8 Jul 2016

Curtain Raiser: Messiaen - Éclairs sur l'au-delà

From the collecton Curtain Raiser

Messiaen's love of birdsong, his unique harmonic language and his visionary Christian faith are all evident in his last completed work.

Windows of Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Windows of Sainte Chapelle, Paris Photo: CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The mystical, almost ecstatic spirituality of Messiaen’s Roman Catholicism was there throughout his life and his music. It has an almost naïve quality, big, simple romantic gestures, visions of rainbows and angels with trumpets, an unashamed wearing of his religious faith on his sleeve.

Throughout his music, Messiaen composed in a manner that gave his music a “timeless” quality. It’s not an accident that his early quartet was called “for the end of time.” In many ways he removes musical time from his music – or at least changes it. He uses what he called “modes of limited transposition” which do not have the strong sense of direction we find in the usual western major and minor scales. He uses repetitive rhythmic patterns rather like those found in Indian music, which circle around rather than driving the music forward. One way to listen to his music might be to think of what you’re hearing as a suspended object that turns around like a hanging crystal or mobile so you can view or listen to that object or sound from different angles and points of view.

The use of birdsong also contributes to the sense of timelessness. When Messiaen recorded and transcribed bird song, it became a musical shape he could use in his music, though often slower and lower in pitch than the original. It turned into a melodic fragment, not an exact copy – and it didn’t move the music along but hung there in musical space for us to enjoy.


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