Jump to content
Mander Organ Builders Forum

Eroticism And Theology In The Organ Music Of Messiaen

Peter Clark

Recommended Posts

From the Hebrew Song of Songs, though St John of the Cross and beyond there has been a link between the perception of the divine and the erotic impulse, probably best exemplified in Bernini’s famous Transverberation of St Teresa (based, incidentally, on the saint’s own account of her religious experiences). This connection is maintained and even exploited, I think, in the music of Messiaen; not just in the Turangalila symphony whose title makes clear the music’s inspiration, but also in his theological music (for Messiaen had always claimed that his music was theological rather than mystical). I have recently been learning the Priere après la Communion from Livre du Saint Sacrement (the only movement in that book I dare to play at the moment!) and I was struck by the extreme sensuousness of the harmonic language, especially in bars 9-11 and 26-33, which have an abundance of major sixths, sevenths, major sevenths and so on. At the other end of his career, Messiaen ended his first published organ piece, La Banquet Celeste, with a C# 7 chord which one now well-known organist described to me some 25 years ago as “orgasmic”.


I suspect that psychologists may tell us that the same part of the brain is responsible for religious experiences and erotic experiences. Any thoughts?



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest Patrick Coleman

A distinguished musician and priest once described Messiaen's music to me as a perpetual failed orgasm. :lol:


There is a lot in what you say about the relationship of faith and erotic love, though I have no expertise to comment on the psychological side of it. The failure of Western theology over many centuries to celebrate the erotic may be due in no small part to a spiritual 'territorial war' over those parts of the human make up that become alive when engaged by the spiritual or the erotic. To celebrate that which is partly uncontrollable would damage the Church's spiritual power game.


Part of the rehabilitation of church music may well come with a rehabilitation of joy for the sake of joy - including the frankly erotic.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A distinguished musician and priest once described Messiaen's music to me as a perpetual failed orgasm. :wacko:

No, that's Bruckner! :P Several times I've sat through Bruckner symphonies (or maybe it was the same one serveral times - bit difficult to tell, really) and invariably I feel climax after climax building and subsiding without ever actually arriving. Damned frustrating, I can tell you! :blink:


As for Messiaen, though I've never tried looking up the texts, his Cinq rechants are said to be frankly erotic. Then there's Harawi, which together with Turangalila and the Cinq rechants are supposed to form a "Tristan trilogy".


I have no doubt that one of Messiaen's prime aims (though not necessarily all the time) was to transport the listener with beauty of sound. To my mind, his music does not come more sublime than that long, dreamy Cornet solo in Le verbe from La nativité. But I would call that "other-worldly", not erotic. However Le banquet céleste - well now, that is as sensual as they come. So, too is the quiet passage that immediately follows the crashing opening of Dieu parmi nous - and I think that too is intended to signify the Communion (perhaps there is a theme here?) The sensuality is so overwhelming that it is the musical equivalent of losing one's self entirely in another person - which presumably is what true communion with God should be. That's love, surely, but whether it's eroticism - well, I suppose that's a personal response.


How was it for you, dear?


Interesting comment from Patrick about spiritual power games. I know nothing of sociology, but I seriously wonder whether the church's repression of sex has been responsible for more misery in this world over the centuries than any other single factor. I am no doubt being too simplistic, but I had always assumed this had its roots in man's control of the church and his view of women as things to be possessed and dominated. Yet the medieval mind did not deny sexuality. The tales of the saints are alive with such stories as the virgin healing a blind person by spouting milk into his eyes from her breasts. Virgin martyrs frequently underwent sexually abusive surgery (to be somewhat euphemistic about it) in the cause of their death. Then there's that famous painting of St Sebastian full of arrows, one of which is sticking out of a particularly tender spot. I don't pretend to have got my mind round what was behind this, though I imagine it was the medieval church's idea of bringing home to their congregations the pain and suffering of these martyrs in ways they would find particularly vivid.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

We are touching on an enormous subject here, and one which is really beyond the remit of the Mander Message Board.


My own belief is, that to associate eroticism with music may well be to place the cart before the horse.


By its very nature, eroticism is where sexual/emotional desire and yearning, are focused upon an object or upon specific words and phrases, which then trigger a psycho-sexual response. As crude examples, one does not have to explain the erotic qualities of bananas, peaches or the coco de mer; each being visually obvious. These are obvious examples of visual eroticism.


In the use of words, eroticism is one of the more powerful tools in the writer’s repertoire of word association. The effect is often immediate:-


“The tender touch of her fingers seared his skin, and set alight the burning desire he had fought so long to resist.”


The “Ectasy of St.Teresa” is famous in art for one thing. It is not famous because the female body is represented, but in the fact that the facial features have often been associated with female orgasm.


In the famous “Martyrdom of S.Sebastein,” there is a wonderful juxtaposition of extreme pain and violence on the one hand, and extreme innocence on the other. In fact, the saintly expression is completely out of synch with the reality of the situation; thus assuming a certain (I hate the following word) surrealism. In homo-erotic terms, it has always held appeal to those who take pleasure in pain; either passively or actively.


Music, I would suggest, does not convey specific references to specific visual clues, or to familiar patterns of words; at least as dots on paper which can then be played and heard.

Of course, once we know that Vierne was writing “Berceuse” for his baby daughter, or that Alain’s Litanies was perhaps a personal outpouring about war and faith; then our understanding of them is changed.


As pure music, without obvious meanings being apparent, a piece may still alter the emotions quite radically.


The Indian psychologist Geetanjali Vaidya, wrote in an article:-


“The tremendous ability that music has to affect and manipulate emotions and the brain is undeniable, and yet largely inexplicable. Very little serious research had gone into the mechanism behind music's ability to physically influence the brain until relatively recently.”


In the same article, he writes very truthfully:-


“A piece of music may be undeniably emotionally powerful, and at the same time be experienced in very different ways by each person who hears it.”


Studies have shown that brain-activity and brain-chemistry can change dramatically as a response to music, and increased activity is apparent in certain “arousal areas” of the brain. These are the same areas of the brain associated with sex, food and drugs; which can bring great pleasure and satisfaction.


Geetanjali Vaidya also writes the following:-


“Another quantifiable aspect of emotional responses to music is its effect on hormone levels in the body. There is evidence that music can lower levels of cortisol in the body (associated with arousal and stress), and raise levels of melatonin (which can induce sleep). This is outwardly visible in terms of music's ability to relax, to calm, and to give peace. Music is often used in the background hospitals to relax the patients, or in mental hospitals to calm potentially belligerent patients. It also can cause the release of endorphins, and can therefore help relieve pain.”


I have also heard, that in listening to music, increased levels of Adrenalin are released, and this is what makes the hairs on the backs of necks and on arms stand up. All musicians should know something about this.


I don’t think we should be at all surprised by any of this, because the classic first-date is often a combination of soft-lights, good food and sweet-music. It’s called a restaurant!


So in essence, the close association of food, sex, pleasure in specific areas of the human brain, may easily lead to the idea that music may be somehow “erotic” or have erotic associations, but I would suggest not. Music, like LSD, can alter brain chemistry, and make us more susceptible and amenable to all sort of emotional strings, which may or may not include the association of erotic thought. However, I would suggest that this is exactly what it is: association and associated feelings, rather than specific suggestions of actual erotic or emotional content.


But isn’t it wonderful, that a century or so after the event, we can listen to “Berceuse” and know EXACTLY how Vierne felt when he gazed lovingly down at his baby daughter?



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yet the medieval mind did not deny sexuality.






Oh indeed!


How many memorials were there to same-sex unions, which found a certain acceptance in medieval society? It makes the puritanism of to-day seem so ridiculous.


Only the "swinging 60's" could have permitted the sculpture potraying "St Michael fighting the devil" above the entrance steps to Coventry Cathedral.


The Devil, it seems, is quite a big boy, and quite unable to control himself!


This somehow reminds me of an hilarious exchange between a Biology teacher at a Choir School, and a group of girls in her charge, at the particular moment when a boy from the local comprehensive school stood in front of the school-gates, dropped his trousers and exposed himself to the girls.


Without so much as blinking, the Biology teacher said very loudly, "Now girls! Remember what I was telling you about sexual anatomy? That is the male penis. I'm sorry it's such a pathetic example!"


The poor boy fled in terror; never to be seen again.





Link to comment
Share on other sites

And, getting back to Messiaen again, isn't O sacrum convivium, just as sensuous as the pieces already mentioned? I note it's another Communion piece.

I heard someone, maybe Michael Berkeley, say that OM decided that he couldn't write for the liturgy after O sacrum convivium as it came too close to perfection, or something.


My suggestion for his most sensuous piece is the Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine. Maybe it's one of those pieces you have to perform in order to "get"; I played celeste about 25 years ago and I'll never forget being part of that miraculous soundworld.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

All evening I've had at the back of my mind that lush, dreamy second half of Combat de la mort et de la vie from Les Corps glorieux so eventually I had to go and check what it was all about. The programmatic text at the beginning of the piece ends with the phrase, "My Father, I am arisen, I am with you again" and the movement itself is marked "Bathed in the radiant peace of divine love". So again we have the dual concept of communion and love.


It's a long time since I heard the Trois petites liturgies, but I used to have a reel-to-reel tape of them that I used to listen to a lot. I eventually replaced it with an LP, but that performance turned out to be rather indifferent and it has languished in a cupboard for years. I looked it out and the sleeve notes tell me that "Three ideas are part of Messiaen's thought: love of man, love of nature, and faith, divine love. Though some find conflict between any of these ideas, Messiaen finds none." And there's a quote from the man himself: "Even a very great love is a reflection, a pale reflection, but nevertheless, a reflection, of the only true love, divine love." Sadly the text of the liturgies is not given, but from the above, it would seem that the love/communion theme is present again.


It does rather look as if Messiaen reserved his most tender harmonies for the most tender of emotions. I would still not call it erotic. Eroticism is an aspect of desire and is really something quite separate from love. They can go hand in hand, but you can also have either without the other. In the same way that for Bach all music expressed the greater glory of God, for Messiaen all love was an expression of the divine love. I dare say he would have acknowledged that eroticism had its place (as in the "Tristan trilogy"), but I suspect he would have regarded it as too limited, too earthly an impulse to be an adequate expression of communion with God. Divine love is a spiritual concept in which purely fleshly instincts are entirely superfluous. Erotic? No. I think Messiaen was aiming at something higher.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It does rather look as if Messiaen reserved his most tender harmonies for the most tender of emotions. I would still not call it erotic. Eroticism is an aspect of desire and is really something quite separate from love. They can go hand in hand, but you can also have either without the other. In the same way that for Bach all music expressed the greater glory of God, for Messiaen all love was an expression of the divine love. I dare say he would have acknowledged that eroticism had its place (as in the "Tristan trilogy"), but I suspect he would have regarded it as too limited.....






As an afterthought, I realised that Petr Eben wrote the "Biblical Dances" with eroticism in mind. I think it the one about "Jeptha's Daughter" doing a seductive belly-dance or something.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Create New...