Olivier Messiaen and surrealism by Jan Hage

by Jan Hage | Het ORGEL | Year 104 | (2008) | Issue 6

Jan Hage Olivier Messiaen and surrealism
Het ORGEL 104 (2008), nr. 6, xx-xx [summary]

In 1946 Ernest de Gengenbach called Messiaen a ‘surrealistic composer’, a characterization which the composer accepted. Although personally colored surrealism, as defined by De Gengenbach, is one of the keys to Messiaen’s oeuvre, it has never received much attention.
As a child Messiaen was fascinated by the miraculous and the supernatural as illustrated in fairy tales and the works of Shakespeare. Messiaen found the supernatural also in Christian faith, seeing miracles as a supernatural reality which was to be considered an even higher reality than reality itself. In his organ works, which can be seen as musical meditations on theological subjects, Messiaen attempted to express this higher reality in sound, in which surrealism emerges from the mixture of reality and irreality. The surrealistic aspect manifests itself especially in the references (see Messiaen’s notes on his works) to extra-musical, surrealistic images.
Similarly to what happens in surrealistic painting, in which a dream image emerges from the placement of realistic elements in an unrealistic context, in Messiaen’s music the recognizable and familiar (reality) is mixed with the miraculous and the strange (surreal). Messiaen combines traditional elements related to familiar reality with untraditional elements which make reality strange and unreal.