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Professor Schloesser’s Visions of Amen explores cosmic visions & historical notes

Professor Schloesser’s Visions of Amen explores cosmic visions & historical notes

Olivier Messiaen at the organ console of La Trinité, Paris (ca. 1932)

As a Jesuit, historian, and educator, Dr. Schloesser has taught at several institutions, curated fine art and public history exhibitions, and published research on Catholicism in modernity. Schloesser is also an amateur organist with a particular passion for works by Olivier Messiaen and fellow 20th-century French Catholic composers.

The Loyola University History Department celebrates with Dr. Schloesser his recent publication. PhD candidate Nathan Jérémie-Brink posed some questions to Schloesser about his recent book and ongoing work.

Tell us how you first came upon Olivier Messiaen’s music?

I remember vividly the first time I stumbled upon Messiaen's music back around 1978 or so. I was an undergraduate commuter and I was in my car very early on a Sunday morning, on my way to practice the pipe organ during the rare unscheduled hours in Macalester College's concert hall. Just about the time I arrived in the parking lot, a recording of Messiaen's Apparition of the Eternal Church came on the car radio. I had these booming Jensen speakers and Messiaen's music made the car shake like mad. I was transfixed. I had been working on Jehan Alain's Second Fantasy and Jean Langlais's Incantation for a Holy Day—but Messiaen's Apparition seemed to be in a category all its own. I quickly scribbled down the composer's name (as well as I could figure it out from the announcer's pronunciation) and the title. I found a copy of the score in the music library and set down immediately to learning it. That moment was a huge turning point in my life. Several years ago, I was amazed as I watched Paul Festa's documentary video (2008). Seeing the wonderful varied reactions of all those people as they first encountered this piece reminded me of what that experience had been like thirty years earlier.

How did you first decide to work on the Visions of Amen (1943) as a book project?

In 2004, while I was teaching at Boston College, I was contacted by Professor Hyesook Kim at Calvin College. She said that she and a colleague from music school, Professor Stéphane Lemelin, were interested in a collaborative project that would explore Messiaen's work for two pianos: it would involve a lecture-concert tour that included performances of the work as well as a pre-lecture giving background to Messiaen's life and thought, and, eventually, a published work accompanied by a recording of the piece. I was just finishing up the last details of getting Jazz Age Catholicism (Toronto, 2005) a chapter of which considered the work of Charles Tournemire, one of Messiaen's early mentors—ready for publication, and I thought this would be an exciting followup project. The Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship awarded us generous financial assistance to pursue this lecture-concert tour of several campus venues during the 2004–05 academic year; and it also assisted in financing the recording as well as research costs. Originally, I thought the project would be finished in just a few years. However, the 2014 publication date of the book tells you that it ended up being an unanticipated ten-year project of researching and writing. Part of the reason is that I was offered the chance to curate an art exhibition and edit a catalog commemorating the fiftieth anniversary (1958–2008) of Georges Rouault's death. Rouault had been another figure to whom a chapter of Jazz Age Catholicism was dedicated, and I was thrilled to be able to assemble a good number of his works for display. However, the Rouault project forced putting the Messiaen book on hold for a couple years. In the end this turned out to be extremely fortuitous. The centenary of Messiaen's birth in 2008 occasioned a very large number of scholarly publications that significantly altered our understanding of his life. I was especially influenced by books that told the tragic story of Messiaen's mother, Cécile Sauvage, and explored her poetic works, especially those marked by erotic mysticism.

After your first section discusses the early life and intellectual influences of Messiaen, the entire second section of your book analyzes and comments on each of the seven movements of the Visions de l’Amen (Visions of Amen, 1943). It is amazing to think that this piece was written shortly after Messiaen was released from a German prisoner-of-war camp (in which the Quartet for the End of Time was premiered) and first performed in Paris under German occupation. Why is it such an important commentary on both his thought and the historical period?

One of the things that seems most valuable to me about the seven "Visions" in this piece is that they offer a kind of compendium of Messiaen's storehouse of images assembled by the time he had reached age 35. Once you have these images, they help you interpret the works composed prior to the Second World War; and perhaps more significantly, they help you interpret the works that followed—during the period that Messiaen became "Messiaen." For example:

Vision 1 is about time and our perception of it. This interest in rhythm (leading to his use of Hindu talas) had been a preoccupation of Messiaen's at least since his first encounter with Henri Bergson's notion of "duration" back in the 1920s. (He played with Bergson's philosophy in an early prelude entitled "Dead Instants.")

Vision 2 musically pictures the "interstellar" world of outer space, a passion that Messiaen will explore more fully thirty years later in From the Canyons to the Stars, written for America's bicentennial.

Vision 3, "The Agony of Jesus," offers a surrealist's juxtaposition as the two movements devoted to cosmic events unfolding in light years are immediately followed by the intimacy of a single human life in a highly concentrated moment of mental anguish and physical suffering.

Vision 4, the mid-point of the work, nicely exemplifies the "erotic mysticism" found in his mother's poetry. It provides another surrealist juxtaposition between sexual passion and intimate repose—a juxtaposition that will recur in the contrast between movements 5 ("Joy of the Stars' Blood", a surrealist title in itself) and 6 ("Garden of Love's Sleep") of the Turangalîla Symphonie.

After this mid-point, Vision 5 moves beyond the cosmos' origins and terrestrial life to eschatological subjects including saints with "glorified bodies," angels (eschatological figures who announce the end of time), and the invariable songs on which birds improvise. Already here in 1942–43, Messiaen is exploring what he will become most known for after the world war: birdsong, especially in the monumental Catalog of Birds (1956–58) and his mammoth opera St. Francis of Assisi in which the beloved saint famously preaches to the birds.

Vision 6, a brief but punchy piece representing the final judgment at the end of time, is meant to convey fear, terror, and horror. Messiaen was fascinated by emotions like fear and terror, especially as he encountered them as a child in the works of Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. In the interwar 1930s, Messiaen had represented horror in the movement "Epouvante" ["Terror"] from the Poems for Mi, written for his first wife; and in one of my favorite pieces, "The Eyes in the Wheel" from the 1950s. In his St. Francis opera toward the end of his life, "fear" was a central leitmotif—as in "I am afraid on the road."

Vision 7 concludes the entire work by representing the "consummation" of creation. As has often been repeated, Messiaen described himself as a "musician of joy" who had no temperament for writing a requiem mass. Instead, as a commemoration of the war dead, he composed Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorumAnd I await the resurrection of the dead.

That last work—the Et exspecto, premiered in 1965 (twenty years after end of WWII) suggests for me an answer to the second part of your question: Why are the Visions of Amen such an important commentary on the historical period? Messiaen's life and thought were inextricably bound up with the tragedies of the first half of the twentieth century: the First World War (his father served as a French-English translator at the front, a fact that impacted the rest of Messiaen's family history); the ominous (and yes, apocalyptic) interwar period of the 1930s; the Second World War (in which Messiaen was mobilized, captured, and imprisoned), the Occupation of France (in which he wrote this work), and eventually the Liberation of Paris. Perhaps the most significant work that signals this connection between theology and history is Messiaen's "Song of the Deported" written in 1945.

You examine the role of personality, individual circumstances, intellectual influences, and social forces in your treatment of Messiaen. But you also critically investigate his music and theology, in a way that few historians would be able. How did your academic training and vocational service equip you with the tools to do this type of research?

In several ways this project brought together a number of threads from my earlier education. As I already noted, I had studied music theory and history as an undergrad as well as organ performance. I continued organ studies for a number of years after that and have been fortunate to have had wonderful teachers. As a Jesuit I did the customary graduate studies in philosophy. During those years I had the remarkable good fortune to study with the late Leonard Eslick at St. Louis University; he introduced me to Process Philosophy and in particular to the work of Henri Bergson. It was thrilling, years later, to discover the centrality of Bergson's "duration" in Messiaen's thought and work. After philosophy studies I went on to teach English literature at a Jesuit prep school. There's nothing like teaching something to make you learn it (!), and I came away from those years with a great affinity for poetry. I especially grew to appreciate Charles Baudelaire as well as postwar surrealists like Paul Éluard. This all helped me get at least a small feeling for the poetry that suffused the lives of Messiaen and his literary parents. Finally, I also did a Jesuit's customary graduate studies in theology, including an overload of courses on scripture (again, the literature!) and a particular interest in metaphysics. Since two of the numerous influences on Messiaen's thought are scripture and Saint Thomas Aquinas, I felt at home there. I should also say that I grew up Catholic in the very last years of the pre-Vatican II religiosity. I can still sing several plainchant hymns in Latin that I first learned at age six—it's something that just stays with you. That religiosity had largely disappeared by the time I was about ten or twelve. So I have something of an insider's intuition for many things in Messiaen that most people today would find extremely foreign. In fact, one of the difficult things about presenting him to an audience in 2015 is trying to reconstruct some of that for today's audience.

The book includes a downloadable performance by professional pianists and music professors Stéphane Lemelin and Hyesook Kim. A live lecture/performance and a grant for the project were hosted and made possible by Calvin College. What were the challenges and joys of this multi-disciplinary and mixed-media project? And what is it about Messiaen’s music that speaks to people of such diverse cultural and faith traditions?

I probably didn't find such collaboration as challenging as others might have. Both scholarship and sustained music performance practice requires long periods of isolation in archives and in front of keyboards (whether computers or instruments)—and I certainly have a sense of that and even feel very comfortable in that solitude. On the other hand, as a musician, I always loved playing for and with choirs and other instrumentalists: for me it's an emotional experience that's almost indescribable. Similarly, being a Jesuit means frequently collaborating with and leading an ensemble (sometimes an ensemble of hundreds) in church services. Maybe this is what draws me to other collaborative ventures—like the Rouault exhibition I mentioned earlier; and, more recently, an exhibition and conference commemorating the bicentennial of the Jesuit Restoration (1814-2014); and finally, the published collections like the Rouault catalog or the Tournemire papers that come out of those projects.

As for why people are attracted to diverse audiences: a very memorable encounter during the 2004–05 lecture-concert tour has really stayed with me during the past decade. A woman came up to me after the last of those events and told me that she had traveled to hear the performance three times in various Midwestern venues. She said that she was drawn by Messiaen's fascination with creation—both astronomical as well as here on earth (especially birds)—with human love, and with the possibility of human transcendence. She concluded by saying: "I don't know whether others would call me 'religious'; but Messiaen's vision is one I feel I can believe in." I was really struck by what she said—and I think she expressed what many listeners are drawn towards. When I see films like Inception or Interstellar or Cloud Atlas—interpenetrations across space and time of unimaginable infinities and incredibly intimate particularities—I think how Messiaen would have loved living in today's boundary-bending "surrealist" culture.

Your previous research projects on Catholicism and Modernism take art very seriously, such as your work on Rouault's painted masks and Jean Cocteau's crowd in postwar Paris. What makes the music and art so integral for our understanding history? Do you have any practical insight for the most effective ways to use music in the history classroom?

My graduate thesis in philosophy was on the art theory of John Dewey, especially as laid out in his Art as Experience (1934). Doing that work really shaped the way I think about both art and teaching. Dewey believed that when we experience a work of art, we should in some sense have to recreate the original "problem" to which that work was a response or "answer." When we teach science, we go to the laboratory and recreate experiments. Why, asked Dewey, don't we do the same things in other subject matters? I feel this way about teaching intellectual and cultural history. If I am reading with students an ancient or medieval or modern text—Aristotle or Aquinas or Marx—it's not at all immediately clear to them that we are talking about historical epochs that are significantly different or "other" from ours. These are uniform letters on a page—the Penguin paperback editions of Aristotle and Aquinas and Marx all look and feel the same. However, when I show students musical clips in class—for example, from Hildegard of Bingen or Sephardim or Beethoven or Stravinsky or Penderecki or The Beatles or Simone—they might not understand what they're hearing; but they do sense that we are in a different place than they are used to. And they are not just reading about it: they are experiencing it. The same goes for art—and it's especially terrific that our students have free access to the Art Institute of Chicago—I require them to go once a semester and take a selfie in front a work that represents a historical epoch we studied. I can't tell you how many students have thanked me (although they complained at first!) for requiring them to go and really look at something there. The experience of coming into contact with an authentic object (and not a digital image of it) makes a big impact on them—just as John Dewey said it would.

Using music in the history classroom has become so easy thanks to the easy access of You Tube. When we cover the Great Plague I introduce the students to the Dies Irae plainchant—and to any of the numerous remix versions of it, just to let them know that other people have listened to this as well! (Same for Carmina Burana.) When we cover the invention of bourgeois culture I take them through Bach's Coffee Cantata. When we cover Frankenstein and talk about the Romantic hero we think about the soloist in a Beethoven piano concerto. When we talk about nationalism we do Puccini (they never forget the ending of Tosca!) and Wagner's Valkyries (which makes a return appearance in our Vietnam section). Lots of possibilities!

If you had to teach a course that featured dueling pianos rather than lectures, what would be the topic and who from among your colleagues in the Loyola History Department would be on the opposite piano bench?

I would love to team-teach a course with Prof. David Dennis—and I hope I would get six credit hours for the experience. The breadth and depth of his knowledge is frightening (in a good Messiaen way).

What’s next for Professor Schloesser?

During the coming 2015–16 academic year I will occupy the "Jesuit Chair" at Georgetown University. During that time I will work with Prof. Kyle Roberts on co-editing the papers that were given at the Crossings and Dwellings conference in October 2014, a volume to be published in Brill's Jesuit Studies series. I also hope to begin working on a book on 20th-century Jesuit intellectuals, based on a course I've now taught several times. Finally, I've long wanted to get into a research project tentatively entitled "Mystical Discourse," largely inspired by the work of Michel de Certeau (1925–1986). This might be the time to make a first stab at that.