[The following was presented at the University of North Texas in the early 1990s as a pre-concert lecture accompanying a performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.]



The Musical Mechanics of Mysticism 

John Covach


             Let me begin my remarks this evening by expressing how excited I am to have the opportunity to speak to you about the music of Olivier Messiaen.  I was first exposed to Messiaen's music twelve years ago as an undergraduate in a required music history course, and since that time the work of Olivier Messiaen has held a real and lasting fascination for me.  The piece that served as my introduction to Messiaen was the Quartet for the End of Time, and I am sure that this has been the case for many students, since this piece is the usual focus of discussion regarding Messiaen's music in most textbooks dealing with twentieth-century music.  What struck me then about the Quartet is how different it sounded from the Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, the Bartok, and the Stravinsky music that we had been studying up to that point in the course.  But it was not only the sound of the music that seemed different to me, it was also that the pieces themselves seemed to be much more obviously "about" something besides the relationships obtaining among the notes and the rhythms; I remember especially the powerful effect of the eighth movement, "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus," in which the violin and piano ascend to the very limits of their respective registers and at the end of the piece seem to disappear into heaven itself. 

            As you may have gathered from the title of my presentation, I will be concerned this evening with both the technical aspects of Messiaen's music--something I term his "musical mechanics"--and the aesthetic ends to which these musical mechanics are applied--ends which in many cases may be considered to be "mystical."  Now, I should perhaps point out, I am a music theorist, and as any music student can attest, theorists love to talk about the "nuts and bolts" of pieces of music.  In fact, theorists can sometimes seem to imply, through their lack of attention to the other dimensions of musical works, that the only important issue at stake in any discussion of music is the music's structure--the technical explication of how the notes and rhythms go.  And when it comes to Messiaen's music, it can be difficult to resist this approach; Messiaen's music is full of fascinating manipulations of pitch and rhythmic components, and these music-technical machinations can be intriguing enough to suggest their value independent of any other context.   

            I would like to suggest, by contrast, that it is precisely the ways in which the technical components of the music interact with the other--what some might call "extra-musical"--contexts of the music that are most interesting; that is, I think of the musical mechanics in Messiaen's music generally--and in the Quartet in particular--not so much as ends in themselves, but rather as means to another kind of end.  In order to support such a claim, it falls to me to: first, identify the technical means themselves--that is, present the nuts and bolts of the music; and second to show how these means are employed to some other end--that is, to show how the nuts and bolts of the music have some kind of meaning beyond their sheer technical ones.  In short, I want to understand how the music is put together in technical terms, but preserve my original intuition that the music is ultimately "about" something else. 

            Before turning to the music-technical discussion though, I would like to relate to you two stories that tend to arise in discussions of the Quartet for the End of Time.  The first story has to do with the composition and first performance of the work.  Messiaen composed the Quartet in late 1940/early 1941.  What gives the story special interest is that he composed the piece while being held in a German prison camp at Görlitz in Silesia (now in Poland), Stalag VIIIA, to be precise.  The instrumentation--piano, violin, cello, and clarinet--was determined by the musicians at his disposal, all of whom were fellow prisoners.  As the story goes, the piano was old and broken down and the cello only had three strings.  As Paul Griffiths has remarked, the first performance of this work has become, along with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, one of the great stories in twentieth-century music.  The Quartet for the End of Time was first performed in January 1941 "before an audience of 5,000 prisoners, sitting in the depths of winter at the bleakest point in a world war."[1]  Messiaen later recalled this premire by saying, "never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding."[2]  One can only imagine the powerful impact this piece must have had in its first performance. 

            If this first story tends toward the autobiographical, the second story often told--or at least implied--about the Quartet is musicological.  In discussing Messiaen's music, most music historians acknowledge that Messiaen's output reaches back to the 1920s (his first composition, La Dame de Shalotte for piano, actually dates from 1917).  But the earliest piece to receive any real attention is usually the Quartet for the End of Time.  This tends to create the impression that the Quartet stands as the beginning of something in Messiaen's music.  In 1944 Messiaen published a fairly technical description of his compositional practice, translated in 1957 as The Technique of My Musical Language.  Messiaen's book contains a wealth of musical examples drawn from his own works, and no piece is as frequently cited as the Quartet.  Thus discussions of the Quartet frequently refer to The Technique of My Musical Language.  This creates the additional impression that the 1941 piece and the 1944 book together comprise a kind of historical starting point for consideration of Messiaen's music.  For example, when Messiaen turns to serialism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, scholars tend to look for the early signs of this shift in the Quartet and the composer's commentary upon it.  But it is perhaps more fruitful to view the Quartet for the End of Time--as well as other works from the mid 1940s--as a kind of culmination of a number of elements in Messiaen's compositional style that reach back at least as far as the 1920s.  Messiaen's subsequent turn to serialism--and especially his own special employment of it--can then be viewed in a much broader context than is usually offered. 

            Let us now turn our attention to the technical aspects of the Quartet.  I will restrict my remarks this evening to the first movement of the Quartet, entitled "Liturgy of Crystal."  I do this mostly because my time is limited, but also because most people's patience for technical music-analytical discussion is also limited.  The "Liturgy of Crystal" also serves as a convenient point of focus because many of the elements often associated with Messiaen's music occur in this work.   

            This first movement is scored for the full quartet: violin, viola, clarinet, and piano.  From the outset of the piece one notes that each instrument seems somehow to be in its own world, and there is an overall sense in which it seems less like the instruments are playing together, and more like they are playing simultaneously--not so much with each other, but more at the same time as one another.  Nevertheless, this simultaneous playing produces a very enticing effect and it will be this effect on which I would like to focus in a moment.  For now, let's examine each part individually.   

            The violin part clearly imitates the singing of a bird, and Messiaen indicates this in the score by offering the indication "comme un oiseau" (like a bird).  Let's hear a bit of the violin part now. 

(play mm. 3-6, violin part only) 

As you will hear when the piece is performed later, this part does not develop in the traditional sense in any way throughout the movement, though there are some slight variations.  This bird song remains entirely static in terms of development, repeating the same figure with only slight variations and digressions. 

            The clarinet part is also marked "comme un oiseau" in the score.  Messaien mentions that the piece should evoke the sound of a blackbird or a nightingale improvising.  Paul Griffiths suggests that both birdsongs are stylized ones, but notes that the clarinet part is at least something like a blackbird as Messiaen notates it in The Technique of My Musical Language.[3]  Here are the first nine measures of that part. 

(play mm. 1-9, clarinet part only) 

You may have noticed that motivic fragments return towards the end of the excerpt we just heard, and unlike the violin part, this kind of motivic return--repeatedly bringing back a melodic fragment in a varied form--occurs throughout the movement.  If we conclude, then, that both the violin and clarinet are birds, the clarinet is at least a bird influenced by the European tradition of motivic development! 

            While the violin and clarinet parts sound improvisitory and unmetered, the other two parts each have much stronger rhythmic profiles.  The cello part is constructed out of a five-note melody, C - E - D - F# - Bb.  All five notes are derived from the whole-tone scale, and the five notes always return in the same order forming a kind of "five-tone row."  This five-note fragment is set to a fifteen-value rhythmic sequence however.  So we hear the five-note melodic fragment three times before the rhythmic pattern and the five-note sequence line up again.  Let's here once through the pattern. 

(play mm. 2-7, cello part only) 

The cello part thus forms a kind of ostinato within the texture, and this figure occurs seven times in succession throughout the piece.   

            There is an additional feature of the fifteen-value rhythmic pattern to which Robert Shirlaw Johnson draws our attention.   Messiaen refers in his writing about his own music to something he calls "non-retrogardable rhythms"; these are rhythms that are identical when played backwards (he calls them non-retrogradable, therefore, because a distinct retrograde cannot exist).  While this pattern in its entirety is not of the non-retrogardable type, it does contain three different and overlapping segments that are non-retrogradable.[4]  I will return in a moment to the significance of this kind of rhythm in Messiaen's music. 

            Moving on finally to the piano part, this part is organized much like the cello part.  It consists of a sequence of twenty-nine chords set to a rhythm of seventeen values.  Now because fifteen divides into three fives easily, one can see how the cello part repeats after only once through the fifteen-value rhythmic sequence.  But twenty-nine does not divide cleanly by seventeen, and this actually ensures that it will take, according to Paul Griffiths' calculations, seven minutes for the chords and rhythms to realign again (29 X 29); the movement, however, is only about two and a half minutes long.  The pitch material in the chord sequence is made up of a combination of Messiaen-style dominant chords and modes of limited transposition.  The rhythmic pattern is one that recurs in a number of Messiaen's works and is based on Indian rhythms.[5]  I will have more to say about these technical features in a moment; for now let's listen to a bit of the piano part. 

(play mm. 1-8, piano part only) 

            Having viewed each part in turn, we see now that our initial sense--that the parts do not so much interact as coexist--was well founded; the way in which Messiaen designs the material for each part assures that there will be no realignment of the parts after the first measure.  (In fact, Paul Griffiths estimates that it would take nearly two hours for the piano and cello parts to align with one another the way they do at the beginning of the piece.[6])  The pitch materials chosen, including the modes of limited transposition, tend to assure that no real tonic will be heard (though Griffiths suggests that if one must be heard, Bb is the best choice).[7]  There is a sense, then, in which the two or three minutes we spend with the piece is just a portion of a much longer piece, or even only a portion of a piece that goes on eternally.  Let us listen for just a moment to the first six measures. 

(play mm. 1-6, entire quartet) 

            Now I will admit that I have withheld from you crucial information about the piece--information that has--thus far, at least--secretly directed my analysis of this first movement.  This information takes the form of the words of the composer himself on the work.  Messiaen writes that the Quartet was directly inspired by an excerpt from the "Revelation of St. John"; here is the Biblical passage to which Messiaen refers: 

            I saw a mighty angel descending from heaven, clad in mist, having around his head a rainbow.  His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire.  He placed his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the earth, and standing thus on the sea and on the earth he lifted his hand toward heaven and swore by Him who liveth forever and ever, saying: "There shall be time no longer, but at the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel the mystery of God shall be consumated."  (Revelation, X) 

Messiaen writes in the following general terms about the piece in his preface to the published score of the Quartet

            It is directly inspired by this excerpt from the "Revelation of St. John."  Its spiritual language is essentially transcendental, spiritual, catholic.  Certain modes, realizing melodically and harmonically a kind of tonal ubiquity, draw the listener into a sense of the eternity of space or time.  Particular rhythms existing outside the measure contribute importantly toward the banishment of temporalities. 

About the first movement, he writes the following: 

            Between the morning hours of three and four, the awakening of the birds: a blackbird or a nightingale soloist improvises, amid notes of shining sound and a halo of trills that lose themselves high in the trees.  Transpose this to the religious plane: you will have the harmonious silence of heaven. 

            Admittedly, one must always be careful about using a composer's words about his or her music as the last word on any interpretive matter concerning that composer's music.  But here it seems very clear that Messiaen's use of music-technical means cannot be viewed as an end in itself.  Messiaen uses the means I described a moment ago--the stylized bird songs, the cycles of pitches and rhythms, as well as the modes of limited transposition, in the piano and cello parts--to project a sense of timelessness, or perhaps better, a sense of multiple temporality.  The violin and clarinet are relatively static--the violin more so than the clarinet--and this gives the impression of very short time periods repeated frequently.  The cello unfolds a longer and more complicated time frame--its temporal period, however, still fits within the confines of the movement itself.  The piano, however, projects the longest and most complicated time period--it is so lengthy that it cannot be contained within the piece itself: it continues in some sense after the movement is over, and could, for all we know, have been underway before the piece began. 

            Considering all this, one might wonder whether Messiaen sets out to depict the end of time literally in the music; is this a kind of musical representation of eternity?  Messiaen has denied that he ever tries to offer such literal translations of spiritual states into tones.  It is perhaps better to think of the piece as evoking such an image through specifically musical means.  That is, the sense of static temporality that a listener experiences in hearing this piece is a musical experience that may correspond to a parallel spiritual experience, but it is not that spiritual experience, nor does it try to imitate such an experience.   

            It is also clear that Messiaen is drawn to certain types of musical material in his composing.  He refers repeatedly in The Technique of My Musical Language to something he calls "the charm of impossibilities."  By this he means that, for example, each of his modes of limited transposition are structured such that no tone can arise as a tonic--the modes that he enumerates are symmetrical arrangements of pitch classes that turn back upon themselves tonally and confuse our usual sense of tonality.  Corresponding to this would be his non-retrogradable rhythms, which also possess a kind of symmetrical structure in the temporal dimension and tend also to confuse our sense of beat and meter.  That these symmetries can defeat the usual listening strategies for hearing meter and tonality is what Messiaen finds so attractive; we are thrown from our comfortable, grounded world of musical orientation into a musical environment in which the old rules no longer apply.  We have a musical experience that may suggest to us what a spiritual experience would be like that transcended our fundamentally human notions of time and space.   

            Messiaen's musical mechanics--his technical manipulations of musical materials--can thus be seen to be grounded in a kind of religious mysticism.  While it may seem that this it precisely what separates him out from other twentieth-century composers, it turns out that this links him with other composers whose music contrasts strongly with Messiaen's.  It is clear that much of Arnold Schoenberg's music was written under the spell of mysticism; Schoenberg unabashedly cites his concept of musical time and space as descended from the writings of the eighteenth-century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.  Recent scholarship has suggested that Claude Debussy too may have been influenced by mystical notions of, for example, the golden mean.  Russian composer was Alexander Scriabin was an avowed mystic and the Austrian composer Josef Matthias Hauer often wrote about his own version of the twelve-tone system in patently mystical ways. 

            Thus, if one is convinced that Messiaen's music is ultimately about something besides--or beyond--its purely structural properties, this does not occur in spite of those structural properties.  It is precisely Messiaen's musical mechanics that make the mystical aspect of his music possible.

     [1]Paul Griffiths, Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985): 90.

     [2]Antoine Goléa, Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Julliard, 1960), 63.  Cited by Griffiths, 90.

     [3]Griffiths, 95.

     [4]Robert Shirlaw Johnson, Messiaen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 62.

     [5]Shirlaw Johnson, 37.

     [6]Griffiths, 94.

     [7]Griffiths, 95.