The Organ

Olivier Messiaen’s System of Signs: Notes Towards Understanding his Music

Andrew Shenton: Olivier Messiaen’s System of Signs: Notes Towards Understanding his Music
ISBN 978-0-7546-6168-9

It is good that in this anniversary year we have such an important study of Messiaen’s music as this one. Andrew Shenton has amassed a wealth of material from a wide range of sources to produce an excellent 200 page scholarly work that will do a considerable amount to aid the understanding and interpretation of the composer’s output. After a comprehensive introduction that sets the scene with a discussion of Messiaen’s music as language, the main chapters look at: Messiaen’s theology; communicating through music; adding a communicable language; linguistic analysis of the langage communicable; issues of cognition of Messiaen’s langage and signs; the semiotic system in context; meaning and mentalese. There is also a select discography, a full bibliography, a glossary, and a good index. There are so many ways in which this book stands out as being impressive: its in depth use of primary as well s secondary sources; its drawing on sources outside music, as for example the work on theology and birdsong; its reference to other composers and their use of language and code – as for example Langlais; but above all the way in which Shenton brings together all the material in such a detailed and comprehensive study of the music. Understanding Messiaen is not easy; nor is it meant to be. This book also takes time to get to know and navigate; but it is well worthwhile. I for one am likely to be returning to it on future occasions as I continue to study and aim to improve my appreciation of one of the great 20th century composers. How grateful I am that he composed so much of his output for the King of Instruments!