Part Deux

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

[Or: Another Mess O’ Messiaen-Ed.]

This column usually follows a fairly predictable path: first a few words about some music, then a brief clip illustrating the point. Today, let’s switch that around. Hearing the clip first might be more fun. (Don’t be afraid to turn up the volume.)

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Now, to break things down: we heard orchestral brass only, emphasizing a specific color. Also, we heard a personal but consistent chordal language, further enhancing the color aspect. Such chords suggest neither the absolutist, atonal choices of someone like Schoenberg or Boulez nor the supererogated triadic system of a Wagner or César Franck. It’s not C Major, but it’s way not ugly. These sonorities help the chords glisten and vibrate without suggesting functional harmonic progression (as in Brahms) or angst-ridden psychological baggage (as in Berg). Not least, we also heard a palpable melody. It moves sinuously, arrhythmically, in phrases of varying length. This is a “chorale,” but one closer to Gregorian chant than to J. S. Bach. Altogether the effect is serene, pacific, welcoming.

Here’s another taste, from another movement:

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Much livelier. Irregular rhythms and several new colors: strings, woodwinds, horns, lots of percussion accents. Repeated motives that seem oddly familiar, if a bit mechanical. (Here’s a clue. And another. And one more.)

So: we’re hearing birdcalls and possibly a mating dance. The composer witnessed this display and was impressed by it, although it reminded him of the Betrothed of the Apocalypse, “adorned for her husband.” (Here and elsewhere, you may wish to ignore his sincere but deeply personal remarks.)

One more clip:

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Of that movement, the composer wrote, “As the hart longs for the waterbrooks, so longs my soul after Thee, O God.” (Psalm 42)

Now let’s go back half a century and take in some chamber music, completed while our composer was held in a Silesian P.O.W. camp after the German invasion of France. He and three fellow prisoners gave the first performances in that camp. (Not that the composer had done anything especially heroic; following the abrupt surrender of their army, thousands of French servicemen were swept into makeshift holding centers, then sent off to camps like Stalag VIII-A.) Here is the opening of the second movement, subtitled “Vocalise for the angel who announces the end of Time.”

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Later there’s an even more ferocious outburst, a “Dance of fury for the seven trumpets.” (In a program note, the composer helpfully explained that “the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse attend various catastrophes. . . .”)

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Regarding music like this, Guy Bernard-Delapierre, who had gotten to know our composer when both were P.O.W.s, wrote:

It is precisely [his] love for nature, both for what is most obvious in it and for what is most hidden, that gives listeners that hallucinatory impression of making contact with the heart. . . . [His] Christian mysticism often expresses itself, side by side with purely contemplative melodies, in an utterly pagan violence, an abandonment to sensuality such as we no longer find except among “primitive” peoples. (1945)

Obviously we’re talking about Messiaen again. The first work we sampled was Éclairs sur l’Au-delà. That translates roughly to Illuminations of the Beyond, although éclairs is better expressed as “lightning flashes.” We heard Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI/Warner Classics, CD or download). The second work was Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, or Quartet for the End of Time, a staple since (at least) the tie-dyed ‘70s, when Tashi made their immensely popular RCA recording. Here we heard a new reading, also very fine, from a group including clarinetist Martin Fröst and violinist Janine Jansen (Sony Classical, CD or download).

These works are exemplary in more ways than one: virtually every other big piece by Messiaen partakes of the same musical techniques and spiritual viewpoint. (A possible exception is the Turangalîla-Symphony; see below.) The lovely Trois petites liturgies de la Presence Divine, for example, offers many Messiaen “fingerprints”:


That performance comes from Myung-Whun Chung (DG, CD or download). Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony have released an equally fine, newer recording (SS Media, CD or download). (Check out the Seattle SO’s useful guide.)

One thing I learned from poring over Messiaen, a documentary biography from Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, is that this remarkable artist formed his identity early on and kept refining it throughout his life, rather than going through distinctive “periods.” (Throughout this piece I’m using Hill and Simeone as a source of quotations.)

It was in Grenoble that I realized I was a musician. I was seven-and-a-half and had just been given [a score of] Gluck’s Orphée, and with my present under my arm, I went into the park. . . . I went to sit on a stone bench in the large Jardin de Ville. . . . I [was looking] at the theme in F major from Orpheus’s great aria in the first act . . . when I noticed that I was “hearing” it. So I could already hear a score, and I had only been learning music for a few months.

When Messiaen arrived at the Paris Conservatoire in 1919, age 11, he came with a score of Debussy’s complex, enigmatic opera Pelléas et Mélisande in hand, a gift from his first teacher. At the Conservatoire, music history classes fascinated him, not least because of what he learned about the ancient modes and non-Western music. He studied composition with Widor, then with Dukas, who inspired him deeply.

Messiaen seems to have led a charmed early life: his father, an English teacher, and mother, a celebrated poet, saw to his education and supported his creative efforts. His elders and peers recognized his talent and rewarded it. With few exceptions (e.g., Nadia Boulanger) he got on well with the establishment in spite of his avant-garde tendencies, and he secured good professional positions. Religious beliefs informed his music but were never an obstacle. Widor noted that, “in an environment [presumably the Conservatoire] where faith plays little part, he has commanded admiration and respect through the dignity of his lifestyle and [his] genuinely Christian warmth.” Neither of his parents were believers, but of his mother he observed that “poetry allowed her to explore the mysteries of faith in the same way as music.” He felt her spirit guiding him long after she had passed.

Debussy’s music remained a key influence, especially its emphasis on rich, non-functional harmonies and timbre as a component equal to pitch or rhythm. Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, and others were also exploring exotic modes and rhythms at the turn of the century; Messiaen sought to refine and codify their experiments. Whatever technical procedures he adopted were meant, as Hill and Simeone note, “to expand the emotional range and to enhance the expressive power of his music . . . ‘to allow the heart to overflow freely.’” The composer himself may have articulated his core philosophy best when he said

Every artist needs to try, according to the words of [Paul] Valéry, “to enlarge our conceptions to the extent where they become inconceivable.”

Exactly so. How could it be otherwise? To depict the transcendent, one must invent a language that transcends. Sometimes this invites ridicule; some people are never persuaded. In 1936 Messiaen’s supporter André Cœuroy illustrated the problem in an affectionate article for Beaux-Arts:

The other evening at the Trinité, during an organ recital of [Messiaen’s] works . . . I thought I had found him out: I read, in the program, that “Les Anges,” one of the pieces from La Nativité du Seigneur, was “a sort of heavenly dance,” “an exultation of disembodied spirits”; in short, either drugged to the eyeballs or indescribably boring. Well, never have I heard an organ piece which had such a vibrant sense of jubilation or such powerful poetry, where there was, at the same time, such taste, such delicacy and such color.

There it is: those whose art I don’t get are either charlatans or addicts, possibly both. Messiaen had attempted, perhaps not wisely, to combat this attitude via elaborate annotations that established (he felt) his music’s theoretical and theological legitimacy.  But surely the best way for any of us to overcome reactionary blindness (deafness?) is to experience more of anything we don’t quite get. Here are a few home remedies that worked for me:

La Nativité du Seigneur. Messiaen played and wrote for organ all his life; his first “organ cycle” is a set of nine preludes on subjects from the Nativity—angels, shepherds, the magi, etc. Look for recordings by Jennifer Bate, a trusted interpreter.

Turangalîla-Symphony. Centered on the legend of Tristan and Isolde, and thus with erotic love as an overwhelming, perhaps fatal force. These massive ten movements encompass birdsong, Asian rhythms and colors, and a swoony, swoopy ondes Martenot. Recommended: Hewitt, Hartmann, Lintu, Finnish Radio SO (Ondine, (SACD or download).

Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus. Twenty solo piano meditations, truly intergalactic, inspired by stars, planets, photons, bells, spirals, stalactites, the Gospels, and writings from various saints. Crystalline and apocalyptic. Recommended: Austbø (Naxos), Osborne (Hyperion).

Chronochromie. “The color of time.” Birds, mountains, canyons, rivers and more, set in a continuous form derived from ancient Greek choruses. It’s quite lively, though, with stunning counterpoint and profuse, constantly morphing orchestral colors. Recommended: Boulez (DG, CD) or Dorati (Angel, vinyl), the latter of whom appears “by permission of the Mercury Record Corporation.”

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