Messiaen: Huit préludes

performed by Peter Hill, or below by Hakon Austbo


“Preludes to what?” is a question that has been asked many a time by someone approaching likely far more often-performed preludes, like those of Chopin, Debussy, or Scriabin, but it is a logical question. A quick look at this Wikipedia article tells us that the prelude used to precede another work of some kind (the ‘prelude and fugue’ pair comes to mind), but that since the Romantic era, they’ve pretty much been standalone works of their own, and that’s what we have here.

It’s funny, I think, then, that we’re discussing Messiaen’s preludes before any of the more commonly performed/recorded/discussed sets, like that from Chopin, whose set of 24 in all the keys may be the most famous among them. That was an age where it was common to traverse all the major and minor keys in a set of works, but you see here what we have is eight preludes.

This is one of the composer’s earliest works, his second published work, after an organ piece, according to John Henken here at the LA Phil. The young composer was only 20 years old, and his mother had recently died. Messiaen’s conversations with Claude Samuel in this book are very telling as to the special relationship he had with mother, essentially, as he tells it, a kind of prophetic one. His mother was a poet and claimed she felt music within her during her pregnancy, that they had some prenatal artistic bond. Whether you believe that or not, her death (obviously) hit him hard.

The Wiki article on Messiaen says the following:

While a student he composed his first published works—his eight Préludes for piano (the earlier Le banquet céleste was published subsequently). These exhibit Messiaen’s use of his modes of limited transposition and palindromic rhythms (Messiaen called these non-retrogradable rhythms).

We’ll talk a bit later about non-retrogradable rhythms, and it drives me a bit nuts that that’s what he calls them because it’s far less intuitive than just calling them palindromic, because that’s what he means. A rhythm (like some we’ll see later this week) can be flipped around and made ‘new’ but still keep its relation to the original thing. If you flip a palindrome around, it’s the same.

As for modes of limited transportation, Wikipedia says:

Modes of limited transposition are musical modes or scales that fulfill specific criteria relating to their symmetry and the repetition of their interval groups. They were compiled by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, and published in his book La technique de mon langage musical (“The Technique of my Musical Language”).

They’re scales. But they’re special scales, and the above article lists the seven ‘modes’ that Messiaen used. Something else common to Messiaen’s music is color (as the title of the above-linked book suggests). I’m not sure if Messiaen was actually synesthetic or if he was just really intensely focused on sound and its qualities, but in either case, the result is that we have a collection of preludes that, instead of working through all the major and minor keys, work through (at least some of) Messiaen’s modes of limited transportation and have descriptions in terms of colors, very impressionistic-sounding music rather indicative of Debussy. This is where that connection comes from. It was meaningful.

While Messiaen didn’t study with Debussy, his influence was, I suppose, difficult to avoid, and the sensual, colorful richness of Messiaen’s music definitely calls the Impressionist master to mind. As we shall see (or as you already know, if you’re familiar with Messiaen’s music) this is one of his most traditional, approachable works, and one of the few that doesn’t have a religious connotation or program note of any kind. So let’s go.

Again, eight preludes.

The first is La colombe (the dove), and is described by the composer as being “orange, with violet veins.” It’s one of the shortest of the bunch, and is a sublimely beautiful way to begin the cycle of works. If one is to read into the title, it’s easy to hear the soft, comforting, barely melancholy cooing of the dove, with rich harmonies across three staves on the piano.

Number 2 is Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste (Song of ecstasy in a sad landscape), described as “Gray, mauve, Prussian blue at the beginning and end; diamond and silver at the middle.” Those are colors I might associate with sadness, mourning, or at least a quiet, pensive state. Diamond and silver could be ecstatic. The score is marked ‘slow and sad’. The breadth and scope of the harmonies calls to mind that Messiaen was, arguably, foremost an organist, and the music written across three staves seems perfectly natural, necessary for the kind of expression here. There’s a slightly more brisk central passage marked with trills and crystal-like trickles way up in the stratosphere of the keyboard, which I can only imagine to be the ‘diamond and silver’ of the work. The music is subtle, thus far, nothing outlandish or aggressive, but there is a climax of the central passage, and it’s so easy to see how ‘intoxicating’ (as I saw it described a few places online) Messiaen’s harmonic language and musical world is in this early work: supple, rich, captivating.

For the third, Le nombre léger (The light number), we are in new territory. After two preludes of such eloquent, soft beauty, this one is a bit more lively but doesn’t shatter the shimmer ethereal atmosphere that we’ve experienced thus far. To Messiaen, it’s “Orange, with violet veins,” as was the first. Is there a point of familiarity where one could guess  what colors the composer is ‘writing in’? While the work isn’t nearly like what we’ll hear later in the week from him, it starts to sound a bit more clinky, chirpy, like some of his later bird call, with some shifting between expressions that builds a little bit of nervous energy. It’s by far the shortest of the set, and we reach fff in the score before cooling back down and wrapping up.

Instants défunts (Dead instants) is the fourth prelude in the set, “Smooth gray with reflections of mauve and green.” Those are (some) new colors. Some of these works remind me of late Scriabin sonatas as much as if not more than Debussy’s works, and this one has a sense of structure, with a few basic motives (nothing sonata-like) that sounds like the intricate, expressive and even slightly ominous but still delicate music of the Russian composer after having lived in Europe.

The fifth, Les sons impalpables du rêve (The impalpable sounds of a dream), is marked modere, and has some more interesting rhythms. The description of it in Wikipedia is as follows:

Polymodal, consisting of a blue-orange mode with a chordal ostinato and cascades of chords, and a violet-purple mode having a copper timbre. Note the pianistic writing, composed of triple notes, rapid passages in chords, canon in contrary motion, hand crossing, various staccatos, brassy louré, gem effects.

There are “cascades of chords” for sure, but slow, less like water rushing down a waterfall, more like trickling through rocks in the proverbial ‘babbling brook.’ That being said, it does have some more clippy staccato passages, that ostinato that shows up here and there, and one gets the sense that while these might be small sketches, little independent ideas, they do have their own story and development, especially in this work. I get the idea that a story has been worked out, a journey, no matter small, has been completed. It ends with a surprising glissando and what sounds like a surprising, bright “cuckoo!”

The sixth, Cloches d’angoisses et larmes d’adieu (Bells of anguish and tears of farewell), has a more notable name than many and is by far the longest of the bunch, making up about a quarter of Peter Hill’s total performance time of this collection. Wikipedia tells us that:

The bells combine several different modes: the “hum” (deep bass) and the upper harmonies of the bells sound with luminous vibrations. The farewell is purple, orange, violet.

The repeated B in the bass reminds me of Le Gibet, the second movement from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit (written the year before Messiaen was born), which also features the imagery of a tolling bell, though quite different (and more morbid) than here. This is the first time we really get anything pained, harsh sounding, and one can’t help but think of Messiaen grieving his mother’s recent passing. It’s almost as if… for this moment to come so late in the work, and to feel like the focus… it’s like that friend who you know needs to talk, asks you to go out for a beer, and only an hour or two into the conversation does it seem like he’s warmed up enough to bare his soul and get to the heart of the matter.

However, Messiaen’s harshness isn’t Lisztian virtuosity and overt Romantic expression, but a solemn, bell-like mourning. Would you not have heard the bells even if I didn’t mention them? There are so many kinds of bells: sleigh bells, wedding bells, church bells, and they signify and represent so many things, and we get facets of all of that in this largest of the works in the collection.

No. 7 is Plainte calme (Calm plaint), perhaps more a ‘lamentation’ than an ‘accusation’, I’d think. It’s “Smooth gray with reflections of mauve and green.” We had mauve in no.s 2 and 4. This number is straightforward and calls Ravel to mind again, like something from his famous pavane. It’s expressive, solitary, but also… like a half-smile given in secret to someone across the room that says “thank you” or “I’m fine”.

Finally, we have the final Un reflet dans le vent (A reflection in the wind), which for some reason has its own (linked) Wikipedia article. It’s very small, but tells us that:

It was composed for the piano in 1928-9 in the key of D minor. The title relates to Messiaen’s interest in surrealism.

Oddly, the article on the preludes as a whole contains more information:

The small storm which opens and concludes the piece alternates veins of orange, and green with black stains. The central development section is more lominous [sic]. The second theme, very melodious, and wrapped in sinuous arpeggios, is blue-orange in its first occurrence, and green-orange in its second one. Violet, orange and purple dominate the entire piece.

Again with colors, but what I can’t help but think of, even if it is entirely unrelated association, is the final movement of Chopin’s second piano sonata, after the famous funeral march. Someone described the final, quick, wispy movement like the wind blowing through the gravestones in a cemetery. While only one theme of this prelude sounds like that Chopin movement, there are flowy, pianistic expressions that wouldn’t seem out of place in one of Chopin’s works. It’s more ethereal and otherworldly than Chopin, more like the constant trickle and shimmer of notes in something like Ravel’s Sonatinebut that’s not to undermine the work’s originality. I suppose it could suggest that it’s relatable, the music sounds very naturally pianistic, a language that most listeners should be familiar with, even if the harmonies might be a little beyond the ear that hasn’t gotten past the late 19th century. It’s a very expressive piece, with tons of personality, moments that sound almost waltz- (mazurka-?) like, but the few spaces that the composer occupies, the motifs being used, all seem to revolve around in different ways, relate to this idea of the wind, as the title suggests. The piece ends in a very pianistic flourish and a crunchy super-low D, marked sfff.

So that’s that. Are there programmatic ideas or common ground among the eight works? While maybe not part of the same ‘storyline’ as obviously not separate movements of a whole, but part of a collection of pieces, they still seem to exist in the same universe. While it’s not a work of ghoulish, dismal despair and darkness or anything nearly as eerie as, say, Scriabin’s ninth sonata, it’s also not a carefree, feel-good thing like listening to Chopin’s mazurkas. It’s supple and rich and warm, but also quite lonely and solitary, solemn at times, and I’d argue the most like other composers of anything Messiaen ever composed. That might be a nicer-sounding way of saying it’s the least individual, because his later stuff is very individual. Having said that, I’ll defend myself by agreeing that there’s lots in here that show an individual, unique musical genius well on his way to doing incredible things, at the tender age of 20. What was I doing when I was 20? That’s for another blog.

I also want to point out that I’m well aware that this piece has zilch to do with Darmstadt, and was written more than a decade before anything there was even the beginning of a thought. I’m including Messiaen here because his work forms a connection to one of the (if not inspirations then idols or icons) that Darmstadt had some connection to: Debussy. Messiaen did go on to influence Darmstadt, but to what extent he did so is a topic for another post. For now, let’s focus on Messiaen as an extension of Debussy’s innovation and see where he goes.

Tomorrow, we’ll be doing something entirely different… but as related to Darmstadt as Messiaen, if not far more so, so stay tuned.

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