Andrew SHENTON, editor, Messiaen the Theologian. Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010. pp. 290. $114.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-7546-6640-0.
Reviewed by Donald L. WALLENFANG, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL 60626

Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) was a French Catholic composer, musician and teacher. He worked as organist at La Trinité Catholic parish in Paris from 1931-1992 and taught at the Paris Conservatoire from 1941-1978. Messiaen was one of the most prolific French composers of the 20th century, among the ranks of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. His music is characterized by an a-metrical cessation of time/tempo, a syncretistic synthesis of ancient and modern forms, an emulation of birdsong timbres, pitches and rhythm, and a robust Catholic theology as impetus for his musical creativity.

Messiaen the Theologian, edited by Andrew Shenton (Boston University), features a collection of papers presented at a 2007 conference on the theological underpinnings of Olivier Messiaen’s music. The conference was sponsored by the Boston University Messiaen Project (BUMP; see conference website,, and hosted an array of international Messiaen scholars. The volume is divided into four parts: (1) Messiaen the Theologian, (2) Messiaen’s Relationship with Theologians, (3) Messiaen, Poets and Theological Themes, and (4) Theology in Messiaen’s Music. The collected essays present a wide variety of themes concerning the relationship between Messiaen’s compositions and social and religious currents of his day. Of particular interest are Messiaen’s engagement with the theological ressourcement movement, the Catholic Literary Renaissance, avant-garde tendencies in music and art, post-conciliar liturgical reform in France, and the French renouveau catholique (Catholic Renewal). Altogether the collection comprises a diversity of erudite essays that in sum proffer an incarnate portrayal of Messiaen and his music. The essays are penned primarily by musicologists, although two of the essays come from experts in other fields: one from a historian (Stephen Schloesser) and the other from a theologian (Karin Heller).

Through the forêt of meticulous research exhibited in this book, the reader is able to see how Messiaen negotiated among a host of influences and pressures from all sides, to maintain his personal faith convictions and originality of musical form and expression. Upon reading this volume, the theologian will appreciate the collection for its attention to the various theological currents of the 20th century, e.g. the neo-thomistic forms in the thinking of figures such as philosopher Jacques Maritain and musician Arthur Lourié (although the theses of Douglas Shadle and Vincent Benitez on this topic find themselves in opposition). The musicologist will appreciate the collection for its critical assessment of Messiaen’s far-reaching musical achievement, e.g. Sander van Maas’ essay on Messiaen’s ‘saintly naïveté,’ presenting a lucid analysis of Messiaen’s opera, Saint François d’Assise, and Cheong Wai Ling’s essay on Messiaen’s interreligious reverence and docility in his Sept Haïkaï, that musically present a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine, and traces of an invisible God.

Besides the stimulating texts themselves, the volume offers several poignant features: (1) five tables of musical outlines, etc., (2) 21 fully notated snippets of Messiaen’s music, (3) a helpful glossary of people that features the diverse ‘cast of characters’ cited throughout the essays (philosophers, musicians, poets, theologians, etc.), with a short description of each, and (4) a select (yet thorough) bibliography of Messiaen’s musical scores, as well as books, articles and reviews referenced within the essays. Ultimately, the book holds together critical scholarship in a variety of disciplines without watering down any one of them.

Upon reading this volume, one is struck by the fascinating way in which Messiaen’s music exemplifies the religious phenomena of inculturation and evangelization: in a nation with a clear demarcation between Church and State (1905), Messiaen unabashedly proclaims Christian teaching in secular contexts, eg. the concert hall. Likewise does Messiaen’s music incarnate such doctrines of faith in modern forms of expression and innovation. Furthermore, this book provides an insightful backdrop for those interested in the historical evolution and present-day context of French thought, especially the contemporary currents in French phenomenology, marked by the ‘theological turn.’ Several notions presented in the essays – eg. émerveillement (‘state of wonder’; p. 56), éblouissement (‘dazzlement’; pp. 203, 217, 219), and virginité d’oreille (‘aural virginity’; p. 206) – resemble similar patterns of thought found in a contemporary French thinker such as Jean-Luc Marion, with his notions of la donation (‘givenness’), le phénomène saturé (‘the saturated phenomenon’) and l’éblouissement (‘bedazzlement’).

On the whole, Messiaen the Theologian presents a vivid display of the life and work of Olivier Messiaen – a man who refused to shy away from his personal convictions and inspired originality. This book is representative of the leading current scholarship on Messiaen, and provides a critical appraisal of several key issues surrounding the relationship between theology and the music of Olivier Messiaen.

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