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Messiaen At 100: A Song For The Solar System

On the composer's 100th birthday, hear his tribute to divine grandeur and "immense solitude."
Olivier Messiaen; credit: AFP/AFP/Getty Images
On the composer's 100th birthday, hear his tribute to divine grandeur and "immense solitude."

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Olivier Messiaen's birth shouldn't be just another academic exercise in praise of a dead composer. The music of the mystical Frenchman, who died in 1992, reaches far beyond that.

In From the Canyons to the Stars Messiaen reaches out to the universe, sending brass, percussion and strings soaring from the depths of Utah's great rouge-colored chasms up to the heavens. The piece is essentially a 95-minute piano concerto inspired by Messiaen's visit to Bryce Canyon and Zion Park in 1972. Within its 12 movements, the composer reveals every facet of the sound world that makes him unique.

Massive columns of orchestral sound, carved in brass, stand tall amid swirls of color, jazzy riffs, and the skittish chirping of Messiaen's beloved birdcalls. He conjures both the spectacular grandeur of God's creation — he was a devout Catholic — and what he described as "immense solitude."

The eighth movement, "The Resurrected and the Song of the Star Aldebaran," strikes a meditative mood, with strings chanting a gently shifting melody while stars twinkle and birds twitter in the glockenspiel, piccolo and piano. Messiaen adds slithery harmonics to end phrases, as if a silken thread of light carries the song that connects the earthborn boulders and birds to a celestial afterworld.

On a more terrestrial level, Messiaen reaches beyond classical confines. Bjork is a fan, while Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood talks of his Messiaen epiphany at age 15, when he first heard the Turangalîla-Symphonie. Greenwood even applies the composer's signature instrument, the mechanical-electrical Ondes Martenot, in Radiohead songs such as "How to Disappear Completely." His Grammy-nominated score to the film There Will Be Blood contains more than a few nods to the French master.

Messiaen was something of a musical misfit. His ideas about melody, harmony and rhythm seemed to fall to earth out of nowhere, fitting into no particular school of thought. And yet he changed the way people thought about music as it exists in the infinity that was, for him, his God and the universe.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.