On the road with Olivier Messiaen

Judging by the number of price cuts I found in the Harmonia Mundi boutique in Lille on my recent road trip, the French record industry is in real problems. Among several half-price bargains I picked up was German label Orfeo's release of four of the tableau from Olivier Messiaen's only opera Saint François d'Assise with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role.

I was on the road for nine day exploring overgrown paths in northern France. As the US East Coast was sharing its extreme weather with Europe I stopped overnight in Canterbury en route to France, and the inclement weather was to provide a basso profundo for the entire trip. Photo 2 above was taken in sub-zero temperatures after attending Evensong in Canterbury Cathedral. Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral in 1170, since when it has attracted thousands of pilgrims. Which fitted neatly with this road trip as my early web name of Pliable (created to avoid conflicts of interest with my then day job) was taken from the character in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

Moving from the Anglican to the Roman rite, the two CD set of Saint François d'Assise that I bought in Lille has an interesting history. It is an Austrian Radio live recording of the concert performance of the four tableau given at the 1985 Salzburg Festival with Lothar Zagrosek conducting the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Saint François d'Assise was premiered in Paris in 1983, and the 1985 concert performance preceded the first fully staged Salzburg performance by seven years. Messiaen attended the 1985 concert and approved of the extraction of the four central scenes which reduce the opera from six hours in length to little more than two hours. This solution to the opera's unwieldly length was greeted with enthusiasm and similar concert performances followed in several major cities around the world.

The lack of conventional operatic narrative in Saint François means it can be performed in the abbreviated Salzburg version, which uses less than half of the original material taken from four non-sequential scenes, while still retaining dramatic integrity. You certainly can't do that with many operas and Messiaen himself viewed Saint François as more mystery play than opera. This 1985 Salzburg Festival recording, which is technically and musically very good, provides an interesting perspective on the thorny subject of classical music 'sampling'. How about a similar 'fan edit' of In C? It was Glenn Gould, who we meet again later, who quipped when introducing an excerpt from Terry Riley's seminal work on Canadian radio "And you thought Carl Orff had found an easy way to make a living?"

Glenn Gould would doubtless have been more approving of the outstanding recital of Mahler and Schumann Lieder that I heard in Lille sung by bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff accompanied by Trung Sam . The venue for the recital was the city's ornate Louis XVI style opera house and my photo below shows the ceiling of the grand foyer where the recital took place.

As I returned to my chambres d'hôtes in Lille through pouring rain after the recital I walked into the demonstration seen below in support of equal rights for workers without residence papers. I have mused here before on the tensions within France that gives the country its creative singularity. These tensions helped mould Messiaen: he was a devout Catholic who worked for the cultural arm of the retrogressive and collabarationist Vichy government for several months while composing a now lost patriotic cantata for schoolchildren, yet he went on to become a major agent of change in 20th century music and numbered that darling of the avant-garde and enfant terrible Pierre Boulez among his pupils. In Saint François d'Assise a truly innovative score that calls for five different keyboards (xylophone, xylorimba, marimba, glockenspiel, vibraphone and three Ondes Martenot) plus five percussionists is combined with Messian's own traditionalist libretto which in places has unfortunate echoes of the Vichy slogan of 'Travail, famille, patrie'.

With thoughts turning to Catholicism and Vichy it was time to get back on the road again. From Lille I drove to the Benedictine L'Abbaye Saint Paul at Wisque which had featured in New York Times coverage of l'affaire Paul Touvier in 1989. In fact the French war criminal was not sheltered in the then traditionalist monastery, but the article started the path which led to my article Love, life and crimes against humanity.

The poignant photo below shows the monk's cemetery at L'Abbaye Saint Paul. Since 1989 there has been a regime change at the monastery and its aging community of fifteen monks has long since put its links with right-wing cleric Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre behind it and Mass is now celebrated in the politically correct vernacular. Informal and amicable discussions about l'affaire Touvier during my stay simply confirmed H.L. Mencken's view that "For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple - and wrong".

On a happier subject L'Abbaye Saint Paul keeps music at the centre of the liturgy. Gregorian chant is still used for the Divine Offices and while eating in the refectory we were serenaded with Zelenka trio sonatas and Hélène Grimaud playing Rachmaninov via an excellent sound system. The musical driving force at Wisques is Père Yves Dissaux who is seen below. Père Yves, who has been a monk for forty-four years, is also Père Hôtelier, a member of the village council and does outreach work with schoolchildren and the local community. The musical loves of this charismatic cleric include jazz and the cinema organ, with Reginald Dixon's recordings being a particular passion. I lent him the CDs of Saint François d'Assise: he returned them with a twinkle in his eye saying they were tres excellent, but he did not think them quite suitable for playing in the refectory!

After nine days on the road with Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise it was quite appropriate that nature had the last word and I woke up at 5.15am for my return journey to find the French countryside blanketed in snow. The journey from hell followed with a drive to Dunkirk in pitch darkness through a blizzard with Polish articulated lorries sitting three feet from my rear bumper. Below is the trusty Skoda (114k miles and going better than ever) safely arrived on the quayside at Dunkirk. As I waited to load I reflected on yet another fascinating road trip. As well as Messiaen the sountrack had included Glenn Gould's three visionary CBC radio documentaries, particularly The Quiet in the Land which portrays the Mennonites of southern Manitoba. Like Gould's Solitude Trilogy, but in a more modest way, my journey had explored the margins of geography and culture and the singularity found therein. Carl Morey got it absolutely right in his notes for the CD release of the Glenn Gould programmes when he observed -
In ... each part of the trilogy, it is not simply the isolation of the society that is disclosed, but also its singularity and the question of the value of that singularity.

More celebration of singularity in On the road with Lutoslawski.
All photos taken by me and (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010 except photo 10 which is credited to La Voix du Nord. With thanks to Jean-Jacques in Lille, the community at L'Abbaye Saint Paul, Wisques, the staff of Norfolk Line at Dunkirk for putting me on an early return ferry at no charge thereby avoiding some very hazardous driving conditions, and to Jan Jedlička's A Winter's Journey To The Sea for the inspiration. All costs were paid by me, the total budget for the trip was less than the taxi fare from Stratford to London. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
Glenn Gould was a champion of Schoenberg, and regularly performed Berg, Krenek and Webern. Yet Messiaen seems to have been a blind spot. Kevin Bazzana's masterly 528 page biography of Gould contains not one single mention of Messiaen.

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