period, was almost completed when War broke out, but Vaughan Williams thought it appropriate to withhold it until that turmoil was past. Here man observes the bird, singing freely as it soars up to silence. As Wilfred Mellers writes: “by no other composer is the interdependence of man and nature more movingly expressed”.

Unlike Vaughan Williams’, Messiaen’s personal voice was quite clear and confident by the time he was twenty. Vision of the Eternal Church, which ends this concert, was the first organ work written after his appointment as organist at the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Paris, where he played regularly for the rest of his life, always conceiving his organ music for that instrument. He described the piece as “monolithic”, “granite-like”, and it is very powerful in its simplicity.

Different though they are, Vaughan Williams and Messiaen share a quality – or inhabit a world – that can best be very broadly described as “spiritual”. So for instance, we can perceive something “spiritual” in the profound serenity of some of Vaughan Williams’ music; while in the exuberant final of Visions of the Amen, or in the extravagantly unrestrained Turangalila Symphony, we feel that Messiaen really is, as he claimed, “a composer of joy” – a title which he shares with perhaps only one other composer, J. S. Bach.

Vaughan Williams is a seeker, with what Michael Kennedy has described as “a deep-rooted humanitarian faith”; a declared Agnostic, but steeped in the Judeo-Christian heritage, and in English literature and art; William Blake and John Bunyan are especially significant influences.

But Messiaen, apart from some works written before 1950, is not concerned with expressing human emotion, or even human searching for God. As he put it: “…a number of my works are dedicated to shedding light on the theological truths of the Catholic Faith; that is the most important aspect of my music”. So we have titles like The Nativity, I Await the Resurrection of the Dead and The Transfiguration.

Messiaen is focussed on the eternal “mysteries of Faith”, not on everyday facts, feelings and experiences. He asks us to forget about time, to listen for the eternal. To quote Paul Griffiths, “his music is instantly recognisable as his, and yet it says nothing about him”. But though his music may not express emotions, it can magnificently evoke them in the listener.

Messiaen’s scope is wide-ranging – from naively simple to very complex, from sweet and even saccharine, to harsh and awe-inspiring. Similarly, Vaughan Williams, being far more than a folky painter of gentle landscapes, can present violence in the Fourth Symphony, desolation in the Epilogue to the Sixth, and boisterous jollity in the Five Tudor Portraits.

Each composer wrote one large stage-work which can be thought of as bringing everything together. Vaughan Williams worked on The Pilgrim’s Progress, based on John Bunyan, for more than forty years, and its greatness was convincingly revealed in the concert performance given in Sydney earlier this year. Its story is of an ordinary man’s journey towards the light of the Heavenly City.

By contrast, the subject of Messiaen’s four-hour opera St Francis of Assisi, premiered in 1983, is no ordinary man, but to quote Messiaen, “the saint who most resembles Christ”. Its eight scenes show what he called “the progresses of grace in St. Francis’s soul”; and of course it is resplendent with birdsong, which he constantly collected, and which is fundamental to his later music, because symbolically birds are the timeless messengers who fly between heaven and earth.

All this may seem to make Messiaen’s music quite remote from the ordinary listener, but part of its genius is that it can be so powerfully engaging. Like Bruckner though, Messiaen, being concerned with the timeless, requires time and attention from the listener, and thoroughly rewards it.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress then, and in Saint Francis of Assisi, and many other works each composer had left us uniquely individual music, which can give an intuition of something beyond the everyday.

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