Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal


In that photo of Groupe Jeune France, the senior composer of the influential group, André Jolivet, is seated at the piano, and Olivier Messiaen is standing on the left, with Yves Baudrier and Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur to his right. The provocative observation by Igor Stravinsky which forms my headline leads to another turning in the Messiaen path. My recent post How Olivier Messiaen became part of the Vichy myth explained that one of the chapters in La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation - the book that has prompted a reappraisal of Messiaen's wartime activities - is contributed by musicologists Yves Balmer and Christopher Brent Murray. Now Caroline Rae, who is a senior lecturer in the School of Music at Cardiff University and an authority on André Jolivet, has contacted me with some pertinent information about her forthcoming book André Jolivet: Music, Art and Literature*. Yves Balmer and Christopher Brent Murray have also contributed a chapter to her new book, a contribution which Caroline describes as "exploring Messiaen's many borrowings from Jolivet". Another chapter is contributed by Christine Jolivet Erlih who collaborated with me on the Messiaen myth post. This chapter discusses Jolivet's many visits to the USSR between 1954 and 1972, and his close links with Soviet composers and musicians. Apparently, he once considered reverse defecting (during the 1960s) because he was disillusioned with musical life in Paris. His music was fêted in Russia, a country where they still admired works called 'symphony' and 'concerto'!

Relevant both to the practice of artists borrowing, and to the Messiaen folklore, is the observation by Caroline Rae in her notes for Erato's invaluable 4 CD Jolivet overview** that the solo violin version of Jolivet's 1937 Incantation "Pur que l'image devienne symbole" is "not unlike" the final movement Louanges a l'immortalité de Jésus of Messiaen's 1941 Quartet for the End of Time. The purpose of this post is not to label Messiaen as a plagiarist or as a lesser composer, but, rather, to draw attention to the influence and importance of André Jolivet. He is just one of the many outstanding composers who are overlooked in an age where media driven idolatry focuses attention on the few at the expense of the many.

In her discussion with me Caroline Rae also spoke of how "there are many myths to be exploded, some of which shed valuable light on the increasing tensions that developed between Jolivet and Messiaen after World War II". One of the ways that Messiaen and Jolivet diverged was in their exploration of spirituality through music. As is very well known, Messiaen's music was informed by his absolute commitment to the Catholic faith. Jolivet also believed implicitly that music should have spiritual meaning, but for inspiration he turned to the mysticism and shamanism of ancient traditions. I have pleaded many times that composer anniversaries should be a time of reassessment and not idolatry. The fortieth anniversary of André Jolivet's death falls on December 20th, 2014. Let us hope that this prompts a reassessment of his music, and also of the myths surrounding Messiaen. Also long overdue for reassessment is Maurice Ohana, a composer who has found a place in the new edition of the Penguin Modern Music and After, because, its author Paul Griffiths tells me, of the advocacy of Ohana's music On An Overgrown Path.

* André Jolivet: Music, Art and Literature edited by Dr Caroline Rae is being published by Ashgate in early 2015. This is an important publication as it is the first English language book on Jolivet

** André Jolivet: the complete Erato recordings, which includes Mstislav Rostropovich playing Jolivet's seriously neglected Cello Concerto No. 2, is on Warner Classics. More on this invaluable set in Avoiding the hazards of reputation inflation.

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