Messiaen: Texts, Contexts and Intertexts (1937-48), by Richard DE Burton, edited by Roger Nichols

LABELS: Oxford University Press
WORKS: Texts, Contexts and Intertexts (1937-48)
PERFORMER: Richard DE Burton, ed. Roger Nichols
CATALOGUE NO: ISBN 978-0-19-027794-9


Messiaen’s music is always about something. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he was convinced that music could convey or embody meaning and he spoke volumes about what his music was portraying. Anyone thinking that Messiaen’s loquacity leaves little else to discuss would be speedily disavowed by Richard Burton’s absorbing and thought-provoking Messiaen: Texts, Contexts and Intertexts (1937–48).

The book itself needs a little context. A professor of French rather than music, Burton died in 2008 leaving a manuscript with the five chapters presented here, deftly edited by Roger Nichols. While it is a great pity that we shall never know what provocative insights would have emerged in the unwritten concluding chapter, there is little sense of incompleteness. Nor do more recent discoveries in Messiaen research weigh heavily, for the immense value of Burton’s contribution is his profound understanding of Franco-Catholic thought and broader French literary and artistic sensibilities in these turbulent times. Burton’s readings bring a truly original perspective to the works and their impetus, with detailed exploration of Claudel and Sartre among numerous points of comparison alongside names more usually associated with Messiaen such as Dom Columba Marmion and Ernest Hello. The book provides deep cultural context for a period framed by what Burton terms the ‘Agape and Eros’ of Messiaen’s 1930s song cycles and the heady Tristan triptych, encompassing the hinterland of the composer’s wartime works en route.

This searching exploration should probably not be the first book to read for those new to Messiaen’s music of this era, and Burton’s richly nuanced arguments may not always be entirely convincing, but they are never tiresome. This is a continuously compelling read, conveyed in eloquent and engaging prose. It will fascinate all those interested in French music of this period in general.


Christopher Dingle