Color as Music

Olivier messaien.jpg

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is one of the 20th century’s most important composers. He began writing music at the age of seven, and entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1919 at the age of eleven, where he studied organ with Marcel Dupré and composition with Paul Dukas.  He was also influenced by the works of Stravinsky and Debussy.

The motet O Sacrum Convivium! was composed in 1937, on the eve of World War II, when Messiaen was twenty-nine years old. Though much of his work is overtly Christian in content, this is his only unaccompanied liturgical work. He later wrote of his belief that plainsong was perfect and unsurpassable as liturgical expression, and repudiated this early work, stating that he had moved on from it, both stylistically and philosophically. The texture of the work shares similarities with parlando style of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a copy of which he had been given by his earliest harmony teacher.  The bottom three voices are somewhat static, accompanying the sopranos, who sing a melody which is chant-like in character, though exhibiting a far more extreme tessitura. The homophonic texture is reminiscent of fauxbourdon, a technique of musical harmonization utilized in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.  Harmonically, the work alternates between tonal and modal tendencies, and doesn’t shy away from atonality; its static chromaticism lends the work a muted, but fervent, devotional quality, beautifully expressive of its text:

  O sacred banquet!
in which Christ is received,
the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory to us is given.

 Messiaen was a synesthete:  he experienced the sounds of music in terms of color. Without attempting to ascribe certain colors to specific emotions, he makes harmonic choices which render his music inexplicably “colorful”—a sensation experienced by anyone who listens to this fascinating and beautiful motet. 

 That is our concert:  Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium!, Requiem by Maurice Duruflé, Ubi caritas, a short motet by the same composer, Komm, Jesu, Komm by J.S. Bach, and Dextera Domine, by César Geoffray.  If you are scratching your head, wondering how this group of pieces combines in a single concert, come and hear us!  You won’t be disappointed. 

Sunday, June 9, 3 PM, at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 55th Street between Woodlawn and Kimbark Avenues, in Hyde Park. The church has a large parking lot, accessible from Woodlawn Avenue. 


Bruce TammenComment