I first heard the music of Olivier Messiaen when I was a student in the 1980s, recently arrived in London to study Theology and Philosophy at Heythrop College. I loved classical music but knew nothing of music written in my lifetime.
One evening I happened to be walking past the Festival Hall when an elderly man got out of a limousine and went into the concert hall. There seemed to be a lot of excitement in the audience.
I was a poor student, but tickets were cheap enough for me to be able to walk in and see what all the fuss was about. The music started, and to this day I don’t know what the piece was, but it was like nothing I had ever heard. Words like “radiant”, and “ecstatic” point in the right direction, but it’s hard to capture what I felt.
The composer was in the audience. He stood to the applause of an adoring public. It was the man I had seen coming into the concert hall. I later discovered that he was Messiaen.
This happened 33 years ago. Messiaen is now widely regarded as was one of the giants of 20th-century classical music. He was also a devout Catholic. When in London he stayed with the Fathers at the Oratory. This was at a time when most of Messiaen’s contemporaries were fiercely anti-religious. In admitting his faith, which he readily did, Messiaen risked being ostracised by the musical establishment. And in openly declaring that the goal of his music was to further his faith, he risked being marginalised from the very audience he hoped to affect.
If this wasn’t problematic enough, his music is also technically challenging. Not only did he use all the tools of modern composition available, he also invented some of his own and, when he could not find what he needed, he borrowed from the musical traditions of other cultures. The faith he demonstrated was not primarily a matter of logic. It was, as I perhaps had glimpsed when I stumbled into this performance, mystical.
Mystical experiences are, by their very nature, beyond anything strictly logical. They are mostly communicated by something that amounts to poetic language, if not actual poetry or other works of art. In the Christian tradition the personal encounter with God has taken as many different forms as there are mystics.
Our great mystics include the saints I hold in highest esteem and look to for guidance: St Francis, St Ignatius of Loyola and St Teresa of Avila.
Messiaen, like many modern classical composers, has left his share of baffled audiences. It’s against this background of theoretical difficulty and expression of mystical faith that I ask myself why I, and many others, have come to see Messiaen as perhaps the most important of 20th-century composers. The advantage I think I had, when I first heard his music, was that I did not approach it with any preconceptions. I just listened as intently as I could.
In the end music is not a theoretical exercise. Messiaen’s goal was to transport the listener to the timeless existence that is wholly outside our own world. He used nature – most famously, birdsong – to help him create this eternal blissful world. He was embarrassed to admit that he saw colours when he heard sounds – but what a special gift and grace. I think his music has the power to take the listener to this other world.
Whether you have faith or not, Messiaen’s music can give you a sense of the mystical. This is something not easily found in our world, but I think it is even more important in a secular age than it was in earlier times when devout composers wrote music for religious audiences.
Many of Messiaen’s compositions are joyful. More than that, they are glorious and ecstatic. He was without negativity and fully convinced of his faith, but he didn’t focus on anything judgmental, rather on showing us his vision.
I encourage you to find some of Messiaen’s music and listen with as open a mind as you can. I hope you will hear the colours and see the radiant light in the music, and that it will transport you to the sublime world that is outside of ours. I think everyone owes it to themselves to try.
Dame Rachel de Souza is the founder and chief executive of the Inspiration Trust