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`School of the ecstatic.' Devotional, emotional life and music of Messiaen

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Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time, by Paul Griffiths. Cornell University Press. 274 pp. (including photographs, musical illustrations). $24.95. Twelve years ago, critic Philip Ramey wrote on the music of Olivier Messiaen and compared it to the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, in that no one ever seems middle-of-the-road on either subject. It's a point very well taken, all the more interesting because the two are so completely opposite. Bruckner's symphonies (and the disposition to listen to them) are made of the most patiently placid devoutness. Messiaen is devout, to be sure, but registers in the stratosphere scale of emotional content.

The French organist and composer, born in Grenoble in 1908, belongs to that group identified, a little or a lot, with the ecstatic in music. From Hector Berlioz in the early decades of the 19th century, to later men like Alexander Scriabin, Charles Ives, Frederick Delius, Herbert Howells, Ernest Bloch, and to a lesser extent, even Ralph Vaughan Williams -- and into our own era with such as George Crumb and Joseph Schwantner -- the ``school of the ecstatic'' has been, if a blind alley for imitators, at l east a familiar one. We recognize that trait in those composers who, like the quintessentially ecstatic Delius, cling in their music to a vision of things beyond the pale of this earthly scene, and in whose music the earthbound is sometimes barely given heed.

At all events, London Times critic Paul Griffiths is by no means a fence-rider in this analytical monograph on Messiaen -- an exhaustive study obviously born of an intense devotion. Griffiths is a music critic known more often for his keenness than for the astuteness of his observations, and it is interesting to see him approaching Messiaen the man and musician with as much delectation as when he launches elsewhere into his airy dismissals of composers he doesn't happen to care for.

This is an important book, especially for Messiaen devotees. It is highly technical, not an ``easy read,'' by any stretch. It is not a biography as such, but a monograph addressing practically every movement of every work of Messiaen's, from the standpoint of his exotic modes of melodic scale and rhythm, and his concepts of duration, all tied to his deeply felt, if freewheelingly applied, pantheism and Roman Catholic mysticism.

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