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.
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.