January 1986 marked a turning point in the career of Louise Bessette. Since winning the First Prize at the Concours International de Musique Contemporaine in Saint-Germain-en-Laye (France), she has gone [...]
They spoke about it
Music is a perpetual dialogue between space and time, between sound and colour, and this dialogue results in a unification: time is a space, sound is a colour, space is a complex of overlapping times, complexes of sound exist simultaneously as complexes of colours. The musician who thinks, sees, hears, and speaks using these fundamental concepts can, to a certain extent, approach the hereafter. (Olivier Messiaen)
His father a professor of literature and translator of Shakespeare and his mother, Cécile Sauvage, a well-known poet, Oliver Messiaen’s musical talents became apparent early on in life. For his tenth birthday, he asked for the score of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which was a revelation to him. The next year, he entered the Paris Conservatory, where his teachers included Paul Dukas for composition and Marcel Dupré for the organ. His extraordinary curiosity led him to study Gregorian plainchant, Hindu rhythmic structures, birdsong, Greek music, sacred texts, and surrealist poetry at once, which would all serve as sources of inspiration for his future compositions.
But the most powerful force in Messiaen’s artistic life was his Catholic faith. His deep belief is apparent in all his works, even those that do not appear to have a religious theme. He himself said that the theological truths of Catholicism were “the primary facet of [my] oeuvre, the most noble, probably the most useful and valuable, and possibly the only one [I] will not regret when [I] die.” It was nevertheless essential for Messiaen to embody himself in every act of creation. As early as 1946 he said, “I cannot write what I have not lived.”
Nature, as a symbol of divine perfection, was a great source of inspiration for Messiaen, one that drove him to integrate birdsong into his music in ever more expressive ways. His ideal was to compose music as if nature had produced it without human intervention. “Nature is the supreme resource: an inexhaustible treasury of colours and sounds, of forms and rhythms; an unequaled model of complete development and endless variation!”
He professed an undying love for the piano, writing some of his best works for the instrument. “The piano, which seems at first stripped of all timbre, is, due to that very lack of personality, the perfect instrument for seeking out timbres,” he explained, “because the timbre comes not from the instrument but from the performer. Hence timbre changes along with the playing. Because I loved the piano and played it frequently I was driven to compose not melodies of timbres but complexes of timbres.”
Messiaen the colourist
Above all, Messiaen can be viewed as a musician who used colour. The colour-sound correlation tied in with a personal symbolism that imbued his entire production. For Messiaen a chord was purple, or orange, before it was something that could be analyzed or numbered. For example, the notes A-C#-E evoked the colour blue before they formed an A major chord. The liner notes of recordings of his works, which he always supervised closely, devoted much space to the mention of colour, especially to the blue and orange tones he was particularly fond of. In his Conférence de Notre-Dame lecture, he explained that “each complex of sounds, or chord, has 12 combinations of colours that correspond to the 12 possible transpositions in the chromatic scale,” (“chromatic” here referring to both colour and musical intervals).
In Cantéyodjayâ, written in the summer of 1948 between two courses given by Messiaen at the Berkshire Center in Tanglewood, he used for one of the first times “turning” chords, along with others that are inversions over the same bass note, techniques he would use in many of his subsequent works, notably in La Fauvette des jardins, where the lake’s mirror effect is achieved through this very particular manipulation of the musical material. Each chord is employed as a harmonic source, a rejection of the specific functions they usually fulfil. His Prélude (1964), discovered in 2000 and published posthumously by his wife, Yvonne Loriod, also makes use of some of these processes, with the diatonic and homophonic chords of the opening immersing the listener immediately into a world that can only be Messiaen’s.
Messiaen the rhythmist
Rhythm has a life of its own in Messiaen’s work: “I feel that rhythm is the primordial and perhaps most essential part of music; it probably existed before melody and harmony, and I have a secret preference for this aspect of music.” Describing himself as a “composer of music and ‘rhythmist,’” he challenged the functions of pulse, meter and tempo, transforming rhythmical givens into a new and totally original language. “Time—measured, relative, physiological, psychological—can be divided a thousand ways, the most immediate of which is, for us, the perpetual conversion of future into past. In eternity, these things will no longer exist,” he explained.
With his extensive knowledge of Indian music, he was able to almost completely dissociate pulse from meter, which then became “amesured,” based on “the feeling of a short value and its multiples.” Cantéyodjayâ is a condensation of Messiaen’s research into rhythm, as are his four Études de rythme, produced shortly thereafter. In 27 short sections, which are nested into a highly innovative form, the work makes use of numerous deçî-tâlas, which Messiaen transforms through the repetitions, interweaving them into one another.
Messiaen the ornithologist
Birds, which he called “his first and greatest teachers” and “our little servants of ethereal joy,” always fascinated Messiaen. Studying with eminent ornithologists, who would become his friends, he learned to identify most of the birds of France by ear. His oeuvre contains over 300 bird songs, including 77 alone in Catalogue d’oiseaux.
La Fauvette des jardins, inspired by the countryside where Messiaen spent many a pleasant summer, is a synthesis of his research in this field. Composed in the summer of 1970, this large-scale work—which Messiaen himself considered his best piece for piano—should have formed the centrepiece of a Catalogue d’oiseaux part two, describing both the immutability of the universe and the changeable character of nature. “But, instead of going back to an old fashioned or classical model, I tried to reproduce, in condensed form, the vibrant procession of the hours of the day and night.”
Petites esquisses d’oiseaux, from 1985, are six miniature but magnificently honed sketches that are the quintessence of Messiaen’s particular style. “Birds are probably the greatest musicians that exist in the musical hierarchy of our planet.”
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen
The quotes by Messiaen are translated from the following works:
Claude Samuel, Entretiens avec Olivier Messiaen, Éditions Belfond, Paris, 1967.
Pierrette Mari, Olivier Messiaen. Éditions Seghers, Paris, 1965.
Harry Halbreich, Olivier Messiaen. Fayard/Sacem, Paris, 1980.