Olivier Messiaen's "Des Canyons aux étoiles": How Love for Creation Inspires Creativity

Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles: How Love for Creation Inspires Creativity

When an artist makes a work of art, when he or she “creates,” the intended product is formed as though it were put through a prism: it gets its shape, its material, its life and inner being from the artist’s own life and being. This includes his or her aesthetic, spiritual, and ethical beliefs. Even when a work of art cannot be described as programmatic (in the sense that it tells a story, or has a very clear moral), it is still supported by a particular set of beliefs. J.S. Bach’s two-part and three-part inventions, for example, are masterpieces of the keyboard repertoire, and, although they do not bear inscriptions to clarify Bach’s intentions, the strict and beautiful counterpoint clearly shows an overwhelming belief in the inherent order and goodness of the universe, in the generosity of Divine Providence. Each and every work of art, no matter how small, speaks both of humanity, in a very personal way as a window into the life and being of the artist, and to humanity, as a symbol of the shared experience of being human.

At the end of the day, theology’s concerns are with the essentially human, for it is God who has made us and who sustains us, who fills us with meaning and life and makes us whole. It is for this reason, along with my opening thoughts, that theology has a place speaking about music. Theology has a unique angle on the ways in which music, such as that by the French Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen, speaks of humanity and to humanity, and I invite you to keep all this in mind as my paper unfolds.

Olivier Messiaen’s work for the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, Des Canyons aux étoiles, is a particularly unique window into his thought and being. In it, he, more so than any composer since Bach, lays out a theology of creation which the subject for the piece is uniquely capable of bearing. This is so because of Messiaen’s deeply-held Roman Catholic faith, and his belief that the artist participates in God’s own primordial and perfect act of Creation when he or she makes a work of art.[1]

The first section of this paper introduces my concepts of Creation as sign, symbol, and task, with support from Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si. By bringing Pope Francis into dialogue with Messiaen, we come to see the theological precedent (even if posthumous) for Messiaen’s environmental views. The second half of this paper argues that the conception of Creation as sign, symbol, and task can give us insight into what I identify as three roles of the artist: the artist as Teacher, Translator, and Prophet. I then conclude with some final thoughts on the role that Messiaen’s music plays in the Holy Father’s call to a worldwide ecological conversion, how music like Messiaen’s can help allay the ecological and spiritual crises of our time.


Three Aspects of Creation

Creation as Sign 

In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis invites us to “see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” (Laudato Si ¶12). In this way, he is speaking of Creation as a sign. For Creation to be a sign is for it to be a window into God’s own beauty and His desire to provide for his creatures. The Holy Father is speaking of mystics when he says that “[he or she] experiences the intimate connection between God and all beings…Standing awestruck before a mountain, he or she cannot separate this experience from God, and perceives that the interior awe being lived has to be entrusted to the Lord” (LS ¶234), but this also holds true for artists as well as for their work.

Creation as Symbol

For Creation to be a symbol is for it to be a mirror of man’s spiritual state. We see in nature not only analogies for man’s pilgrimage to heaven (like the desert) or of God’s infinite mercy (the sea). One can notice in the ecological crisis in which we have found ourselves today, the symbol of a much more serious, spiritual crisis which threatens more than just the world in which we live.[2] The Holy Father shares this view and quotes Pope Benedict XVI: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast” (LS ¶217). Creation, then, is not merely a window into the greatness of God, but also a mirror of our own poverty and dependence. In the words of St. Augustine, “If to any the tumult of the flesh were hushed; hushed the images of earth, of waters and of air; hushed also the poles of heaven; yea, were the very soul to be hushed to herself, and by not thinking on self to surmount self; hushed all dreams and imaginary revelations, every tongue and every sign; if all transitory things were hushed utterly,—for to him that heareth they do all speak, saying ‘we made not ourselves, but He made us, who abideth for ever’” (Confessions Book ix, Ch. 10, ¶25).[3] 


Creation as Task

The final way of viewing Creation is as a task. God has given us Creation not merely as a means for our own survival or to test our resolve and obedience, but as a way of refining ourselves into who He desires us to be. By opening ourselves to all wrought by Divine hands, we open ourselves up to the mystery of the mercy and love of God. In this way, Creation receives its analogue and fulfillment in the Eucharist. Pope Francis does not equivocate when he says that “It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation” (LS ¶236). He goes on: “The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration: in the bread of the Eucharist, ‘creation is projected toward divinization, toward the holy wedding feast, toward unification with the Creator himself’” (LS ¶236). Being a task, Creation compels us “further up and further in” in the words of C.S. Lewis. We are called outside of ourselves, to our “higher calling” which is life and communion with God. The beauty of Creation does not merely show us God’s greatness and power, nor does it only present us with ourselves. Creation, in its very essence, presents us with the Heavenly Wedding Feast at which a seat is being prepared for each and every one of us. By living a life of receptivity and gratitude in respect to Creation, we are preparing for and participating in the Heavenly Kingdom, which is present here and now.


Three Roles of the Christian Artist

Let us move on to the second section of this paper: the way that these three aspects of Creation relate to three roles of the artist that I have identified, with an emphasis on Messiaen and Des Canyons aux étoiles.


Artist as Teacher

“The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things” (LS ¶233). It is in this way that the artist is a Teacher. He or she, through the created product, points to the God present mysteriously in all of Creation. In this way we are invited to view art almost as a sacramental, as “a means of mediating supernatural life” (LS ¶235). 

Messiaen is famous for his love of the natural world, especially for birds and birdsong.[4] The main reason why he utilizes birdsong in his works is to highlight the beauty of their natural and “pure” music, to glorify the beauty of Creation.[5] In this way, he recognizes Creation as a window to the greatness of the Father, as “a manifestation of one of the aspects of divinity” (Samuel, 34). Messiaen even goes as far as saying that Des Canyons aux étoiles “is a religious work first: a work of praise and of contemplation.” In the programme notes to the last movement of the first part, “Cedar Breaks and the Gift of Awe,” Messiaen wonders at the beauty of Creation. “Cedar Breaks is one of the marvels of Utah….it’s raw beauty leaves a very powerful impression….All of this [beauty] inspired in me a sentiment analogous to that of ‘Fear.’ The ‘Gift of Fear’ is one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture tells us that ‘Fear is the beginning of Wisdom.’…the fear which is the reverence of the sacred, of the Divine presence is noble, and it leads us to awe and adoration which is even higher.”[6]


Artist as Translator

         I would like you to recall the quote from Pope Benedict that I read earlier: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast” (LS ¶217). It is interesting to note that Messiaen uses the same image as the Pope-Emeritus in the programme notes to Des Canyons. The composer is speaking about the first movement when he writes that “The desert is the symbol of the openness of the soul to hearing and engaging in that interior dialogue with the Holy Spirit. The voice of a bird is now more precious than ever because it enters into this silence: it is only in silence that once can hear the Lark.”[7] In this way, he sees the artist as a Translator of spiritual truths. For the artist to be Translator is for he or she to be a protector of and guide to the passing on of Tradition. He or she does not re-interpret in any serious sense (hence the role as protector) but translates the words of dogma into the language of spiritual and aesthetic experience to be felt and ingested.[8] For Messiaen and Des Canyons aux étoiles, this means showing the latent fertility of the desert, the rich possibilities open to those who open themselves up to listen. The desert of the opening of Des Canyons is more than just a natural desert. It is a symbol of spiritual poverty and of the humility required for fruitfulness.  


Artist as Prophet

Finally, the last role of the artist is as a Prophet, which means to encourage and inspire the people of God forward on their path to salvation. When Messiaen ended Des Canyons with “Zion Park et The Heavenly City” he was doing just that. He was offering to all who would listen the greatest hope he knew, embodied by the magnificence of Zion Park: the reality and splendor of the Heavenly Jerusalem. “The bells ring out heralding the ultimate joy.”

It is worth noting that no two composers play these three roles in the exact same way. In this sense, I am not arguing for an aesthetic monopoly on Christian art. I must admit that I share the belief that “all music communicates the generosity of God” as argued by Professor Liu in his book Music and the Generosity of God. Though I do not have the space to speak more about it here, I believe that this demands much of the listener. It requires a new way of hearing and of seeing, which simultaneously descends into the darkness of Holy Saturday and is transfigured by the light of the Resurrection. It requires mercy and patience of the listener, leaving space for the Holy Spirit even in the most unexpected of situations, and this disposition is not dissimilar to the openness of the desert articulated by Messiaen above.


Conclusion: Beauty and “Ecological Conversion”

Much of the final section of Pope Francis’ encyclical is devoted to what he calls “environmental education” and “ecological conversion,” and he understands these terms in a truly integrated sense. He writes that “[environmental education] seeks to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God. Environmental education should facilitate making the leap toward the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning” (LS ¶210). At the heart of this call to conversion, which is at the heart of any true religious ethic, is beauty. “Members of society must be adequately motivated to accept [this call to conversion], and personally transformed to respond” (LS ¶211). This is one of the roles of beauty in the life of the Church. True Beauty is not something which can merely be admired from without. Everything which is really Beautiful is also Good and True, and thus participates in the eternal Godhead. More than that, Beauty is a person. It has a face, it walked this Earth, it literally touched people, cried, and really truly died. An encounter with true beauty, then, is not simply an encounter with cheap or superficial pleasure. If it is True Beauty, if it is truly an encounter with God Himself, then we cannot walk away from it unchanged.


Beauty, then, is key to “ecological conversion.” “’The relationship between a good aesthetic education and the maintenance of a healthy environment cannot be overlooked.’ By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treads everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple” (LS ¶215). Messiaen’s work is saturated with love of nature, and is, in many ways, a “spiritual landscape” of Bryce Canyon and the amazing natural marvels of our country. By introducing birdsongs from around the world (not just from the United States), Messiaen shows that all of Creation glorifies the Lord. By mirroring the vast emptiness of the desert, Messiaen invites the listener to spiritual and musical openness, to hear anew the cry of the Lord. And by closing with his transcendental chorale, Messiaen allows the very nature of the human art that he has made to be transfigured. He reminds the listener of the world beyond, of the state of in via in which we all currently participate, and of the promise of eternity, which is also present here right now. 



[1] What I argue here is that Messiaen believed in Creation as sign (a window to the glory of God), symbol (a mirror to humankind), and task (a responsibility which refines us) and these three characteristics correspond to a theology of creativity which holds. I believe that Messiaen’s strangely dazzling music is uniquely capable of manifesting these mysterious truths found in Creation, and Des Canyons aux étoiles is the work that most completely communicates his beliefs.


[2] Just as an aside, one of the most dangerous attitudes which is propagated by much of the scholarship surrounding Pope Francis’ work, in my opinion, is the belief that the Holy Father’s thought and teaching is totally disconnected from that of his predecessors. Now, it is obviously true that he focuses on different aspects of theology and the present state of the world, but Laudato Si alone is saturated with quotations of both of the previous Roman Pontiffs.


[3] “We have not made ourselves.” One does not need to think too hard to see how this is directly in contrast to what is often referred to as the “technocratic” attitude, the idea that Creation is to be subjugated by humanity. There is no sense of gift. There is no sense of wonder.


[4] In his book-length interview with Claude Samuel, Messiaen says that he has three main influences: the Roman Catholic Church, eternal (and complete) love, and birdsong.


[5] He calls them “the greatest musicians on our planet” (Samuel, 85).


[6] Cedar Breaks is one of the marvels of Utah….it’s raw beauty leaves a very powerful impression. It is a vast amphitheater, lowered in a deep chasm, with orange, yellow, brown, and red rocks, stacked in walls, columns, towers, turrets and dungeons. All of the birches, the firs, a remainder of snow, the wind which blows violently, augment still the grandeur of the place. All of this together inspired in me a sentiment analogous to that of “Fear.” The “Gift of Fear” is one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture tells us that “Fear is the beginning of Wisdom.”…the fear which is the reverence of the sacred, of the Divine presence is noble, and it leads us to awe and adoration which is even higher.”


[7] “The desert is the symbol of the openness of the soul to hearing and engaging in that interior dialogue with the Holy Spirit. A theme in the horn evokes the peace of the desert. The wind machine recalls the winds which often blow there. The voice of a bird is now more precious than ever because it enters into this silence: it is only in silence that once can hear the Lark.”


[8] Obviously, this is only one of many of the roles of art. One would be reaching a bit to call Messiaen’s works “catechetical.” Even still, he says that his main goal as a composer is to “propagate the truths of the faith” (Samuel, 78).