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Four Last SongsAging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten$
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Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780226255590

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226255620.001.0001

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Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)

Faith in God and Art

(p.61) Chapter Five Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Four Last Songs

Linda Hutcheon

Michael Hutcheon

University of Chicago Press

When the 67-year-old composer of organ, piano, voice, and orchestral music, Olivier Messiaen, accepted his first opera commission, he seized the opportunity both to renovate what he saw as a moribund form and to ensconce his deep Catholic faith in the opera house. By the time the frequently postponed Saint François d’Assise was premiered 8 years later in 1983, Messiaen had been taxed creatively, physically, psychologically, and emotionally. This first and last monumental opera was to be his final testimony to his religious faith and his musical innovations (in rhythm, harmony, and melody): once briefly a “super-serialist,” Messiaen had developed his own idiosyncratic modernist style, based on a complex transformation of birdsong. The opera’s sheer scale and its musical complexity match its religious aim: to make its audience experience, through the music, nothing less than transcendence—a sensual, emotional dazzlement (“éblouissement”). The opera completed, Messiaen felt “finished” as a composer, but for this deeply Catholic man, who had dedicated his life and his work to expressing the truths of the faith, not to write music again constituted a significant threat to his very sense of himself.

Keywords:   Saint François d’Assise, Messiaen, Birdsong, catholicism, rhythm, super-serialist, modernism

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