Luca Signorelli, RESURRECTION OF THE BODY, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto, 1499-1502

Oliver Messiaen’s “Joie et clarté des corps glorieux” (Joy and Light of the Glorious Bodies) is from his Les Corps glorieux: Sept Visions brèves de la vie des ressuscités (The Glorious Bodies: Seven Brief Visions of the Life of the Resurrected). He explained what the music portrays with a verse of scripture: “Then shall the righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

The entire suite was completed in August of 1939 and was his last composition before his imprisonment by the Nazis, which suffices to explain its delayed premiere. While Messiaen always spoke of the organ at La Trinité as his “laboratoire,” he gave the first public performance of this movement in a recital at Paris’s Palais de Chaillot at the end of December 1941, and the premiere of the complete suite did not take place until November of 1943, in the same hall.

Messiaen was ready with an answer to those who often bitterly criticized him for the apparently profane nature of his music. It was felt to be over-dramatic, too sensuous, impure. In a conversation with Antoine Goléa the composer defended himself vehemently:

Those people who reproach me do not know the dogma and know even less about the sacred books… They expect from me a charming, sweet music, vaguely mystical and above all soporific. As an organist I have been able to note the set texts for the liturgy… Do you think that psalms, for example, speak of sweet and sugary things? A psalm groans, howls, bellows, beseeches, exults, and rejoices in turn.

This performance, though on an instrument that is not at all of the same character as that of Messiaen, is a successful one:


November 13, 2010

If you are red-green color-blind, you will see the number 2 above, as I do.

Most discussions of Olivier Messiaen quickly turn to the subject of color, since his was an extreme instance of synesthesia. As a musician with a moderate degree of red-green color-blindness, I’ve long been interested in how my condition might affect the perception of music. Though Messiaen’s linking of color and tone was far more radical than mine, the general question of color is to some extent transferable among our senses (as when we speak of “loud” colors, for example). My own color-blindness is of a sort in which I see all the colors as different (and my pallet is extremely satisfying and my taste not noticeably different from the norm), but it has been proven to me scientifically that my colors are not your colors. My curiosity about the way one sense affects another is enhanced by the fact that the best musician of my acquaintance is completely color-blind but has the absolutest of absolute pitch. Since he’s also a student of Homer, I have often thought of them both as I recall sunsets over the Mediterranean (a passion of mine) and my conviction that Homer’s wine-dark sea really does look like wine at a certain moment in the process. Now I stumble on this interview in the Paris Review, from which I quote:

What’s the best explanation for Homer’s describing honey as green, oxen as wine-colored, and iron as violet? And why did the natives of Murray Island call the sky black, of all colors!

Well, as for the first question, I can’t explain it better than William Ewart Gladstone did one hundred and fifty years ago: “Colours were for Homer not facts but images: his words describing them are figurative words, borrowed from natural objects. There was no fixed terminology of colour; and it lay with the genius of each true poet to choose a vocabulary for himself.” For Homer, the word that ended up meaning “green” meant something like “fresh” or “pale,” and could be applied with perfect sense to fresh and pale looking things of both green and yellow hue. The distinction in hue between yellow and green was not one that seemed very important in his day. Similarly, in many cultures “blue” is just considered a particular shade of black, and finding a particular name for this particular shade is not a very pressing matter, especially as blue material objects (as opposed to the vast nothingness of sky or even the sea) are extremely rare in nature. So it makes perfect sense, if some nagging anthropologist comes to question you about the color of the sky, to use the nearest color on your palette, and say “black.”

The book under discussion there deals with the idea that color-perception is as much a cultural matter as the perception of music is. The romance of music as a “universal language” has long since been debunked, but it seems that color is also unstable from culture to culture.

And it just occurs to me that, since my variety of genetic color-blindness is common in males and not present in females (though inherited through the mother), the effects of any links between color and music would also vary, not just from individual to individual and culture to culture, but between the sexes as well.

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