Music: Musical Messiah?

Was French Composer Olivier Messiaen a musical messiah or a voice from the jungle? Critics differed. Few claimed to understand his message. Others doubted that he had one.

Parisians were bewildered because the monkish composer, a devout, 38-year-old Catholic, punctuates his pious music with bird calls and Hindu rhythms. Instead of repose, listeners felt spastic jerkiness; instead of exalting sonorities, they heard grinding dissonance. After a performance of his Three Short Liturgies of the Divine Presence, which is scored (among other things) for a xylophone and two dried gourds with rattling seeds, one Paris critic snorted: "African witchcraft rather than Christian music."

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