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Mount Messiaen

Mount Messiaen – Facts and reminiscences.

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© Malcolm Ball

This short account sets out some basic facts surrounding the naming and dedication of Mount Messiaen and my own reminiscences after a visit to the site in June 2022.

 

There is a brilliant and comprehensive in-depth article on the subject entitled b by Robert Fallon and reproduced in the publication

‘Messiaen Perspectives 2: Techniques, Influence and Reception’ see bibliography

The idea of naming a mountain after Messiaen was the brainchild of Julie Whitaker, a dancer and English teacher who lived in Paris for two years where she first made contact with Messiaen’s music. In the mid 1970’s when Julie heard of Messiaen’s ‘canyon symphony’, and his description of Southern Utah as ‘the most mystical landscape he had ever encountered’, she asked the composer if he would agree to the naming of something in his honour. Messiaen responded with delight saying that ‘anything in his name would be a great honour, even a side street or a nature path for bird watchers’. 

After finding a site approximately eight miles from the town of Parowan, Julie set about the task of naming the site and also organising performances of some of Messiaen’s works at the location. It took three years of organising and political wrangling before the naming was finalised but in 1978 a plaque was eventually cast by Julie’s brother Lyman, a sculptor of kinetic art, and the site was officially named.

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© Malcolm Ball

The bronze plaque cast by Julie's brother Lyman

© Malcolm Ball

When I first heard about Robert Fallon’s visit to Mount Messiaen in 2008 and seeing his wonderful photo gallery (here), I immediately added it to my bucket list of Messiaen related places to visit.  This list was shrinking and places were ticked off with some sense of regularity as most of the Messiaen ‘sites’ and certainly dwellings were in France and relatively easy for me to arrange visits (pre Brexit). However, the Mount is situated 4,933 miles from where I live and a trip would require much preparation and funds.

The opportunity eventually arose when I was lucky enough to attend a performance of Des Canyons aux Étoiles… given by the Utah Symphony in O.C. Tanner amphitheatre, Zion in June this year. (see review).  I had given myself time to visit all the areas that so influenced Messiaen when writing the work (Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon and Zion Park) but I also put time aside to visit the Mount.

On the appointed day, I set off in my hire car to Parowan and followed Robert Fallon’s detailed directions. The road out of Parowan is narrow and winding but luckily not busy in terms of traffic as this is rural Utah so my speed was necessarily slow, and sure enough, after eight or so miles I caught site of those (to some) famous peaks on my left. I immediately pulled off the road and parked up. I was not on the logging trail that Robert explained in his directions but on the opposite side of the road. 

It was a sunny day but at an elevation of some 9,000 feet, not too hot. I began taking some shots of the peaks from where I had parked which had good uninterrupted views and virtually no traffic to concern me. It was very peaceful. After a few minutes a small white car approached and stopped on the other side of the road at the entrance to the track leading up to the Mount. A slight air of disappointment ran through me as I was hoping for an uninterrupted visit at this special and revered site. A couple got out of the car and the lady walked determinedly up the track and disappeared around the bend. At this point I felt duty bound to cross the road and introduce myself to the gentleman who by this time had extracted a large pair of long handled secateurs from the back of the car. I approached with some trepidation as the secateurs wielding gentleman walked slightly towards me, but he greeted me with a welcoming smile and asked, “was I hear for the Mount Messiaen?” I said indeed I was and explained my connection with Messiaen and the website after which he said “Ah! That’s my wife walking up there – Julie Whitaker, you must come and meet her”. 

I paused for a few seconds and thought - Hang on a minute, I’ve travelled nearly 5,000 miles, chosen a random time and day to visit this site and at almost the exact same time so did the person who initiated the site back in 1978. This was the most incredibly fortuitous encounter I could imagine.

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© Malcolm Ball

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© Malcolm Ball

Julie and her husband Michael Burke were there to tidy up and clear the bronze plaque of obtrusive weeds etc. They, like me were also there to attend the concert in Zion two days later. Julie and I chatted rather excitedly while Michael attacked the weeds and she was so generous with her information and reminiscences of her time spent organising the naming of the site as well as the performances that took place at the final ceremony. Her vision was to dedicate the mountain followed by a ‘Messiaen Festival’ in September 1976 which would include a screening of Denise Tual’s film Olivier Messiaen et les Oiseaux, lectures by Messiaen at the University of Utah and a performance of Des Canyons aux Étoiles… Julie corresponded with Messiaen who was very keen and accepted the initial invitation but as time passed, dates began to conflict on both sides and after many months of negotiations, Julie wrote to Messiaen to inform him that the festival was cancelled due to lack of funding and lack of cooperation from certain parties.

The dedication ceremony did take place at 6.00pm on 5th August 1978 and was televised by the local TV channel. They unveiled the bronze plaque, and held a ribbon-cutting ceremony. At 8.00pm the ceremony continued with readings, a prayer, a speech by Julie about Messiaen and a performance of Chants de terre et de ciel by Naomi and Lowell Farr, musicians on the faculty of the University of Utah.

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The trailhead leading up to the pinnacles.

© Malcolm Ball

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View opposite from the Mount

© Malcolm Ball

After some time at the Mount (and a nice tidy plaque thanks to Michael and his secateurs) the couple made their departure and we all looked forward to meeting up again at the concert. 

I spent more time alone at the site taking photos and walking around the base of the Mount reflecting on such an amazing coincidental meeting and also what Messiaen would have felt had he seen these understated peaks in person. When asked how he felt about having his own mountain in Utah he replied: “Ah, it’s just incredible and very touching. When I told my agent about it, he was amazed. When I told my publisher M Leduc in Paris about it, he was astounded too. He couldn’t imagine that there would be a mountain anywhere with my name; at first he laughed, but then he almost cried. And we plan to go back there soon. It’s a great excuse to see Utah again, and, in any case, it seems to me that I now have the obligation to present myself before those three cliffs. They’re there waiting for me”.  Sadly he never got to see the Mount in situ due to commitments and ill health.

As planned, Julie and I met up after the concert in Zion together with Michael, Julie’s brother Lyman and other family members. It was an enormous privilege to have met such an inspired and driven person who back in the 1970’s dedicated so much energy in honouring a composer who was inspired by her childhood homeland.

 

My photos provide an interesting comparison to those taken by Robert Fallon in 2008. Three years ago, that part of Parowan canyon suffered a serious dry mountain fire that decimated the trees in front of the Mount hence the different pictorial dynamic between our images.

Malcolm Ball.

 

Sources: 

Placing Mount Messiaen by Robert Fallon and reproduced in the publication ‘Messiaen Perspectives 2: Techniques, Influence and Reception

 

Canyons, Colours and Birds: An Interview with Oliver(sic) Messiaen by Harriett Watts. Tempo magazine 128.

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Julie Whitaker

© Malcolm Ball

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Julie Whitaker and Michael Burke

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© Malcolm Ball

My grateful and heartfelt thanks go to Julie and Michael for their time and for sharing their memories of this most amazing achievement to mark Olivier Messiaen's time in Utah that resulted in one of his finest works: Des Canyons aux Étoiles...

© Malcolm Ball