Olivier Messalen: Music and Color, Conversations with Claude Samuel, Amadeus Press, £30
THERE ARE FEW PEOPLE in our time who could speak of themselves in the Olympian tone Messaien uses in this book. Only as great an old-fashioned genius could be so unselfconsciously self-regarding.
"These chord clusters give my writing an aspect of precious stones, a shimmering, stained-glass texture that is rather characteristic", he says. From anyone else, this would seem vain, particularly in our multimedia age when everyone feels they have the right to call themselves a genius.
He is egged on by an admiring, almost fawning, interviewer (example: "Your organ output alone would seem to ensure your glory"), whose evident aim is to preserve these hair-clippings of personal revela
tion like relics in a casket, in advance of the maestro's admission to the pantheon.
More musicians than Catholics will probably approach this book, which is unfortunate. As a Catholic, Messaien is a fascinating and inspiring example of an artistic personality which found imaginative freedom within the most orthodox Catholic faith. He was surely one of the great Catholic mystics of the 20th century.
The philosophical principles that flowed from his faith formed his approach to musical composition. He disapproved of the "chance operation" of John Cage consulting the I Ching oracle as a way of composing music because he believed in Providence. Indeed, he describes himself later on in the book as a "musical Franciscan". The richness of his music reflects an awed apprehension of the beauties of nature. The anti-religious intellectual fash
ions of 20th century France Marx and Freud completely passed him by. "I loathe psychoanalysis", he says.
One of the best-known characteristics of Messaien's mind was his synaesthesia: he would see sounds as colours. It is fascinating how his talk slips apparently unaffectedly from one to the other, as if he were unable to tell them apart; for example, in his long, excited account of his work "Chronochromie": "One note value will be linked to a red sonority flecked with blue, another to a milk-white sound complex embellished with orange and fringed with gold..."
There are a few amusing glimpses of an oddly refined way of life: of conversing in Latin (their only common language) in a forest with a Japanese ornithologist; of the child Messaien performing the complete plays of Shakespeare for his brother; or of the anxiety and distraction caused by the sight of unskilled windsurfers on the lake by his country retreat.
The musician who is a devotee of Messaien will no doubt enjoy his detailed account of the knitting together of instrumentation, colour theory, theology and ornithology that resulted in his lengthy opera on the life of St Francis of Assisi (1983). But I suspect even the greatest fan will skip through the last ten pages of the book, which record every public engagement he had in the years 1985 to 1987.
This tedious laundry list of honours and performances ends with the interviewer gushing: "Dear maestro, the care you have put into this enumeration proves your meticulousness."
I can't imagine an English interviewer saying that to Sir Harrison Birtwistle.