Messiaen the Theologian

For Olivier Messiaen, music was a way of expressing his faith. He considered it his good fortune to have been born a Catholic and declared that “the illumination of the theological truths of the Catholic faith is the first aspect of my work, the noblest and no doubt the most useful.” Messiaen is one of the most widely performed and recorded composers of the twentieth-century and his popularity is increasing, but the theological component of his music has so far largely been neglected, or dealt with superficially, and continues to provide a serious impediment to understanding and appreciating his music for some of his audience. Messiaen the Theologian makes a significant contribution to Messiaen studies by providing cultural and historical context to Messiaen’s theology.

An international array of Messiaen scholars cover a wide variety of topics including Messiaen’s personal spirituality, the context of Catholicism in France in the twentieth century, and comparisons between Messiaen and other artists such as Dante and T. S. Eliot. Interdisciplinary methodologies such as exegesis, theological studies, and analysis are used to contribute to the understanding of several major works including Éclairs sur l’au-delá…, Sept Haïkaï, and Saint François d’Assise.

By approaching Messiaen and his music from such important and original perspectives, this book will be of interest not only to musicians and theologians, but also to readers interested in the connection between spirituality and the arts.


Introducing Messiaen the theologian, Andrew Shenton

Part 1 – Messiaen the Theologian

Religious literature in Messiaen’s personal library, Yves Balmer

Messiaen as preacher and evangelist in the context of European modernism, Peter Bannister

Messiaen’s saintly naïveté, Sander van Maas

Part 2 – Messiaen’s Relationship with Theologians

Messiaen and Lustiger: two views of the liturgical reform according to the 2nd Vatican Council, Karin Heller

Messiaen’s relationship to Jacques Maritain’s musical circle and neo-Thomism, Douglas Shadle

Messiaen and Aquinas, Vincent P. Benitez

Part 3 – Messiaen, Poets and Theological Themes

Dante as guide to Messiaen’s Gothic spirituality, Robert Fallon

Five quartets: the search for the still point of the turning world in the war quartets of T.S. Eliot and Olivier Messiaen, Andrew Shenton

The charm of impossibilities: mystic surrealism as contemplative voluptuousness, Stephen Schloesser

Part 4 – Theology in Messiaen’s Music

‘Une œuvre simple, solonnelle…’: Messiaen’s commission from André Malraux, Nigel Simeone

Olivier Messiaen and the avant-garde poetics of the Messe de la Pentecôte, Robert Sholl

Messiaen as explorer in Livre du Saint Sacrement, Luke Berryman

Buddhist temple, Shinto shrine and the invisible God of Sept Haïkaï, Cheong Wai Ling

Glossary of people

Select bibliography



‘… the book holds together critical scholarship in a variety of disciplines without watering down any one of them […] Messiaen the Theologian presents a vivid display of the life and work of Olivier Messiaen – a man who refused to shy away from his personal convictions and inspired originality. This book is representative of the leading current scholarship on Messiaen, and provides a critical appraisal of several key issues surrounding the relationship between theology and the music of Olivier Messiaen.’ Catholic Books Review, 2010.

‘This very rich, scholarly book of 13 chapters, all in English, by the leading experts on Messiaen’s oeuvre analyzes some specific works [and] as its title suggests and despite its rich interdisciplinary approaches Messiaen the Theologian is firstly dedicated to academics in religious studies. [It] will be essential for academic libraries and does justice to this immense artist.’ Theological Book Review, Volume 22, No. 2, 2010.

‘The essays in the present volume offer many insights into contextual questions, and discuss detailed aspects of Messiaen’s musical imagination and sound world. All the authors consider, to a greater or lesser extent, the influence of the composer’s theological outlook on his work, from which it becomes apparent that his incarnational faith, with its belief in a God who reveals himself in material things, the human life of Jesus, and the sacraments touches his music at every level. The present volume […] is to be welcomed as a stimulating and serious contribution to the expanding literature of this extraordinary artist.’ Journal of the British Institute of Organ Studies, 2010.

‘In his introduction to this volume, Andrew Shenton points out that Olivier Messiaen, despite being one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, is comparatively little studied. There are “only a handful of books in English that deal with his style and only two that concentrate on the biography”. Scholarship’s loss is the general reader’s gain, however, as the at times introductory air of Messiaen the Theologian makes it highly accessible. Despite its origins in conference proceedings, it affords a comprehensible survey of the theological life and times of the great musical colourist, along with a useful bibliography and biographical glossary. […] a particular strength of this useful book is the light touch with which its international contributors integrate case studies with more general approaches to specific aspects of Messiaen’s work, successfully mapping the correspondences between his music and theology. The Times Literary Supplement, January 28, 2011.

Messiaen the Theologian was the subject of a full-length review feature in The American Organist Magazine in the February 2011 issue. The full review can be downloaded here: TAO review. ‘From the outset, know that this is a laudable and welcome work, especially well organized […] Messiaen the Theologian sets the stage for a full and compelling exploration of Messiaen’s reach outward past Roman Catholicism into the world of global mysticism.’

‘This collection of essays by Messiaen scholars reflects the complexity and quality of Messiaen’s contributions to the world of music. The various perspectives from which Messiaen’s music is approached offer readers valuable material for reflection. This book is an invaluable resource for the ever-growing number of admirers of Messiaen’s music.’ Catholic Library World, 81-3, March 2011.

‘It is no small compliment to wish that some of these essays were lengthier in order to permit further explication. [They] offer a rich context for listening to [Messiaen] with understanding.” Highly recommended.’ Choice: Current Review for Academic Libraries, May 2011, Vol. 48, No. 09.

Messiaen the Theologian is published by Ashgate and is available online via the Ashgate site, and online stores such as Amazon.