August 9, 2011 by Matthew Mason
In an old (by internet standards!) but very good article, Michael Linton speaks about the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that Messiaen was the greatest Christian artist of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest composers of all time. He was certainly one of the most radical and progressive composers of his age, yet his music is deeply rooted in the Church and in his Catholic faith (he was organist of Church of La Trinité in Paris for most of his life).
In June 1940, Messiaen was rounded up and snet to a Nazi internment camp. In December 1940 he completed one of the masterworks of twentieth century music: the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”). I still remember being enthralled by this when I first heard it as a 17 year old.
Linton compares the quartet with other works written in the shadow of World War Two, indicating what a Christian artist, informed by Christian eschatology, can achieve that secular artists – and in at least 3 of these cases, secular geniuses – could not achieve.
…not too long after Messiaen’s quartet was completed, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Britten, and Penderecki would write pieces expressive of the horrors of the Nazis and their war, music full of screams, howls, and cries for righteous justice against the oppressor.
But Messiaen has no place for such neo-pagan hysterics. In the middle of a prison camp, a prisoner unsure if he would ever again see his family or home, Messiaen composed a vision of heaven where anger, violence, vengeance, and despair are not so much repressed as irrelevant. This work has nothing to do with war, or prison, or “man’s inhumanity to man.” This piece is entirely about the work of God and the glory of Jesus. There is no darkness here. There is no bitterness. There is no rage. Instead there is power, light, transcendence, ecstasy, and joy eternal.