For the Time Being: Fresh Advent Reflections from Auden and Messiaen

AudenAfter reading a tweet from Alan Jacobs about his forthcoming edition of W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, I decided that I would read Auden’s poem this Advent season. I am glad I did. The oratorio is exceedingly rich, so rich that reading one time through seemed woefully insufficient. So I read it again. And then a third time. I eagerly anticipate Jacobs’s new edition of Auden’s poem (set to be released in May 2013) because as a novice at reading poetry, I am certain that many of Auden’s allusions are lost on me.

MessiaenAs I read, I stumbled upon something else. I cannot remember my initial motivation for doing so, but I found myself working through a portion of Auden’s work while listening to Olivier Messiaen’s monumental piano work Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (“Twenty Meditations on the Baby Jesus”). I began reading the opening of the section of Auden’s poem entitled “The Summons” in which the Star of the Nativity takes voice (I am that star most dreaded by the wise, / For they are drawn against their will to me) and thought it interesting that the Star also becomes a character in Messiean’s meditations. Along with the Father, the Spirit of Joy, the Virgin mother, the Prophets, Shepherds and Magi, and the Son Himself, the Star takes watch over the Christ child (Movement 2: “Watch of the Star”).  MessiaenScoreStar

Coincidence? Probably, I thought, but I had to pursue the idea further. I then discovered that Auden’s poem was published in 1944 (though written in 1941-42) the same exact year Messiaen’s work was composed. More and more correspondences began to emerge.

Both Auden and Messiaen are preoccupied with time. Messiaen’s fascination with time is well documented and is manifest most explicitly in a work written during his time in a concentration camp—The Quartet for the End of Time. In Vingt Regards, the ninth image is subtitled “Watch of Time,” and its music betrays a timelessness typical in Messiaen’s style by way of symmetrical scales (“modes of limited transposition”), non-retrogradable (palindromic) rhythms, and cyclical structures.MessiaenScoreTime

Auden’s very title, For the Time Being, suggests that time is a central concept in his telling of the story of Christ’s birth. References to time abound throughout the oratorio, “Time” often being capitalized and paired with Space. Christ emptied Himself of his infinity and eternality when he entered our Time and Space. Below are just two passages of many from Auden’s oratorio that allude to time:

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle. (Section: Advent III)

[The Second Wise Man:]
My faith that in Time’s constant
Flow lay real assurance
Broke down on this analysis—
At any given instant
All solids dissolve, no wheels revolve,
And facts have no endurance—
And who knows if it is by design or pure inadvertence
That the Present destroys its inherited self-importance?
With envy, terror, rage, regret,
We anticipate or remember but never are.
To discover how to be living now
Is the reason I follow this star. (Section: The Summons I)

Both Messiaen and Auden make reference to the Word. In Auden we read: From the beginning until now God spoke through his prophets. The Word aroused the uncomprehending depths of their flesh to a witnessing fury, and their witness was this: that the Word should be made Flesh. (Section: The Meditation of Simeon) In the preface to his score, Messiaen says of movement 12 (“The Omnipotent Word”), “This child is the Word who sustains all things by the strength of his word” (“Cet enfant est le Verbe qui soutient toutes choses par la puissance de sa parole…”). Notice Auden’s similar use of both “Word” and “word” in Mary’s response to Gabriel at the Annunciation:

My flesh in terror and fire
Rejoices that the Word
Who utters the world out of nothing,
As a pledge of His word to love her
Against her will, and to turn
Her desperate longing to love,
Should ask to wear me,
From now to their wedding day,
For an engagement ring.

Both Auden and Messiaen provide meditation on the contemplation of Mary over her Baby. The character of the opening of Messiaen’s 4th movement (“Watch of the Virgin”) matches so perfectly the combination of motherly love and arresting apprehension with its hint of self-doubt in these words that Auden provides for Mary:

O shut your bright eyes that mine must endanger
With their watchfulness; protected by its shade
Escape from my care: what can you discover
From my tender look but how to be afraid?
Love can but confirm the more it would deny.
Close your eyes.

Sleep. What have you learned from the womb that bore you
But an anxiety your Father cannot feel?
Sleep. What will the flesh that I gave do for you,
Or my mother love, but tempt you from His will?
Why was I chosen to teach His Son to weep?
Little One, sleep. (At the Manger I)

It’s almost as if either Messiaen had read Auden’s poem and decided to write incidental music or Auden had heard Messiaen’s music and penned these words to accompany. The stanza that immediately follows makes allusion to the cross that looms over the manger and corresponds, therefore, to Messiaen’s Theme of the Cross that appears throughout the work, particularly in the seventh movement (“Watch of the Cross”).

Dream. In human dreams earth ascends to Heaven
Where no one need pray nor ever feel alone.
In your first few hours of life here, O have you
Chosen already what death must be your own?
How soon will you start on the Sorrowful Way?
Dream while you may. (At the Manger I)



I don’t suspect that Messiaen had somehow read Auden’s oratorio prior to composing Vingt Regards. Perhaps it’s more a matter of the time being exceedingly ripe for a fresh contemplation of the story of God’s intervention into a world torn by war and strife. Both artists had gone through strife in their own personal lives as well during this time. Messiaen spent time in a Nazi concentration camp following the defeat of his homeland (much of Vingt regards being composed during the liberation of France), and Auden experienced both a failed relationship and the death of his mother in a short span of time as well as increasing criticism from the literary world following his 1939 conversion to Christianity.

 For all the similarities between these two great works of art, differences are also present, of course. Messiaen’s rendition of the nativity is an Inter-Trinitarian one of great joy (though Messiaen’s musical “joy” always carries a hint of the tragic, a hint of the cross). Auden presents us with a version of Christ entering a messy and fallen world. As Peter Steinfels once said in a NY Times article devoted to the oratorio, “Whatever joy Christ’s coming may ultimately promise, the poem makes clear that faith, like love, will not be easy.” Combined, Messiaen’s magnificent work and Auden’s rich oratorio provide fresh thoughts during a season so filled with clichéd sentimentality.         


About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae.
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