June 22, 2005


FINDING MY RELIGION: Music leads pianist to a life of Catholicism (David Ian Miller, June 20, 2005, SF Gate)

Classical pianist Jacqueline Chew rebelled against her Christian upbringing and became an atheist while attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in the 1970s. But her love of music eventually led her back to a spiritual life.

Chew was so taken with the work of Olivier Messiaen, a pioneering French composer known for his sacred Catholic music, that after hearing his composition "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus" ("Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus"), she began questioning her belief that God does not exist. The more she learned about the music, the more religious she became. [...]

You told me that hearing Olivier Messiaen's 20-part work inspired you to pursue a spiritual path after becoming an atheist. How did you first hear the music?

Someone at the conservatory where I was studying was playing some of the pieces and asked me to turn pages. I had never heard of Messiaen, or any of his recordings. And there it was -- I was turning pages, and it was just so compelling that I literally couldn't breathe. I knew I had to play it. I think I learned about five pieces, and then I didn't know how to go any further, because, at that time, there wasn't anyone teaching Messiaen in school. That's when I went to [conductor] Kent Nagano. He was doing a survey of Messiaen's pieces with the Berkeley Symphony. Kent said that I should play the whole piece [all 20 parts]. At first, I laughed, because it's over two hours long! And then I went home and I said to myself, "Yeah, I should do that."

Eventually, Nagano invited you to Amsterdam to meet Messiaen and his wife. What was that like?

When I met him, he was already in his late 70s, and his health was beginning to decline. He was well known, but he certainly didn't act like that. He was very quiet and humble, and that made a big impression on me. I really believe that his focus was on his Catholic faith and his beliefs about God. It wasn't about how good he was as a composer or how important he would be in history. It was about what he was doing to give God glory. So I try to think about that when I play his music, too.

What about Messiaen's music moves you?

His music is very extreme. Some of it is very big and fast and just ecstatic, some of it is very slow, and so it covers a lot of ground. Initially, it was the big music that grabbed me. I felt like, "Wow, this is something that can't be contained -- it's too big." And that's what I wanted to be a part of. Then, later on, the slower, contemplative pieces spoke to me. When I played for the Camaldolese monks last Christmas, it was perfect, because they are so used to not moving. They just sat there in silence.

Lots of people listen to music and feel something powerful happen, but not everyone would call that a spiritual experience. What is it about Messiaen's music that you find spiritual?

It's spiritual because it brings me to a place where I can be close to God. Other people might have a different vocabulary for it, but that's the way I feel. His harmonies are very unusual. He imagines certain colors and puts the notes together to match those thoughts. When I hear those harmonies, I feel like I'm in heaven.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 22, 2005 6:23 AM

I forgive Brothers Judd for the fighting words about Catholic music being awful and causing the Reformation.

Posted by: Emily B. at June 22, 2005 10:31 AM

Messiaen is one of the main exceptions to this rule. He is also proof that one can be politically conservative and artistically progressive, as I would like to be.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at June 22, 2005 9:24 PM