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Stephen Broad has specially studied Messiaen’s early life and writing and has collected these articles from many sources. As he writes in his preface: ‘Most people with an interest in Messiaen will know some of them, but this is the first time they have been compiled and translated.’ They are printed in French, then in Broad’s English translation. In his journalism Messiaen did not hesitate to promote music by personal friends, including the unjustly neglected Jolivet, and even by his first wife, Claire Delbos. Other, much less familiar names include Elsa Barraine (despite being regarded as one of the leading French composers of the mid-20th century, she is now forgotten) and Ivan Vyschnegradsky. Music by both these composers receives warm appreciation from Messiaen.

Several pages are devoted to journalistic exchanges – open letters between Eugène Berteaux and Messiaen (based on a fairly trivial misunderstanding), and Paul de Stoecklin’s response to an outspoken article in which the composer attacks artistic laziness. This topic finds Messiaen in belligerent but highly engaging mode, criticising composers who are ‘artisans of sub-Fauré and sub-Ravel … the fake Couperin maniacs … the odious contrapuntalists of the “return to Bach”.’ He continues: ‘And what can we say about our regular concertgoers? Their hatred of change is truly amazing! … Their little brains can understand only certain combinations of sounds, to the exclusion of all others.’ – Ouch. This vitriol is exceptional, however. Messiaen’s writing is often generous as well as consistently lively. Dukas (his opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue), Milhaud (his opera Esther de Carpentras – ‘shot through with genius’ – and several other works) and Tournemire (L’Orgue mystique and others) receive glowing reviews. On the death of Ravel in January 1938, Messiaen pays homage to ‘one of France’s greatest musicians’ and draws a typically perceptive comparison with Debussy.

Including 20 music examples, this is a beautifully produced book (I found only two typos – page xii: ‘principle’ for principal and page 146: ‘poured’ for pored). However, there are fewer than 100 pages in English, so the price may provoke another cry of ouch!

PHILIP BORG WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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