[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.]
Musical Mechanics of Mysticism
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."
Messiaen later recalled this premire by saying,
"never have I been heard with as much attention and
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.
mm. 3-6, violin part only)
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.
Here are the first nine measures of that part.
mm. 1-9, clarinet part only)
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
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.
mm. 2-7, cello part only)
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
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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."
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.
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.
Griffiths, Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1985): 90.
Goléa, Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Julliard,
1960), 63. Cited by
Shirlaw Johnson, Messiaen (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1975), 62.