Simon's research into the links between music and theology, sound and stained glass, in the synaesthetic music of French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)



My research into the theological aspects of Messiaen's music is documented in the thesis 'In Search of Musique Chatoyante: Technique, Theology, and the Play of Harmonic Resonance in Olivier Messiaen's Vitrail Sonore'. These findings influenced the recording of a cd project with supporting analytical material: a folio entitled '"Orpheus the Explorer": "Harmony of Parts" and "Charm of Colour" in the Performance of Olivier Messiaen's Organ Music'.

Whiterose open access etheses are available to read online. Click here to read In Search of Musique Chatoyante, and click here to read Orpheus the Explorer.  To listen to the related mp3 tracks, please click below.

1. Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà..., I 'Apparition du Christ glorieux'

2. Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité, VI "Le Fils, Verbe et Lumière'

3. La Nativité du Seigneur, IV 'Le Verbe'

4. Livre du Saint Sacrement, II 'la Source de Vie'

5. Les corps glorieux, VI 'Joie et clarté des corps glorieux'

6. Les corps glorieux, III 'L'ange aux parfums'

7. Verset pour la fête de la Dédicace 

8. Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité, II 'La Sainteté de Jésus-Christ'

9. Livre du Saint Sacrement, XIV 'Prière avant la communion'

10. Messe de la Pentecôte'Communion (Les oiseaux et les sources)'

11. Messe de la Pentecôte'Sortie (Le vent de l'Esprit)'

Abstracts are available to read below:


In Search of Musique ChatoyanteTechnique, Theology, and the Play of Harmonic Resonance in Olivier Messiaen's Vitrail Sonore 

This investigation charts Messiaen's development of resonance-based harmony portraying light and colour, with theological associations equivalent to stained glass. Definitions of Messiaen's colour-chords (using examples from Technique de mon langage musical, Traité de rythme, de couleur et d'ornithologie, and selected works) enable the exploration of Messiaen's consolidation of style and light symbolism in earlier works, together with the beginnings of detailed colour associations in Catalogue d'oiseaux. Theological implications of Messiaen's juxtaposition and superposition of harmony precede analysis of the light portrayed in La Transfiguration: the light which, in Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité, expresses Moses' vision of 'I AM' and Burning Bush, as well as harmonizing God as inengendré. The central movement of Méditations develops the 'Theme of God', recalling 'Le Verbe' and anticipating Mary Magdalene's vision in Livre du Saint Sacrement. In Livre, this harmony depicts Mary's recognition of Christ, giving coloured support to the spelling of 'Dieu' and 'Père'. The filiation of La Transfiguration is likewise shown to be described musically with colour-chords, which in Chants de terre et de ciel, Et exspecto, and Livre develop a sonic portrayal of Grünewald's Resurrection. Messiaen's colouring of specific visual aspects of God is analysed in relation to the theology of Columba Marmion and Hans Urs von Balthasar, whilst Messiaen's fascination with the Heavenly Jerusalem is shown to display consistent use of resonance-based harmony. In the final example of vitrail sonore, Messiaen's references in Traité to images of Christ in Glory in the Ambulatory of Bourges Cathedral are examined. These portray verses from Habakkuk and Revelation used as superscriptions for two movements in Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà..., the music being interpreted as a representation of these windows. This interdisciplinary study therefore establishes intertextual and theological connections across boundaries of work, genre and period, linking Messiaen's music to Catholic thought. 

'Orpheus the Explorer': 'Harmony of Parts' and 'Charm of Colour' in the Performance of Olivier Messiaen's Organ Music 

This project aims to assemble interpretative and analytical materials, cross-connections, comparisons, and theological insights in order to form a hermeneutic, holistic approach to performances of Messiaen's organ music. Thus, research and interpretation lead to the recording on a suitable instrument of performances, which in turn illustrate theological and interpretative issues. Rather than investigating complete cycles, the development of a carefully constructed programme of individual pieces, interlinked and selected from Messiaen's entire œuvre, will help us to draw out a sophisticated and consistent theological message, as well as comparing the use of different compositional techniques and recurring thematic resonances (both musical and Christian) throughout the composer's development.

This interpretative work builds upon the approach and conclusions expressed in my dissertation: 'In Search of Musique Chatoyante: Technique, Theology, and the Play of Harmonic Resonance in Olivier Messiaen's Vitrail Sonore'. By forming the connections on both musical and theological levels between pieces from different periods and cycles, we can reveal fresh perspectives on the performance of Messiaen's organ music. One aspect will be an understanding of Messiaen's non-modal harmony: as 'percée vers l'au-delà', it becomes a foundation for dazzlement, and a conduit to the divine. How do these 'accords spéciaux' intersect with the theological subtext, and when identical chords are heard in different pieces, how does this intertextual play create new theological insight? Devising this programme in a framework exploring Messiaen's compositional growth yields more fruitful insights than exploring just a single work, thus establishing connections across boundaries of work, genre and period, and linking Messiaen's organ music to his wider output and to contemporary Catholic thought.