“Who’s afraid of 20th century music?” is the title of a series of recordings Ingo Metzmacher has made as an introduction to modern music, showing that it isn’t necessarily “difficult”. It’s a challenge, but exciting, and Metzmacher’s enthusiasm is catching. Even by the standards of the BBC Proms, the concert on 7 September (Prom 70) will be, as Metzmacher says, “a once in a lifetime experience”.
Olivier Messiaen’s opera Saint Francis of Assisi is a spectacular but it’s over five hours long and there’s very little action in the conventional sense. “Yet that’s the wonderful thing”, says Metzmacher. “Messiaen is taking his time to explore ideas deeply. Nowadays life is so fast, and there’s constant change around us. So Messiaen is like a wonderful harbour which gives us space to think.” It doesn’t really demand superhuman stamina from listeners. “Listen with open ears, open hearts and open minds” he adds.
This music moves “like statues”, he adds, which might not move themselves, but which move us as we contemplate them. “If you go into the countryside, into nature”, he adds, “it’s silent, and nothing much seems to happen, but theres a lot going on”.
This shifts our ideas of what time means, and helps us focus on a deeper level. When the finale comes, it’s “absolutely overwhelming”, says Metzmacher. He conducted this opera at the important Holland Festival in Amsterdam in June. The audience was stunned, even after six hours of intense listening. When Saint Francis is transported from his deathbed into heaven, the huge orchestra and choir erupt in a blaze of light and colour. “This is Messiaen’s opus summum“, says Metzmacher, where all the themes of his music come together in a glorious extended coda.
“This is Messiaen’s opus summum” – Ingo Metzmacher
Saint Francis interested Messiaen because he was a humble human being. He wasn’t into power or fame. In the crucial fourth tableaux, which Messiaen wrote first, an angel knocks at the door of the monastery, but the monks don’t recognize him because he looks like an ordinary man. They get impatient, but the angel isn’t bothered. He can speak to St Francis “better than with words”. Only when he disappeared in beautiful waves of chromatic harmony, do the monks wonder, “Was that perhaps an angel ?”
What makes Francis a saint is his unaffected simplicity. That’s why the opera isn’t a dramatic narrative, but a series of eight tableaux exploring aspects of St Francis’s beliefs “from within”, accessed through inner contemplation. Rather than outward actions, the mysteries of this work reveal themselves in sound. “Music is the perfect language for expressing ideas which can’t be easily grasped”, says Metzmacher. Messiaen himself said “My music is simple, like faith is simple”. That’s not easy for us to understand, in an age where everything has to be spelled out straight. Messiaen is showing that anyone, however humble, can find their way, and that there are many different ways of thinking and being.
“My music is simple, like faith is simple” – Olivier Messiaen
Metzmacher’s New Music credentials are impeccable. He was chosen by Hans Werner Henze, perhaps the greatest living German composer, to premire new work. He conducts what he passionately believes in, championing Karl Amadeus Hartmann, for example. “Messiaen”, he says, “will survive as a giant because he did things absolutely uniquely. He created his own language which you can’t mistake for any others, even when he mixes in other kinds of music”. He taught people like Stockhausen, Boulez and Xenakis, whose music may sound nothing like his, but who were influenced by his open-minded approach.
Metzmacher has conducted a lot of Messiaen so he has the idiom right. In January, he conducted several performances of Eclairs sur l’Au-del with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The title means, loosely, “lit up by light from beyond”. It was one of Messiaen’s final works, and extends the ideas in St Francis. The performances were so well received that Metzmacher and the VPO have made a recording which will be released on Kairos, the specialist label, in September 2008.
Ingo Metzmacher will conduct St Francis of Assisi at the Proms on Sunday 7 September. Tickets are available on 0845 401 5040 or online at bbc.co.uk/proms