Messiaen and the Notion of Influence (1)

July 14, 2017 | Author: Rafael LLanos | Category: Harmony, Chord (Music), Pitch (Music), Pop Culture, Classical Music
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Tempo 63 (247) 2–18 © 2009 Cambridge University Press doi:10.1017/S0040298209000011 Printed in the United Kingdom

      Photo: Alphonse Leduc Archive

Julian Anderson In 1989, I bought a CD in Paris of the early piano music of André Jolivet.1 Like many non-French musicians, I had read the name of Jolivet but heard little of his music. Jolivet’s reputation as Varèse’s leading pupil and the extreme avant-gardist of the pre-World War II group La Jeune France seemed completely at odds with his conventional postWar music occasionally broadcast on Radio 3, such as the Concertos for Trumpet, Piano or Ondes Martenot – music which suggested not fully assimilated influences of Honegger or Hindemith, with little obviously adventurous about it in its rhythmically conservative phrasing and standard formal shapes. The CD came as a shock. Stylistically the extraordinary1935 piano suite Mana had clearly had a strong impact on the young Boulez, who would have surely known this music from Messiaen’s private analyses classes, which he is known to have attended in 1944–5. Boulez’s 1945 Notations for piano frequently inhabit the same elliptical, sharply-etched pianistic and harmonic world.2 But what really surprised was the opening of the third movement of the 1939 Danses Rituelles, entitled Danse Nuptiale. In spite of this being my first encounter with the music, this opening seemed very familiar indeed: see Ex. 1.

Example 1: Bars 3–6 of Jolivet’s Danse Nuptiale followed by harmonic summary of 3-chord progression in those bars. © copyright 1939 by Durand & Cie.

1 2

Jolivet Mana and Danses Rituelles, performed by Jacqueline Mefano (piano) on ADDA 581042, issued in 1988. For the most striking instance of this compare the opening bars of Mana with the figuration and harmony in the seventh of Boulez’s Notations for piano. Furthermore the piano figuration, abruptness and aphoristic brevity of the whole opening movement of Mana are echoed in the first of the Boulez Notations.

      3

In fact I had heard this harmony many times before, not in the music of Jolivet but in several works by his Jeune France colleague Olivier Messiaen. Ex. 2 is from the opening song in Messiaen’s 1945 song cycle Harawi. As can be seen, here Messiaen, startlingly, takes the chord progression opening Jolivet’s Danse Nuptiale note for note, at exact pitch level, thereafter immediately transposing it down one whole tone. The entire progression, comprising both the original Jolivet sequence and its transposed form, is then immediately repeated. The subject matter of the first song in Harawi – the encounter between lovers – may have suggested a parallel in Messiaen’s mind with the subject of Jolivet’s ‘nuptial dance’, which he therefore alluded to as music appropriate to the dramatic situation in this first song of Harawi.3 At any rate, it is by far the most chromatic harmony in the entire song, which is otherwise in G major with slight octotonic and other modal inflections. In fact Messiaen had already used the chord progression from Jolivet in the first of his Trois Petites Liturgies (see Ex. 3a) at the words ‘soleil de sang, d’oiseaux’ in broken arpeggio form. Again, in the context of the mild, predominantly diatonic atmosphere of the first section of the music, the sharply coloured chromaticism of this new harmonic progression comes as a considerable surprise, probably intended by Messiaen as illustration of the sun-drenched imagery of his poem at this point.4 Example 2: Bars 5–6 of Messien’s Harawi (song 1), piano part only. The entire double progression is repeated in bars 7–6. © copyright 1948 by A. Leduc & Cie.

Whether or not Jolivet himself was ever aware of the extensive use to which Messiaen put his progression,5 it continued to haunt Messiaen’s music for the next 14 years. In Messiaen it is often (though not always) followed, as in the example from Harawi, by its transposition down a whole tone, and usually occurs at moments of drama or tension. Ex. 3b shows its violent, pivotal intrusion into the piano work Cantéyodjayâ as 3



When I gave this paper at the Messiaen Centenary Conference in Birmingham in June 2008, the French musicologist and Jolivet expert Lucie Kayas kindly informed me of her recent discovery that in 1941, whilst in Vichy after repatriation from his imprisonment in Silesia, Messiaen gave a radio talk (together with fellow composer Daniel Lesur) about their Jeune France colleague Jolivet. Fascinatingly, and with most relevance to the present article, Lucie Kayas says that documents indicate Messiaen performed Jolivet’s Danse Nuptiale over the air during this talk. This confirms that the work was both in Messiaen’s mind and at his fingertips around these years. Messiaen scholar Christopher Dingle has kindly drawn my attention to the prior use of this chord progression in Visions de l’Amen (in movt. II, p. 13, last system, piano1 and in movt. V, p. 54, last bar, piano 2). These uses being more or less as accompanimental figuration, I still count the progression’s appearance in the opening Liturgie as its first main appearance in Messiaen’s music. Messiaen’s analysis of Visions refers to the progression as ‘columns of air in mobile resonances (like the wind [blowing] through trees)’ (see Traité de rhythme, de couleur et d’ortnithologie, ed. Loriod., Editions Leduc, Paris, 1996, vol. III. p. 238 and p. 261). Messiaen does not refer to the origins of the progression in Jolivet, here or anywhere else. In Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone’s Messiaen, there is a tantalizing quote from Messiaen’s diary of 16 March, just after completing the Liturgies, which shows Messiaen reminding himself to ‘give the score to Désormière, Jolivet, Martenot, (and Delapierre)’. Désormière was to conduct the première, Martenot’s sister Ginette was to play ondes in the première, whilst Delapierre hosted Messiaen’s private analysis classes at this time. As there is no administrative reason why Jolivet should have been given a copy at such an early stage, this entry shows that he and Messiaen were still in close and frequent contact on compositional matters.

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a barbaric dance in additive rhythm. This is perhaps the Jolivet progression’s most extended appearance in Messiaen’s music, as it comprises roughly 90% of the harmonic material of this entire section of the work (more than a page of the score). The same progression is re-used for the repeated, hysterical exclamations on the words ‘Ha! Ha! Ha! Soif!’ (‘Ha! Thirst!’) in the first of the Cinq rechants (see score of Cinq Rechants, p.2 lowest system, p.5 middle system, p.9 middle system). On its final appearance in Cinq Rechants, the last of the three chords has a major third added above its top pitch – the only time Messiaen used this added pitch B in the progression. Its other appearances in Messiaen’s music are too numerous to mention here, but its final appearance in this form, as late as 1958–9 in the final version of La Rousserolle Effarvatte from the Catalogue d’Oiseaux, is notably different from earlier uses in several regards (see Ex. 3c). First, here the progression is explicitly associated with an image from nature – the néaphurs are the water lilies in the pools of the Sologne reed beds, which suggests that by this time the Jolivet chords had acquired a colour-correspondence in Messiaen’s mind. Second, it is surrounded with phrases of a melody first used by Messiaen in the second movement of the Turangalîla-Symphony (and subsequently re-used in Cinq Rechants as well as elsewhere).6 Thirdly, this is by far the gentlest and most contemplative instance in Messiaen’s music of this densely chromatic progression. Example 3a: Trois Petites Liturgies first movement, fig. 3: the same chord progression used as broken chords and melodic line (returns identically in the final section of same movement). © copyright 1946 by Durand & Cie.

Example 3b: Canteyodjayâ, p. 12, middle two systems. The top two staves have the Jolivet progression, first at pitch, then transposed down a whole tone. (Entire sequence is repeated.) © copyright 1954 by Universal Edition, Vienna.


See full score of Turangalîla-Symphonie, mvt. II, p. 44, last two bars et seq., parts for Flute 1 and Bassoon 1.

      5

Example 3c: pp. 25–6 of La Rousserole Effarvatte. The Jolivet progression and its transposition down a whole tone are marked with X. The surrounding melody is from Turangalîla. © copyright 1960 by A. Leduc & Cie.

Example 4: Gensis of the ‘turning chords’ from the original Jolivet progression.

Even this was not the end of the story. For Chronochromie, composed in 1959–60, Messiaen made a new adaptation of the Jolivet chords. Hitherto, the original 3-chord progression had been characterized by an inverted pedal G as the top pitch common to all three chords.7 But in Chronochromie Messiaen got rid of the inverted pedal G, replacing it with a rotating pattern in the top part derived from the retrograde inversion of the lowest part of the chord progression. The newly swivelling, circular motion between treble and bass parts caused Messiaen to coin the term ‘turning chords’ for the resultant 3-chord progression (see Ex. 4).


This type of inverted pedal, effectively a treble drone below which complex harmonic progressions are perceived, was used occasionally by Messiaen but was to become most characteristic of Boulez from Le Marteau onwards, Stockhausen, Berio from the mid-1960s, as well as of younger composers as varied as Jean-Claude Eloy, Gilbert Amy, Tristan Murail, Peter Eötvös and Michael Jarrell. Most of Boulez’s Répons is composed against inverted pedals in the treble, especially a high B (two octaves above middle C). Most of Stockhausen’s Gruppen uses a (12-note) sequence of such inverted pedals, and the whole of the first act of his opera Donnerstag aus Licht uses a pedal high C in the same register.

6 

Example 4 continued: Gensis of the ‘turning chords’ from the original Jolivet progression.

Unlike the Jolivet original, which Messiaen always used either at its original pitch level (or its octave duplicate), or else transposed down a whole tone, these ‘turning chords’ could now be used at any pitch level at all, as if by altering them as shown in Ex.4, Messiaen had definitively taken ownership of the progression and freed it of any previous associations. At any rate, it features prominently in the harmonic vocabulary of not only Chronochromie but also Sept Haïkaï, Couleurs de la Cité Céleste, La Transfiguration, and all Messiaen’s later works. In fact the turning chords are the last harmony to be heard in La Transfiguration before the concluding E-major chord.8 The surprisingly long-range ramifications of this chord progression from Jolivet’s Danses Rituelles lead one to suspect that it is not the only instance of Messiaen borrowing from this composer. The earlier piano work Mana seems the logical place to start searching, not least as Messiaen famously wrote a laudatory preface to the published score.9 The search turns out to be a fruitful one. To anyone with a good working knowledge of Turangalîla, Ex.5 should be self-explanatory. It is evident from this that the main theme of movement 4, Chant d’amour II, was derived by Messiaen conjoining two separate melodic figures in Mana. As before, the pitch-classes are adopted exactly, not transposed, thus making the debt to Jolivet absolutely open and clear. (The rhythmic syntax is quite different, however – here Messiaen’s rhythms are squarer than Jolivet’s.). Having collated these two melodic passages from Mana into a new melody of his own, Messiaen appended the Turangalîla statue-theme’s upper notes to round the melody off.10

Example 5: Genesis of scherzo theme of Chant d’Amour II by the combination of two fragments of Jolivet’s Mana, with the addition of the ‘statue’ theme. © copyright 1946 by Éditions Costallat.




When I gave this paper in June 2008 at the Birmingham Messiaen Conference, colleagues pointed out that the musicologist Cheong Wai-Ling, who has done much research on Messiaen’s chords, had spotted that the ‘turning chords’ used from Chronochromie onwards are a later form of the progression first used in Visions de l’Amen. I have not to date been able to see the relevant article by Cheong. The precise analysis of the connexion between the two forms of the chord progression in this article is my own. To the best of my knowledge, neither Wai-Ling nor anyone else has until now noticed that this chord progression was borrowed note-for-note from Jolivet’s Danse Nuptiale. See Messiaen, ‘Introduction au Mana d’André Jolivet’, in the score of Jolivet Mana (Editions Costallat, Paris, 1946). This was a slightly revised version of an article,‘Le Mana de Jolivet’, originally published in the musical review La Sirène in December 1937. It was recently reprinted in the two-volume edition of Jolivet’s complete writings André Jolivet: Écrits, ed. C. Jolivet-Erlih (Paris: Editions Delatour France, 2006), vol. II, pp. 759–61. The statue theme duly plays a crucial role in the final tutti of this movement (see TurangalîlaSymphonie, full score, pp. 156–159, parts for trombones and tuba) where its appearance clarifies its relationship to the main theme of the movement, as both occur simultaneously.

      7

Example 5 continued: Genesis of scherzo theme of Chant d’Amour II by the combination of two fragments of Jolivet’s Mana, with the addition of the ‘statue’ theme. © copyright 1946 by Éditions Costallat.

A less prominent but no less definite adaptation is found in the opening page of Mana, from which Messiaen adapted a broken-chord aggregate with minimal change as the refrain chord for the song of the Ortolan Bunting in Le traquet stapazin from the Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Again the exactness of pitch-level makes the borrowing absolutely clear. This chord pattern is very prominent in Messiaen’s piece as it occurs numerous times in the work (see Exx. 6a and 6b).

Example 6a: Extract from Jolivet Mana, last system of movement 1, bars 1–3. © copyright 1946 by Éditions Costallat.

8 

Example 6b: Extract from Messiaen Le Traquet Strapazin, page 1, second system, bar 2 (this music recurs six times in the work). © copyright 1960 by A. Leduc & Cie.

Example 7a: Extract from Jolivet Mana, last movement (‘Pegase’), p. 15, bar 2. Note the upward flourish (this recurs many times). © copyright 1946 by Éditions Costallat.

Returning to the final movement, Pégase, of Jolivet’s Mana, the very prolonged octave-doubled monody at its heart, already cited as a source for the theme of Turangalîla’s Chant d’Amour II, had an effect on an earlier Messiaen composition, Force et Agilité des Corps Glorieux from the 1939 organ cycle Les Corps Glorieux. The radical reduction of most of this movement to an octave-doubled monody was surely prompted by Messiaen’s admiration for the similarly obsessive monodies in the Pégase movement of Mana. More specifically, the persistently repeated, roulade-upbeat which starts the majority of phrases in Messiaen’s movement is in fact a transposition up a whole tone of the same figure starting many of the phrases in Jolivet’s Pégase (compare Exx. 7a and 7b). Messiaen’s singular success in building an entire movement from a powerful octave-doubled monody, probably inspired by Jolivet’s Pégase, had important consequences in his music. The Danse de Fureur from his next work, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940–1) consists of just such an octave-doubled monody, up to that time a unique texture in a chamber music movement.

Example 7b: Opening of Messiaen Force et Agilité des Corps Glorieux. The flourish at the start is the Jolivet flourish transposed up a whole tone. Almost every phrase of the movement starts with it. © copyright 1942 by A. Leduc & Cie.

Jolivet introduced important concepts of harmonic generation, derived from acoustics, which were to have a crucial effect not only on Messiaen but, via him, on many later composers. It seems that Jolivet derived these concepts from his reading of Helmholtz’s theoretical writings.11 In any case, Jolivet used the acoustical phenomenon of differential tones as a source of harmonization. The following example (Ex.8) 11


The important book André Jolivet – Portraits, ed. Lucie Kayas and Leatitia Chassain-Dolliou (Actes Sud, 1994) clarifies that Jolivet had a working knowledge of Helmholtz’s theoretical writings. (See article in this volume by Bridget Conrad ‘Le Language Musical d’André Jolivet’, pp. 87–122, esp. pp. 103–4). I am also grateful to Christopher Dingle for pointing out that Jolivet’s knowledge of Helmholtz would surely have been due to his teacher Edgard Varèse, with whom he studied for several years in the later 1920s and early 30s. Conrad, op. cit., pp. 103–5. That example is a clarification of the example in Jolivet Réponse à une enquête in Contrepoints ( January 1946), recently reprinted in the two-volume edition of his complete writings (see C. Jolivet-Erlih, op. cit., Vol.1, pp. 190–4). Serge Gut’s analysis of this same passage is erroneous (see Serge Gut, La Groupe de Jeune France, Honoré Champion, Paris, 1977, p. 53).

      9

is based upon an article by Jolivet published in 1946, properly explained for the first time by Bridget Conrad.12 This shows a chord – the second of the three chords Messiaen borrowed from the Danse Nuptiale – being re-harmonized with a lower-tritone in the bass on its re-appearance in the middle of the piece. As shown in the example Jolivet derived the added lower tritone by subtracting the difference between the frequencies of two pitches in the original chord, and then going on to produce a secondary difference tone.

Example 8

Jolivet referred to these two added lower pitches variously as resultants inférieurs or resultants graves.13 It has been established that Jolivet and Messiaen had an exceptionally close friendship in the later 1930s, which included long one-to-one technical conversations.14 It seems clear that at some point Jolivet explained this novel harmonic procedure in detail to Messiaen, as the latter used precisely these means, and the same terminology, to generate his ‘chords of contracted resonance’. My discovery of exactly how acoustically these chords were generated is shown in Ex.9 – Messiaen’s own explanation was never acoustically precise. Messiaen takes a chord – a dominant ninth in A-flat major – then appends each note of that chord with an anticipating ‘appogiatura’ of his own chosing. From amongst the pitches of both these chords, he then selects four which are used to derive, by means of calculating their acoustical difference tones, what he terms double son resultant grave15 – a term directly borrowed from Jolivet. Finally, this ‘double low resultant sound’ is octave transposed into the middle register to sit next to a pair of chords using all the pitch content of the two chords in the second 13 14


See C.Jolivet-Erlih, op. cit., p, 191. See for example Hilda Jolivet’s memoir of an evening-long visit to the Messiaen household in 1934, dominated by a long private conversation between Jolivet and Messiaen (cited in translation in Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen, Yale 2006, p. 57). See Messiaen Traité (op. cit.) vol. VII, pp. 150–1.

10 

system of Ex.9. The resultant, densely chromatic chord progression was widely utilized by Messiaen for the rest of his life. This is not an instance of direct adaptation of pitch-content from Jolivet, but rather an example of a precise and, for its time, unusual procedure for harmonic generation from Jolivet being taken on board by Messiaen for his own purposes.16

Example 9: Messiaen’s account of the generation of ‘chords of contracted resonance’ together with a new acoustic explanation of his sons resultants inférieurs using the principles of Jolivet’s sons resultants as shown in Ex. 8. 16

This proves Bridgit Conrad right in her assertion that the area of sons resultants inférieurs was ‘an area of the probable influence’ of Jolivet on Messiaen. (Conrad, op. cit., pp. 104–5, my trans.) Readers may wonder at the likelihood of Messiaen consulting tables of frequencies and calculating difference tones. Yet he was very close friends with Jolivet who, as proved in Ex. 7, did just that. It is probable that Messiaen turned to Jolivet for assistance in calculating such sons resultants anyhow. Messiaen scholar Nigel Simeone agrees with me that this is the most likely truth of the matter in this case.

      11

Example 10a: Jolivet’s example from the first Danse Rituelle (page 3, last system). ‘Two low sounds spaced together in such a way as to engender series of harmonics which complete each other, allowing one to superimpose on this sonic background chords with distant tonalities relating to the harmonics of one or other of the two bass sounds. These upper chords in turn reinforce the harmonic series of the two low bass notes.’ ( Jolivet, Rèponse à une enquête, 1946) © copyright 1939 by Durand & Cie

The procedure of utilizing combination tones – tones which are the acoustical result of the difference or sum of the frequencies of other pitches – was to become a mainstay of much later music. In the form of ring modulation it became a standard procedure in the analogue electronic studio from the 1950s onwards and remains in use today in computer music in various forms (notably frequency modulation (FM)). It was also used from 1975 onwards by various composers in France, Germany and elsewhere as one of the staple procedures for generating harmonic sequences in what is now termed ‘spectral music’. Thus Jolivet’s application of this procedure was one of his most far-sighted compositional ideas. Jolivet also sometimes worked from the opposite direction, using a pair of low bass tones to generate overtones which are used as the source of harmony in middle and higher registers. Ex. 10a shows such a procedure from the Danse Initiatique, the first of the Danse Rituelles. This was cited by Jolivet himself in his aforementioned Réponse à une enquête, where he explains that the harmonics of the two low bass pitches are either picked up by the upper harmonies or deliberately contradicted by them.17 To anyone familiar with Messiaen’s music, Ex.10a will by now look strikingly close to Ex. 10b, the piano solo opening the second movement of the Quatuor (later reprised thematically in the seventh movement of the same work). Messiaen’s own account of the generation of this passage is confused: in the Technique he refers to the two low bass pitches as a résonance inférieure,18 which in the literal sense (i.e. difference tones) they are not. In the later Traité he states (also incorrectly) that the first of the upper chords in this progression is the second chord of contracted resonance.19 Ex. 10b is sufficiently close musically to Ex. 10a – the two bass pitches are indeed absolutely identical – for one confidently to assert that this passage in Messiaen was also derived from the cited passage in Jolivet, even if the derivation is not so exact as in earlier examples.

Example 10b: Messiaen: end of opening bar of movement II of Quatuor pour la fin du Temps. Note the similar chord formations in the upper parts and the identical pitches in the extreme bass. © copyright 1942 by Durand & Cie.

Jolivet’s process of using dense low bass pitch formations to generate acoustic overtones which generate the harmony for a passage was yet another device which became a staple diet of musique spectrale from 17 18 19

See Jolivet article (already cited in note 12) in C. Jolivet-Erlih, op. cit., pp. 190–4. Messiaen, Technique (op. cit.), p. 72, text to example 218. See Messiaen Traité (op. cit.), vol. VII, p. 150.

12 

1975 onwards. It is used to generate harmony for several sections of Tristan Murail’s piano work Territoires de l’Oubli (1977); and also used to generate the harmonies of the third section of the same composer’s seminal orchestral work Gondwana (1980). The second section of Gérard Grisey’s Partiels (1975) also uses this technique. Jolivet’s indirect role in laying down these important groundwork tools for spectral music has not so far been properly recognized. His later reactionary stance has certainly contributed to this serious error in the music history of the past 40 years.20 We may also surmise that Messiaen’s devising of a two-octave wide ‘chord of resonance’ – comprising harmonics 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15 of a low fundamental tone, adjusted to equal temperament21 – was probably prompted by Jolivet’s devising a special mode similarly derived from the first 15 overtones of a low fundamental, compressed into a single octave.22 Messiaen was always perfectly open about his readiness to adapt music by composers from past history as the source of chords or melodic figures – his well-known and widespread adaptation of a fragment from the opening melody of Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is the most obvious instance of this.23 If, as shown above, Messiaen was surprisingly ready to adopt or adapt chord progressions and even melodic figures from a living contemporary such as Jolivet, one is prompted to wonder what other modern composers he borrowed from, especially as he himself never commented upon this practice publicly and other researchers have not yet looked much into this matter. Ex. 11a shows a passage from an organ work (Paraphrase pour l’assomption, No.35 of the cycle L’orgue mystique) by his senior contemporary Charles Tournemire, whom Messiaen knew personally. (Messiaen occasionally replaced Tournemire as organist at St. Clotilde).24 25 Ex.11b shows the chord progression in the lower parts of Ex. 11a, as cited by Messiaen himself in a 20

21 22

23 24 25

Ironically, in view of his influence on early Boulez (see Note 2, above) after the war Jolivet quickly became one of the main opponents of Boulez, and especially of the Domaine Musical, as his own music became more conservative in manner and substance. What effect this change of stance had upon his hitherto close relations with Messiaen has not been clarified. In a radio talk in the 1960s, Jolivet played an extract from Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques, praising it as ‘quite simply remarkable music’ (see C. Jolivet-Erlih, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 409). Messiaen said next to nothing about Jolivet’s post-War output, a silence that is most eloquent given that he continued to refer to Mana and Danses Rituelles with extravagant praise. In his conversations with Almut Rössler, speaking of the forming of the Jeune France group of composers, Messiaen said he specifically recruited Jolivet to the group as ‘at that time [1936] he was a real thunderbolt, a composer of the extreme avant-garde, much more terrible than later on’(see Rössler Contributions to the Spiritual World of Olivier Messiaen, transl. B. Dagg and N. Poland, p. 105). I take this remark, plus his persistent references to the early piano works, as tacit admission on Messiaen’s part that he did not find much of Jolivet’s post-War output of interest, but was much too polite to say so, even after Jolivet’s death. His brief memorial tribute to Jolivet, reproduced in translation on p. 303 of Hill and Simeone’s Messiaen (Yale, 2006), confirms this by dwelling at length on the Danses Rituelles (especially the Danse Nuptiale), whilst only mentioning the post-War symphonies and concertos in passing. As explained by Messiaen in Technique de mon language musical (trans. Satterfield, Editions Leduc, 1966, new single-volume edition), p. 70, Ex. 208. As explained by Jolivet in Genèse d’un renouveau musical, a conference given at the Sorbonne on 14 January 1937, reprinted in C. Jolivet-Erlih, op. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 53–73. The passage dealing with the mode of harmonics 1–15 is on p.60 of this volume. The volume referred to in note 11 clarifies that this mode underpins the whole of the last of the Danses Rituelles, a fact of which I think Messiaen must have been made aware by Jolivet (see Conrad, op.cit., pp.98– 99). Serge Gut spotted a similarity in their approaches on this matter, but not that Messiaen derived this technique from Jolivet, which is surely the case: see Serge Gut, La Groupe de Jeune France (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1977), p. 52. See Messiaen Technique (op.cit.), pp. 32–3. Olivier Messiaen, personal communication, Bath, 28 May1986. Nigel Simeone has kindly alerted me to the fact that Messiaen published a review of Tournemire’s L’orgue mystique, specifically praising this Paraphrase-Carillon (Messiaen L’orgue mystique de Tournemire in Syrinx, May 1938, cited in Hill and Simeone Messiaen, p. 403).

      13

section dealing with chord progressions in his treatise Technique de mon language musical.26 Exx.11c and 11d show that Messiaen adopted this strikingly resonant polytonal progression – which does retrospectively sound much more like Messiaen than Tournemire to my ears – into the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps and several of the Vingt Regards. The Regard du Temps makes particularly obsessive use of Tournemire’s progression, no fewer than six times in all. As with the Jolivet example, Messiaen adopts the progression with no change of pitch-class or even of spacing, save placing the pitch-class E at the top of the first chord (Tournemire had placed it in the middle, as had Messiaen himself in the example in Technique).27 Example 11a: Extract from the middle section of Tournemire’s Paraphrase-Carillon for organ, p. 18, middle system, bar 1. Note the bracketed chord progression repeated many times in the work. © copyright 1936 by A. Leduc & Cie./United Music Publishers Ltd.

Example 11b: Example 270, p. 78 of Messiaen’s Technique – a literal quote from the pair of chords dominating the middle section of Tournemire’s Paraphrase-Carillon. Example 11c: Extract from piano part of movement II of Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (p. 10, last 2 bars). The bracketed pair of chords is from the Tournemire Paraphrase (with the E in the first chord moved up an octave). This chord sequence recurs in both this movement and in the two climactic development sections of movement VII. © copyright 1942 by Durand & Cie.

Example 11d: The same progression (bracketed) as used for the refrain theme in Messiaen’s Regard du Temps. © copyright 1947 by Durand & Cie.

26 27

See Messiaen Technique, (op.cit), p. 78, Ex. 270. No mention is made of Tournemire in the accompanying text. Coincidentally, this Tournemire passage was reproduced in a recent article by Andrew Thomson in Choir and Organ March/April 2008 (Andrew Thomson The dove descending, pp. 18–21) as an example of ‘birdsong music’ – referring to the repeated high treble figures in sextuplets. Thomson sees these figures, plausibly, as anticipatory of Messiaen’s later use of birdsong in his organ pieces. However, Thomson gives no indication that Tournemire’s dissonant chord-progression underneath the ‘birdsong’ was literally borrowed by Messiaen in several of his own pieces.

14 

What is fascinating about this borrowing is that, as with one of the Jolivet examples, it originated at a time when Messiaen could not have had access to the original source, as he was a prisoner of war in Silesia. Therefore this example shows just how much in Messiaen’s bones the Tournemire piece was.28 Furthermore, the progression plays a quite important cyclical role in the Quatuor – like the second of the Jolivet examples, it appears twice in the second movement of the work, and is then recycled twice in the development sections of the culminating seventh movement. All this suggests that at a time when Messiaen by force of circumstance was thrown back upon his own resources, he was most acutely aware of the memories of sounds, chords and music which meant most to him before the war, and this had a big effect in enlarging his harmonic palette significantly at this unusual period.29 It should be emphasized that both harmonically and otherwise the Quatuor is by far the most harmonically dense and adventurous score Messiaen had composed up to that time. Messiaen referred to the entire piano part in the middle section of the Quatuor’s second movement as ‘a cascade of blue-orange chords’30 – which might suggest a colour identification with the Tournemire progression. Yet his use of it in the refrain of Regard du Temps is very different – Messiaen himself describes this theme as being ‘short, cold, strange, like the egg-shaped heads of de Chirico’.31 The sharp dissonances and bald parallel fifths in the bass do indeed give this progression an unsettling character which suits its use in this strange movement especially well. Messiaen’s idiosyncratic views on the history of opera were notable for the exclusion of any 20th-century operas save Pelleas and Berg’s Wozzeck.32 It seems that Serge Gut, in his fine book about La Jeune France, was the first to point out in print that Messiaen adapted the 3-chord leitmotif first heard in Act I, Scene II of Wozzeck as the refrain chords for the second movement of the Messe de la Pentecôte.33 Messiaen himself was quite open in his classes about his affection for this progression and his employment of it in his own music.34 Despite that, his long use of this progression in many pieces from 1950 to 1986 has not been noticed



30 31 32

33 34

The late Robin Freeman speculated – passingly in ‘Interpretations of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux’ (Tempo 192, April 1995, p. 10), in more detail in ‘Trompette d’un Ange Secret: Olivier Messiaen and the Culture of Ecstasy’ (Contemporary Music Review Vol. 14 Parts 3–4, Music and Mysticism II, p. 88) – that Messiaen was influenced by the ‘bracing jolt of harmonies’ in a late organ work of Tournemire, Les cloches de Châteauneuf du Faou, composed subsequently to L’orgue mystique, but he does not instance any exact correspondence. (Ed.) Messiaen often said that running through music he loved in his head saved his sanity whilst he was in Silesia. He would run through an entire act of Debussy’s Pelléas, at night, finding to his surprise that he ‘knew words, music and even the orchestration by heart’ (conversation in an archive film from the INA in Oliver de Mille’s film about Messiaen La liturgie de cristal, Ideal Audience ( Juxtapositions series) 2007). The borrowings from Tournemire and Jolivet in the Quatuor suggest that the relevant pieces by those composers also formed a prominent part of his Silesian internal ‘memory concerts’. Interestingly, music by these composers was not amongst the much-talked-of ‘kit bag’ of scores in his possession when he was captured. See Preface to full score of Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, mvt. II. See preface to score of Vingt Regards, mvt. IX. Despite his love of Wozzeck, Messiaen loathed Berg’s Lulu in which he found, as he told Almut Rössler, ‘the music is academic and serial with a silly tone-row which suggests only black and white – that doesn’t work, that’s a kind of kitsch classicism’ (see Rössler, op.cit., p. 143). One imagines Lulu’s widespread use of jazz will also not have endeared the opera to him. See Serge Gut, La Groupe de Jeune France p. 104. Information provided by George Benjamin, who attended Messiaen’s class at the Paris Conservatoire between 1976–8 and heard Messiaen’s analyses of La Transfiguration and Des Canyons, where this progression occurs prominently.

      15

or commented upon in Messiaen literature until now. His first use of it in the above-mentioned movement of the Messe in 1950 may have been prompted by the first performance of Wozzeck in Paris in Autumn the same year, conducted by Jascha Horenstein.35 The exhibition catalogue Das Himmlische Jerusalem36 included a photograph of a page from Messiaen’s annotated vocal score of Wozzeck – coincidentally the opening of Act I, Scene II.37 From what I can decipher of this frustratingly small photo, it appears that Messiaen annotates the 3-chord leitmotif with the comment ‘theme noir (harmonique)’ and gives each of the three chords (which I have labeled A, B and C) an analytic description which I have attempted to summarize in Ex.12a.38 Ex.12b shows Messiaen’s use of the progression in Messe. In this first instance, Messiaen adapted each chord of the progression very slightly, as shown – some notes are transposed down one octave and one pitch is also raised a semitone – but its origins in the Berg are unmistakable. Messiaen then left the progression unused until composing La Transfiguration (1965–9), where it features prominently in both of the chorales concluding each of the work’s two septernaries. Ex.12c shows its occurrence in the first of the chorales (movement VII). By this time Messiaen has deleted Berg’s chord B altogether, instead proceeding straight from chord A to chord C, then transposing each of them before cadencing backwards from chords C to A in an elegant arc of harmonies. Unlike the Messe example, in most uses from La Transfiguration onwards Messiaen restores all pitches of chords A and C to their spacing in Berg’s original progression. All subsequent uses of this progression follow this practice – Berg’s chord B is omitted, and transposing sequences are formed from Berg’s A and C chords. Ex. 12d is from the twice-occurring brass chorale in movement III of Des Canyons aux Etoiles, one of Messiaen’s most elaborate uses of these chords. Messiaen’s permanent omission of Berg’s chord B from the late 1960s onwards appears to have been driven by an impulse to render the progression more sonorous and luminous. Chords A and C both feature a resonant major 10th in the bass, giving them a rich colour which contrasts sharply with the tenser dissonances and consequent darker colours of chord B – featuring a minor 10th in the bass and prominent sevenths, fourths and tritones. By the time of his final and most extended use of this progression as a major element in the 10th movement of the Livre du Saint Sacrement, Messiaen is using it to depict the radiance of Christ’s resurrection – see Ex. 12e. This brilliantly coloured music is now a world away from the mysterious initial use of the entire progression in the Messe, where it depicted ‘things visible and invisible’, let alone from the its desolate use by Berg as what Messiaen himself had termed a ‘theme noir’. The sequence of extracts in Ex.12 show stage by stage a


36 37 38

Boulez mentions going to all the 15 rehearsals for this performance in a letter to John Cage – see Nattiez and Piencikowski (ed.) Pierre Boulez et John Cage: Correspondance et Documents, Schott Verlag and the Paul Sacher Stiftung, 2002, p. 143, letter not dated – ascribed to the ‘end of summer 1950’. See Olivier Messiaen, La Cité céleste – Das Himmlischer Jerusalem, ed. Thomas Daniel Schlee and Dietrich Kämper (Cologne: Wienand Verlag), p. 117. The commentary to this photograph in the book makes no allusion to the special relevance of this particular page to Messiaen’s own music; see Schlee and Kämper, op. cit., p. 116. Readers will note Messiaen’s attempts to classify atonal harmony as appoggiaturas to tonal chords, a device which remained typical of his harmonic analyses – see Alexander Goehr’s account of Messiaen doing the same thing whilst analyzing other atonal music by composers of the Second Viennese School (Goehr Finding the Key, Faber and Faber 1998, p. 55). Goehr attended Messiaen’s Conservatoire class in the years 1955–6.

16 

Example 12a: Messiaen’s analysis by resolutions onto tonal chords of the Berg 3-chord theme from Wozzeck as (faintly) reproduced in Schlee, 1998, p. 117. Example 12b: Messiaen – first adaptation of Berg’s progression as the refrain for the Offertoire from the Messe. © copyright 1953 by A. Leduc & Cie. Example 12c: Messiaen’ – second adaptation of Berg’s progression in movement 6 of La Transfiguration (chorus and orchestra, p. 163). Chords A and C are transposed, while chord B has been eliminated. The progression is re-used in the final movement. © copyright 1972 by A. Leduc & Cie.

Example 12d: Messiaen, Des Canyons, movement III – brass chorale (p. 66 – recurs later in the movement) © copyright 1978 by A. Leduc & Cie.

fascinating process of adoption, creative adaptation and transformation by Messiaen of found material from the most successful opera of his time.39 39

Readers interested in further uses of this progression by Messiaen, each quite different, should be referred to movements of the organ Méditations (1969 – especially at the start and near the conclusion of Movement VII), as well as to Scene III of the opera St. Francois d’Assise. There is a putative usage of them (the bass dyads are the same, the upper pitches more free) in several sections of La Buse Variable from the Catalogue d’Oiseaux (1959). An exceptional instance of the Berg chords being put to very different use, along with similar chordal sources in Messiaen’s own Chronochromie, Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain and Britten’s Peter Grimes, can be seen in George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon, in the full orchestral chorale commencing at letter GG, p. 48 of the first edition of the score (Faber Music, 1981). This is a perfect, if unusual, example of a younger composer following Messiaen’s example in adapting chordal formations from an unexpected variety of sources. As with Messiaen, the powerful music Benjamin forms from them is paradoxically wholly original and unmistakably characteristic of Benjamin’s musical style.

      17

Example 12e: Messiaen’s final use of the Bergderived progression in bars 1,4,8 of the opening page of ‘La Résurrection du Christ’ from the Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984). As for Exx. 12c and d, only the first two chords of Berg’s progression are used, now transposed to start on a bass C#, so as to fit the final home of the movement in F sharp major. © copyright 1986 by A. Leduc & Cie.

To conclude this preliminary sortie into what promises to be a rich area of future exploration, I would like to suggest an unexpected source for the opening of one of Messiaen’s first wholly mature works, La Nativité du Seigneur. Messiaen always cited the melody of this opening as one of many uses by him of a melodic fragment from near the opening of Boris Godunov.40 In fact the music of a different, later Russian composer would now seem to have been its true source. In 1988, the composer Chris Dench drew my attention to Scriabin’s late piano piece Etrangeté, not in connection with Messiaen but in connection with the title of his own (otherwise unrelated) string quartet Strangeness.41 To my surprise, the opening of the Scriabin piece fitted under the hands in an almost exactly identical manner to the opening of La Nativité – readers are encouraged to play the two extracts in Ex.13a and 13b for themselves. The Messiaen in Ex.13b has been transposed down one octave to give the effect of Messiaen’s prescribed 4-foot registration. The comparison is startling. The octotonicism in both examples is not in itself cause for remark, given how often both Scriabin and Messiaen employed octotonic modal formations. Yet the similarity of pitch levels, pitch and interval contents, the very similar intervallic content of the 40 41

See note 19. Conversation in July 1988 at the Darmstadt Summer School, where this quartet was performed by the Arditti String Quartet.

18 

grace-note formations in each (quasi-inverted from the Scriabin into the Messiaen) and the identical sequential repetition of each down a minor third, strongly suggest that Messiaen consciously or unconsciously recalled the Scriabin piece and converted it into the striking opening of his first large organ cycle. (The opening is reprised at a different pitch level at the conclusion of the first movement, with the same sequence). Nonetheless the musical effects of Exx.13a and b are notably different – Scriabin’s quixotic strangeness is worlds away from the intimate devotion of Messiaen’s Le Vierge et l’enfant. Messiaen’s musical results, far from being eclectic or stylistically incongruent, are thoroughly and lastingly typical of him and of no-one else.

Example 13a: Scriabin, Étrangeté, op. 63 no. 2, opening (refrain theme).

Example 13b: Messiaen, La Nativité, opening. (The music has been transposed down an octave to clarify the effect of the registration.) The music strongly resembles the Scriabin in many respects – both pitch content and in harmonic sequence. © copyright 1936 by A. Leduc & Cie.

I have concluded from these numerous and surprising instances of creative adaptation from modern composers’ harmonies and melodies that Messiaen’s view of all music was highly and engagingly subjective. Such borrowings are indicative of a strong creative persona, not the reverse. Messiaen himself would rightly have seen these as acts of homage to composers whose work he deeply admired, and I certainly imagine that is how André Jolivet, for one, would have received them had he noticed (and it is hard to imagine he never did).42 Messiaen’s own creative identity was so strongly defined that any other composer’s work was inevitably filtered through his own highly developed ears and musical tastes. Hence in each of the above examples, the extracts from Messiaen sound entirely and immediately like him. Perhaps, in effect, all Messiaen could hear in other music was Messiaen. In reality, Messiaen borrowed and adapted from no-one at all. Rather Jolivet, Berg, Scriabin and Tournemire metaphorically borrowed the progressions and melodies, ahead of time, from Messiaen.


Interestingly, Jolivet himself made no further use of his striking 3-chord progression in Ex.1 after the Danses Rituelles.

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