Music of the Invisible

Messiaen's 'Saint Francis'

Saint François d’Assise, Olivier Messiaen’s only operatic work, received its world premiere in Paris in 1983. It has rarely been performed since, partly because of the sheer scope and audacity of the project, but also because of its subject matter-faith itself. This fall, the San Francisco Opera, newly directed by Pamela Rosenberg, gave the opera its U.S. premiere in its namesake city. It was a brilliant gamble, possibly opening a new operatic door in America. This is an opera unlike any other-an unabashed paean to music, to nature, and to the mystical path to joy seen in the figure of Francis (sung movingly by baritone Willard White).

Messiaen, who was born in 1908 and died in 1992, was a devout Catholic. For many years he served as principal organist and director of music at L’Église de la Trinité in Paris. Much of his oeuvre is infused with his own mystical faith, nourished in the soils of a French Catholicism at once pious and completely modern. In the person of Saint Francis, Messiaen found the meeting place of many of the drives of his own soul: the poverty, humility, and suffering of Jesus; the revelation of God in nature, especially in the beauty and song of birds; and the pathway to God through the prayer of music itself.

Those looking for a comforting spiritual romanticism in Messiaen had better look elsewhere. As subtly conducted by Donald Runnicles, this music stands closer to Wagner in its...

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About the Author

Paul Crowley, SJ, is visiting associate professor of theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.