Messiaen, Bach, and Wordless Theology

My initial research goal has been to find affinities between Messiaen and Bach in their instrumental music. Both advance theological messages in purely instrumental music, but I’m finding it more difficult to connect the two than I’d like. In part, because I don’t have the sort of Bach scholarship I’m looking for (detailed theological analysis of his instrumental works. I know there’s theological symbolism in a lot of it, I just need some scholarly sources to lean on). I intend to continue looking, but if I don’t find anything soon I may scale back and just make an argument about Messiaen’s theology.

Messiaen’s compositional techniques are absolutely fascinating. I plan to draw on Messiaen’s Interpretations of Holiness and Trinity by Siglind Bruhn. She explains that in Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité Messiaen develops a system for expressing written language musically. He assigns letters to pitches and grammatical cases to certain melodic figures, and uses this system to quote Thomas Aquinas in several of the Méditations. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all have their own musical figures as well. Messiaen manipulates these figures to advance theological ideas about the trinity. Bruhn refers to the Méditations as a “palindrome”, but I think it might be more appropriate to say they have a chiastic structure. That is to say, it follows a sort of ABCDED1C1B1A1 structure. The 1st meditation and the last are similar in form, structure and message, as for the 2nd and 8th, 3rd and 7th, and 4th and 6th, with the middle Meditation being the longest and most elaborate. Interestingly, chiastic structures are incredibly common in Biblical writings. They are rhetorically powerful. Messiaen’s use of this structure serves to more strongly link his Méditations to the written/spoken word.

I’ve also continued to find scholars who really irk me. For instance, Wilfrid Mellers writes a chapter in the Messiaen Companion titled “Mysticism and Theology”. He makes some rather odd suggestions about Messiaen’s work.  For instance, he suggests that the numerous add 6 chords in the last movement of Quatour pour la fin du temps “may hint at how eroticism may, at several levels, be a gateway to paradise!” because of their resemblance to “cocktail jazz”. What? In his discussion of the Turangalila-symphonie he refers to influences of the “primitivism of jazz”. Perhaps I’m too sensitive to the word “primitivism”, but this strikes me as revealing an unwillingness to recognize all of Messiaen’s non-western influences as legitimate. Mellers goes on to accuse Messiaen of pantheism which is a lazy mischaracterization. “Panentheism is likely the term he’s looking for. “Pantheism” is the rough category of beliefs that God and the universe are the same. “Panentheism” merely emphasizes God’s presence in the world, while maintaining the possibility of immaterial aspects of God and non-divine aspects of nature. Messiaen clearly makes these distinctions.

I am still delineating an argument from the material I’ve picked up so far. I’m becoming tempted to argue that Messiaen’s language communicable (his way of transcribing words musically) is a surprisingly protestant idea, though this feels obvious.

My plan for the moment is to pick up more Bach scholarship and see if I can draw some parallels between the Trinitarian theology of the two composers. If at all possible, I’d like to keep my argument centered on the music itself, so I can actually provide examples from the score.

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