Messiaen’s music, like Eliot’s poetry, requires hard work. At first it is disturbingly modern, distasteful, and difficult. On second and third listening things come clear, and a beauty that was hidden in harshness comes into focus. Both works force us to struggle for meaning and beauty as we struggle to find truth, beauty and goodness in the midst of a harsh, modern, secular and mechanical age.
Though modernists, both Messiaen and Eliot reveal the strength of conservative principles. Both men were rooted in the great tradition of European Catholic civilization, and their work emerges from their immersion in the Great Tradition. The modernity of their method was their attempt to communicate the timeless truths in a modern world to a modern sensibility. Their wartime quartets show that to be conservative is not to be mindlessly reactionary or ignorantly antiquarian.
To listen to Messiaen’s quartet is, like Eliot’s work, to be taken into the heart of the darkness of total war. Out of this desert of despair these two works bloom with hope and faith. The inner, poignant beauty and the pain too sweet and tender to bear rings through. It is as if Messiaen and Eliot are brothers in arms: one wringing beauty out of war with words, the other forging hope out of the fires of suffering with music. In doing so they echo the eternal hope of all men that the “Light has come into the world and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
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