Among other things, I am a church organist. This morning for Father's Day, I played a piece called Les Enfants de Dieu ("Children of God") by Olivier Messiaen, a twentieth-century French musician. I've always liked the piece, but this week I had an insight that made me appreciate it even more.
On one level, Les Enfants de Dieu is a "parody" of an earlier piece, the "Liebestod" ("Love Death") from Richard Wagner's opera, Tristan und Isolde (parody in the musical sense of reworking something familiar, without the connotations of sending it up for laughs). The Liebestod is the ecstatic culmination of the opera, where the two title characters, who cannot consummate their love in life, do so in death. Isolde sings:
(I realize that opera is not to everyone's taste, and the pretensions of Wagner in particular are ripe for another kind of parody, but I hope you will agree the music itself can be really powerful.)
I believe it was one of my college professors who suggested that Messiaen's organ piece follows the basic structure of the Liebestod: a gradual build-up of tension (in technical terms, a long dominant pedal) leading to an ecstatic climax followed by a soft coda in B major:
My insight this week came when I was considering the implications of Messiaen's use of Wagner here. Previously, if I thought about it at all, I would have said he was adapting a model that he knew worked well, simply as music. But what if he had a deeper purpose at work? What if the deeply religious composer was connecting his Children of God with a different Love-Death?
Beyond that, I will leave all further theological speculations to you, dear reader.
Incidentally, I assumed the congregation wouldn't really like this piece, since it's more dissonant and "modern" than what they are used to hearing. To my surprise, several people told me they really enjoyed it.
P.S. In a quick google search, I found no other evidence of a Liebestod-Les Enfants de Dieu relationship, so it is entirely possible that this is just my crackpot theory. Do you hear a connection?