Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: The Prodigal Son

A Messiaenic gizmo

Flagging a bit on this blog lately, especially on the poetry front. Well, especially on every front. Apologies for the slacking. Meanwhile, three snaps taken after last night’s gobsmacking performance in Birmingham of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. (This was premiered the year I was born, though I’m afraid I can’t pretend it was the music I heard in the womb, which was more likely something from Workers’ Playtime.)

For the eighty minutes of multi-layered, modernist, breath-crunching crash-bang-wallop, alternating with fragile, stellar ecstasy, the BBC Symphony Orchestra was fronted by piano, celeste, keyboard glockenspiel, and, not least, the ondes Martenot, played for this occasion by Cynthia Millar, who very decently descended after the performance in her giant flowered frock, to give the small crowd who had gathered to stare at the vintage electronic instrument a mini-tutorial in its peculiarities. [Click images to enlarge.]


Among the mix of five speakers ranged across the stage, chief object of curiosity was the lyre-shaped diffuseur palme, whose twelve tuned strings resonate subtly with the electronic note. This piece of singing sculpture strikes me as an orphic-electronic device containing both classical past and SF future, embodying the present of its own invention while also managing to sit defiantly outside time itself – appropriately enough for a Messiaenic gizmo.


First half of the programme was the original orchestral setting of Messiaen’s L’Ascension. As the returning Christ floated up, up and away, heading for reunion with the Father, the strings somehow sounded as if they were playing in reversed time, like a tape run backwards, and in a mini-light bulb moment it occurred to me that the parable of the Prodigal Son is, in part, an image of the Ascension. The boy’s coming home.

Outside, in the foyer, two other boys, in blue and carrying light machine guns, were there to guard my insight from any untoward interruption. I tend to fight shy of any talk of spiritual warfare, but I guess it’s time to stake a claim to our understanding of the numinous.

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The Improdigal Father

This blogs needs a re-injection of energy. Sorry. Meanwhile, Happy Father’s Day for yesterday! Far be it from me to criticise Jesus’s skills as a creator of parables, but don’t you sometimes feel that the figure of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son is rather too blank, too blameless? Isn’t self reproach a part of the suffering of God the Father? Shouldn’t the whole thing be more symmetrical? So here’s a little vision that came to me yesterday during Communion. With a nice pic by Max Beckmann.

The Improdigal Father

After the younger son had left for a distant country, there to squander his wealth, the presence of his remaining brother proved a diminishing comfort to the father, who entered a dark period of prolonged remorse and self-examination. News of the famine in his son’s adopted country and of the young man’s impoverished and pitiful condition only deepened the old man’s guilt, while the severely dutiful character of the older son became less a compensation than an irritant.

Max Beckmann, The Prodigal Son

Max Beckmann, The Prodigal Son

“It’s all very well you slaving out here in the fields all day,”  commented his father, “but your brother is starving, somewhere hundreds of miles away, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. And you working all hours and calculating the profits isn’t going to help. Your brother’s going to die and you’re in complete denial.”

“Well someone’s got to take care of business,” said the son. “And you’re just sitting around moping all day and beating yourself up about it. What good does that do?”

His father didn’t answer.

“And maybe,” his son continued, “he wouldn’t have left in the first place if you hadn’t been so hard on him, banging on all the time about responsibility and aspiration. You never played with us when we were little, you know. We didn’t exactly have a fun childhood.”

“I know, I know” mumbled the father. “But then, your grandfather was very distant with me when I was small. I never had much of an example to follow.”

But his son wasn’t listening. “And then,” he continued, “after all those years of repression, to go and give him his half of the estate, all in one go. You might have known what would happen. Total disaster! He simply couldn’t handle it, but that wasn’t his fault.”

“I know, I know. But I was trying to do the right thing. I wanted to make it up to him for being so hard on him. But I just made everything worse.”

Then news came that his lost son had been spotted, a long way down the road, walking back home. The old man rushed out of the house, tears staining his face, and ran to find him. When he met him he threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“I’m so sorry,” he wept. “It’s all my fault. I have sinned against heaven and against you. I’ve been a useless dad; in fact I’m no longer worthy to be called your father. I’ve been so depressed and guilty about it. A day hasn’t gone past when I haven’t reproached myself for everything that’s happened. I’ve lain awake every night thinking about your situation, worrying about the future. And your brother hasn’t helped. He’s grown so cold and hard, like me. All he thinks about is his work. I only wanted the best for you both. Where did I go wrong?”

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” said the young man. “You don’t have to feel bad about it any more. I’m home now and things will be better, you’ll see. We’ve both learned a valuable lesson. I’ll tell you what – have you still got a fattened calf left? Why don’t we go home and kill it and have a feast to celebrate? That’ll cheer you up a bit.”

When the older brother found out what was happening, he became angry and resentful. But his younger brother said to him, “Celebrate with us and be glad. This father of ours was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.”