Messiaen Des canyons aux etoiles

After the epoch-making Turangalîla-Symphonie of 1948, Olivier Messiaen was looking for new directions. For a time it seemed that he might go down the road of total serialism fa-vored by some of his more radical students. Instead, he forged for himself a new style based on the highly personal transcription of birdsong. Oiseaux exotiques, although one of the first works in this style, is one of his greatest successes. The piece comprises three clearly defined sections: an introduction, a sequence of piano cadenzas and instrumental interludes with two big tuttis, and a coda. The extraordinary achievement is to have invented virtually a new musical language. The birdsongs are a new kind of musical gesture; the assembly of woodwind, brass, piano and percussion to convey the timbre of the birdsongs has created a new sonority (a sonority of fantastic éclat— dynamics are rarely other than f, ff, or fff) and the way of composing by simply juxtaposing blocks of material whereby the unity of the piece comes from a dramatic balance of similarities and contrasts has given us a new concept of form.

Apart from an underpinning of the central tutti with Greek and Hindu rhythms, Oiseaux exotiques contains nothing but birdsong. Thereafter Messiaen was to move towards a more integrated style incorporating elements from every stage of his career.

In the early sixties he accepted a rather bizarre commission to write a work for three trombones and three xylophones. Not surprisingly he was somewhat at a loss as to how to use these instruments (and, in the event, he was to write for a considerably modified ensemble), but his first idea was that the trombone has an apocalyptic sonority, and this caused him to reread the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelations. This step was to mark Messiaen’s return, once and for all, to his religious preoccupations, though, in fact, his primary, self-avowed aim as a composer has always been to manifest La Vérité, the Truth which his Christian faith has revealed to him. He sees music as an image, a reflection, a symbol of the transcendental. A work like Couleurs de la cité céleste is an imaginative discipline which enables his meditation on invisible things. He is providing a concrete, dramatic setting for the meditation: a sequence of vivid apprehensions, never explored or elaborated, merely laid out.

In the preface to his score Messiaen identifies 5 quotations from Revelations as the stimulus to his meditation:

And there was a rainbow round about the throne.

And the seven angels had seven trumpets.

And to the star was given the key to the bottomless pit.

And the light of the Holy City was like a jasper stone, clear as crystal And the foundations of the wall of the City were garnished with all manner of precious stones: jasper, sapphire, chalcedony...

In a further preface he identifies his repertoire of devices to represent these:

“Plainsong Alleluias, Greek and Hindu rhythms, permutations of note-values, birdsong of different countries: all these accumulated materials are placed at the service of colour and the combinations of sounds that represent it. The sound- colours in their turn are a symbol of the Celestial City and of Him who dwells there.”

The piece falls into four large-scale dramatic “blocks:” a kind of abstract play of very rhyth-mic (birds) and very static (colour-chords) figurations; “high drama”—with the shattering cries of the Brazilian araponga bird, and the apocalyptic “bottomless pit;” the visionary “still heart” of the piece—the interior “rainbow” (the only time pianissimo is heard in this piece) surrounded by the praise of the Alleluias; and finally a kind of coda where the various bits of the mosaic are made to contrast with each other more intensely and unexpectedly.

The sound of the ensemble is particularly fascinating—very raw and primitive, a sort of intensification of the crude, metallic tuned cow-bells. Plainchant in this piece is far re-moved from any pious, incense-laden overtones; it seems much nearer its purer, starker, Gregorian origins.

In 1974 Messiaen completed the 12-movement work for piano and orchestra that is his most extended orchestral piece, and the most important since Turangalila. Des canyons aux étoiles is a monumental cycle of meditations on the majesty of God in all his creation. In this particular instance the concrete, vivid, dramatic setting for his meditation is no less than the U.S.A. itself. Messiaen was commissioned by Alice Tully to write a work for the American Bicentennial in honour of the United States. He apparently looked through a special series of books which he owns called Wonders of the World and came across the canyons of Utah which so fired his imagination that he made a special pilgrimage to Utah to see for himself. Whatever one’s religious sensibilities, it would be hard not to be awestruck by the wonder of creation in such a location.

The piece takes the listener on a journey—an ascent from the canyons of the Earth, to the stars in the physical sky and beyond to a vision of Heaven The journey starts in “The Desert" which symbolizes the silence and isolation essential if Man is to contemplate the greatest of all mysteries: Man in the context of the whole of Creation. Against this peaceful background is heard one of the wonders of the natural world—the song of a bird.

Movement 2 is the first of five out of the twelve movements given over entirely to the songs of birds—in this case, members of the oriole family.

Messiaen transports us in movement 3 into the cosmos where amidst the stars, he contemplates the omnipotence of the Creator, whose fearsomeness is represented by his denunciation of Man’s wickedness in the judgment of Babylon at the feast of King Belshazzar. The words of Divine Justice—MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN—are seen emblazoned on the walls of Space: written in the stars. Musically these words are conveyed by a "communicable language,” translating letters as musical notes. Movement 4, for piano solo, brings more birdsong (this time from Africa), the music of the white-browed robin.

Part 1 ends with a further contemplation of God’s omnipotence. Cedar Breaks in Utah is a natural phenomenon of unspoilt beauty, so striking that it imbued in the composer a feel-ing close to that of awe. According to the Scriptures, the gift of Awe comes from the Holy Spirit, and is the beginning of Wisdom. Awe is the reverence of the sacred and a recognition of the Divine Presence. Such reverence and recognition leads to the adoration of the Creator. Belshazzar’s refusal to recognize the Divine brought fearful retribution from God; Man’s awareness of God in Creation brings him closer to an understanding of God’s love.

For solo horn, the first movement of Part 2 takes us back to the cosmos where we hear the unanswered cries of Man’s anguish and realize, in the silences, that only through adoration is God’s presence felt and his help received. Part 2 ends with a further contemplation of an earthly wonder, Bryce Canyon, more splendid still than Cedar Breaks. This is the central and most extended movement of the work.

With the contemplation of the star Aldebaran, in movement 8, we move through the singing stars to Eternity itself, where the resurrected souls of men share with God the eternal state of Creation—all is transparency, light and love. Movement 9, for piano solo, presents the songs of the American mockingbird whose explosive energy seems to offer a striking contrast to what follows in movement 10 where the song of the wood-thrush symbolizes the archetype God predestined for us and which is only fully realized in our celestial life, after resurrection. Here, then, our journey has brought us to Heaven where the bond of love between the soul of Man and the Creator is sealed. (This marvellous C-major song is the same as that which makes such a memorable effect in the first and final piano cadenzas of Oiseaux exotiques.)

Our return to Earth is via the music of the birds of the Hawaiian Islands in movement 11, and finally to Zion Park, another wonder of our natural world and one in which to contemplate the possibility of Heaven on Earth. This movement intercuts majestic chorales for orchestra with virtuoso birdsongs for piano—songs of Heaven and Earth, the title of a very early work by Messiaen but one which might well be an alternative title to this piece.

Again, the sound of the orchestra (unbelievably only 43 players) is remarkable and unique. 13 solo strings all with independent parts, a geophone (an invention of Messiaen’s, a sort of drum filled with sand) to represent the sound of the earth, a wind machine combined with the trumpeter blowing through the mouthpiece to represent the violent wind, the unforgettable sound of the cellos scraping their bows below the bridge to conjure up the bizarre song of the blue grouse in movement 5, are just some of the new and striking sound-images to be encountered in this work.

Finally, but very significantly, all three works propose radical new ways of piano and orchestra being together, whether almost totally integrated as in Couleurs, or as alternations of cadenzas and interludes as in Oiseaux, or even incorporating large-scale solo movements as in Canyons. Canyons is, in fact, the largest work for piano and orchestra ever written; apart from the horn movement the piano plays almost without pause—and almost 30 minutes of the piece is for piano solo. However, rather than thinking of this piece as a piano concerto, one might better consider the role of the piano as a kind of (generally explosive) energy holding the whole massive structure together.

©Paul Crossley