Why Messiaen (Still) Matters

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

This is not a Messiaen Year. It would be the 110th anniversary of his birth, but I haven’t heard of any celebrations coming up. Apparently we pretty much maxed out on that in 2008, when, you may recall, the New York Times reported lines of people stretched around the block at Carnegie Hall, or was it the 92nd Street Y, hoping to score tickets to concerts with pianist Peter Serkin and the NY Phil. What were they performing? The Turangalîla-symphonie? Des canyons étoiles? Something else?

If you were there, you will remember. Just as I will remember my discovery, early this month, of Messiaen’s monumental piano work Catalogue d’Oiseaux in a newly recorded performance. High-res in every sense, it’s now available for your own revelations and celebrations. The box contains three SACDs and a DVD plus illuminating notes by the composer, by ace musicologist Nigel Simeone, and by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. (Pentatone PTC 5186 670; streaming and downloads also offered.)

I thought I was no stranger to Messiaen. I cut my teeth on the classic Tashi recording of Quartet for the End of Time, moved on to Turangalîla and Chronochromie as an undergraduate, annoyed the people I really loved in the mid-‘90s with Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus. I should have long since been ready for the Catalogue. Yet I wasn’t, and in the last few days it has gripped me with unexpected power.

Why might you have a similar experience? Here’s why:

(1) Unlike most other 20th-century modernists, Messiaen has gradually become a bit more popular (see above). People respond to his music emotionally. You don’t have to know much about how it’s put together, although knowing won’t spoil it.

(2) Messiaen was a pioneer of musical landscape, a keen observer of habitat and environment and the unity of all life. He didn’t simply collect and notate birdsong. He collected, in his mind’s ear, rock formations, still ponds, cloudless skies, desolate vistas, deep woods. For Messiaen, it was impossible to understand human life, including suffering, wonder, and ecstasy, without making the acquaintance of many other life forms, among which he saw no reason to exclude rocks or trees. He loved their colors, their sounds. (Because he possessed synesthesia, color and sound often joined forces for him.) Messiaen is the artistic ancestor of young composers today who attempt to depict glaciers cracking, rivers flowing, cascades and cataracts of every kind, the quietness of dense forests, the random noise of city life. We have finally accepted non-narrative music as something no less true or useful than a story. Messiaen knew all along.

(3) Messiaen believed. He was brought up Catholic, he practiced this faith all his life, and in every note of his music he expressed (as Anthony Tommasini puts it) “a theology of glory, transcendence and eternity” based in wonder and humility. Pope Francis might get that. Puritans and cynics (of any era, nation, or religion) might not. I can’t help thinking right now of Westworld’s Dr. Ford (the Anthony Hopkins character), who dismisses all human art and science—Picasso, Shakespeare, the Empire State Building—as a pathetic extension of lesser creatures’ mating displays. He could be right. But even if we are all little Bernards—perhaps especially if we are no brighter than the average peacock—we need Messiaen’s generous counter-argument. His music offers an escape from civilization’s persistent attempts to program every single one of us.

(4) Which brings up the issue of Messiaen’s musical language. It’s different. He owes less to Beethoven and Wagner than did Schoenberg, less to Bach than did Stravinsky. He arguably made a cleaner break with Western tradition than any of them. The big difference between Messiaen and, say, John Cage lies in Messiaen’s stubborn insistence on using musical principles developed by sentient beings, including those with feathers. Even at its most eccentric, his music still sounds, well, musical.

Let’s run down the checklist: (a) melody: of course, the birdcalls Messiaen collected all his life were an important source of melodic inspiration. They often constitute all, or nearly all, the melodic layer of his musical textures. But his interest in exotic or invented scales and modes, especially what he termed “modes of limited transposition,” opened up both his melodic sense and his use of (b) harmony, meaning not traditional chord structures so much as any piquant combination of pitches.

Mention of harmony puts us in “accompaniment” territory: an important facet of Messiaen’s textural style is the way he used certain rhythmic formulas in combination with “chords” to structure the secondary voices that support those birdcalls and other, more distinctive primary materials. Keep in mind two things here. One: Messiaen’s vertical structures (chord-like simultaneities used as accompaniments or “scenery”) can be as straightforward and consonant as a C-major triad or as prickly as a tone cluster. Two: In either case, they are not harmonically functional. There’s seldom any resolution to a tonal center, no dominant-to-tonic “final chord.”

(c) Last on the checklist is the rhythm deployed in those accompaniments. Messiaen used the most varied catalog of rhythms imaginable. They range from primitive ostinato patterns to Greek and Hindu meters (some merely hypothetical) to complex, virtually inaudible “non-retrogradable rhythms” in which the second half of a pattern forms a precise retrograde of the first. (Think of the gull-wing doors on a 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL; facing the hood and with both doors open, let your eyes drift from left to right). As with certain works by Debussy, “rhythm is freed from its dependence both on tonality [functional harmony] and on pulse.” (André Boucourechliev, New Grove 1980) You could also flip that statement, so that both sonority and pulse are freed from rhythm. You can’t pat your foot, nor can you predict phrase length or melodic shape, yet the music bears an expressive message. There’s beauty locked inside.

Enough theory! Let’s listen to something. The Catalogue is organized into seven “books,” each of which contains from one to three field reports, as it were. The composer wrote:

I have tried to render exactly the typical birdsong of a region, surrounded by its neighbors from the same habitat, as well as the form of song at different hours of the day and night. [The birdsongs are] accompanied in the harmonic and rhythmic material by the perfumes and colors of the landscape in which the bird lives.

Gentle reader, you may well infer that these are not strictly scientific studies, in spite of the stated effort “to render exactly.” For one thing, as Messiaen explained,

A bird . . . sings in extremely fast tempi, absolutely impossible for our instruments, so I’m obliged to transcribe the birdsong into a slower tempo. Moreover, this speed is linked to an extremely high pitch . . . inaccessible to our instruments, so I write one, two, three, or even four octaves lower. And that’s not all. For the same reasons I’m obliged to suppress very small intervals [i.e., distances between notes] which our instruments can’t play. I replace these intervals with half-steps.

What Messiaen doesn’t also mention is that the music was written for a pianist of extraordinary ability, the remarkable Yvonne Loriod, who accompanied the composer on many of his field trips and gave the first performances of these works. Had there been no Loriod, the music might have turned out far differently.

Here is an excerpt from VIII. L’Alouette Calandrelle – The Short-toed Lark.

And here is what Messiaen had to say about it:

Provence in July: the Short-toed Lark. Two o’clock in the afternoon. Les Baux, Les Alpilles, broom and cypress trees. The monotonous percussion of the grasshoppers, the Kestrel raises a staccato alarm. The road to Entressan: the Crested Lark sings in two-part counterpoint with the Short-toed Lark. Four o’clock in the afternoon, La Crau. A stony wilderness, intense light, scorching heat. . . .

Another excerpt, this from V. La Chouette Hulotte – The Tawny Owl.

Plumage speckled with brown and red, enormous discs on its face, a solemn expression full of mystery, wisdom and the supernatural. . . . The voice of this nocturnal bird provokes terror. I have often heard it in the dead of night, around two o’clock in the morning, in the woods of Orgeval at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and on the road from Petichet to Cholonge (Isère). Darkness, fear, a heart which beats too fast . . .

Finally, an excerpt from II. Le Loriot – The Golden Oriole.

Late June at Branderaie de Gardépé (Charente), around five-thirty in the morning; Orgeval around six o’clock; Les Maremberts (Loir et Cher) in the full midday sun. The Golden Oriole, a beautiful golden-yellow bird with black wings, whistles among the oak trees. Its song is fluid and gilded, like the laugh of a foreign prince, evokes Africa and Asia, or some unknown planet, full of light and rainbows, full of the Leonardo da Vinci smiles. In the gardens and the woods, some other birds: the rapid and decisive strophe of the Wren, the trusting embrace of the Robin, the panache of the Blackbird.… For a long time, without tiring, the Garden Warblers pour out their songs with quiet virtuosity.

Yes, field notes, but from a poet! In the bonus DVD, Aimard discusses and demonstrates the “radical purity” of this music. Messiaen assembled it in the late 1950s, as he was making a slightly awkward transition from being the teacher of Boulez, Stockhausen, and others to becoming their colleague. His personal life was likewise in painful flux. Thus one could argue that Messiaen’s earlier and later works reveal more of his own curiosities and personal values, fewer of his students’ more rigorous attitudes. In the weeks to come, we’ll explore some of those pieces: more piano music, chamber works, orchestral pieces. More birds, stars, humans, angels.

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