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Aspects and features of Western and Indian cultures

in Olivier Messiaens conception of music.
by Giusy Caruso

On request of: Codarts World Music Research Group Program, Rotterdam Conservatoire
Teacher-coach: Prof. Willem Tanke
Supervisor: Prof. Joep Bor
Proof-reading: Prof. Caroline De Iacovo

Western twentieth century music is perhaps the most complex to define as to the variety
of directions composers were bound to choose from. Together with the revival of
interest in classical forms and techniques (from Bach backwards to the Renaissance and
the Middle Ages), the development of music in Europe was also characterized by the
discovery of new elements from native folk songs (especially when nationalist
composers began to employ folk material in their symphonies and operas) and from
the music of far-off lands (India, Africa, America). New techniques were being
experimented by modern composers all over Europe, particularly in Paris, which was
the worlds music capital after the first World War.
A French composer who introduced new harmonic elements from the Oriental culture
was Claude Debussy. His novelty stands in the use he made of both the whole-tone
scales and the pentatonic scales (easily played on the black keys of the piano) as well as
his modal harmonic approach by which he combines tones in a chord to achieve the
colour of a harmony - an impressionistic harmony, typical of the French twentieth
century classical art. The melody, developing from the colour of the chords, takes
priority over the counterpoint with the result being: a parallel movement of the chords
which gives the idea of a sudden tonal change without modulation.
It was in this revolutionary environment that Messiaens conception of music was
forged, bringing out aspects and features marked by the influences he received from the
Western music of the past (as the Gregorian Chant and the Greek modes, in particular)
and by the peculiarities he discovered in Indian classical music. Messiaen may be
seen as a link between the avant-garde concepts and modern music, because he is on the
same line as the French twentieth century musical tradition like Debussy and Ravel, yet
original in the musical novelties he expressed by his new system of modes and by
introducing Indian rhythm and the ragas to the traditional European music. Thus,
Messiaens typically original style lies in having successfully combined the traditional

Western idea of form, rhythm, melody and harmony with Indian musical elements he
learned and cherished so much.
Born at Avignon, into a learned French family (his mother was a poetess and his father
a teacher of English and a Shakespearian scholar), Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
taught himself to play the piano at an early age. Only after the First World War, when
his family moved to Nantes, did he receive his first formal tuition in piano and
harmony. Later, at the Paris Conservatoire which he attended until 1930, being asked to
analyze a score of Debussy's opera Pellas et Mlisande on request of one of his
teachers, Jehan de Gibon (1918), Messiaen described it as a thunderbolt and later
declared it to be: probably the most decisive influence on me1. Messiaen, however,
did not use Debussys style in his compositions because he thought that after Debussy
and Dukas there was nothing to add2. Actually, after having studied at the
conservatoire with Maurice Emmanuel (l928), his interest for ancient Greek rhythms
and the exotic modes were strengthened even more by his coming in contact with the
rhythms of the Indian provinces in Lavignac's Encyclopdie de la Musique in which he
found a reproduction of the 120 Indian 'de-tlas' taken from the Sharngadeva's treatise
Samgta-ratnkara 3. In 1931, he was appointed organist at La Sainte Trinit in Paris
and, there, he became involved with the Roman catholic liturgy from which he grasped
its deep religious meaning. In 1936 he joined three other composers Jolivet, Daniel-
Lsur and Baudrier to form La Jeune France whose function was to restore to music
a more human and spiritual quality together with a vent of seriousness which was sadly
lacking in much of the French music of the time. During the Second World War, when
he was taken prisoner at Gorlitz camp, in Silesia, he wrote and performed the Quatuor
pur la Fin du Temps. After his repatriation, in 1942, he was appointed Professor of
Harmony at the Paris Conservatoire and, from then on, there ensued his most important
formative years for composing. He met the pianist Yvonne Loriod, his student and
second wife, who prompted him to write his major works for piano. In order to explain
the essential features of his musical language, Messiaen published, in 1944, his first
theoretical treatise, Technique de mon langage musical, where his musical conception
of forms, melody and harmony is revealed. Messiaen was allured by le charme de
From the website:
Johnson Sherlaw R., Messiaen, 1975, J.M. DENT & SONS LTD, London, p. 10.

limpossibilit4 by which he meant hat musical impressions should sound each time
differently in order to infuse delightful and refined sensations to the listeners ear in
an almost contemplative state. From this compositional concept too, it is evident how
he comes close to that of Indian music with its predominant aim at capturing the
listeners attention. Messiaens interest in capturing the listeners attention by using
variations also stems from the relatively a-metrical sound when compared to most
Western rhythms.
The a-metric effects are an important part of Messiaens music, which often seems
simply to exist as a single ecstatic moment associated with nature as he himself stated:

Most people believe that rhythm means the regular values of a military march. Whereas, in fact, rhythm
is an unequal element, following fluctuations, like the waves of the sea, like the noise of the wind, like the
shape of tree branches.5

The absence of metric definition is reflected in Messiaens use of highly structured

rhythms that do not fall into periodic metres. Consequently, this conviction fostered his
appeal for the Indian conception of irregularity in the rhythmical procedures.
In India, the conception of rhythm (tla) is not a succession of isochronous movements
like in the Western conception. Tala is a rhythm cycle which consists of a fixed number
of beats (matras) and each beat is defined by a combination of rhythmical sections
growing into fixed patterns.6 The most unfamiliar aspect of tala to the Western ear is
that the end of one cycle comes not on its last beat, but on the first beat of the following
one, so as to have a continuous overlapping.
Although Messiaen had never been to India, he assimilated the Indian musical
conception at first when, as stated above, he was studying the reproduction in
Lavignac's Encyclopdie de la Musique of the 120 Indian 'de-tlas' written by the
Indian thirteenth century theorist Crngadeva , and later, when he could appreciate the
rhythmic rules, the cosmic and religious symbols contained in each 'de-tlas' from
some Sanskrit translations made by a Hindu friend7.

_____________ _______________________
Messiaen O., Technique de mon langage musical (1944), Italian translation by L. Ronchetti, 1999,
Leduc, Paris. p.8.
Kelley R. T., Tradition, the Avant-Garde, and Individuality in the Music of Messiaen, from the website:
The Raga Guide, ed. J. Bor, Rotterdam Conservatory of Music, p.7.
Samuel C., Olivier Messiaen : Musique et couleur, 1986, English translation by E. T. Glasow, 1994, Amadeus
Press, Portland U.S.A, p. 77.

He explained openly in Chapter II of his Technique that the Indian rhythm rgavardhana,
one of the 120 'de-tlas', was greatly important for his composing 8:

This rhythm does no longer exist in modern Indian music but, theoretically, it is taken
from the old Indian musical treatise Samgta-ratnkara.
To the above Indian rhythmical pattern Messiaen applied the inversion form (a) and
transformed it (b), as shown below9:

In order to enforce this conception of irregularity in rhythm, Messiaen based his theory
of rhythm on valeur ajout, additive rhythms. This involves lengthening individual
notes slightly, or interpolating a short note into an otherwise regular rhythm which
means that a short value, like a note (e), a dotted note/rest (f), a rest (g), could be
added to a rhythm as shown below, while the traditional augmentation and diminution
technique may also be applied onto them.10

Messiaen O., Technique de mon langage musical, 1944, Italian translation by L. Ronchetti, 1999, Leduc,
Paris, p. 9.
Ibid. pp. 9 - 10.
Ibid. p.17.

Messiaens fondness for the rgavardhana rhythm led to his lifelong concern with the
creation of palindrome-rhythms. He called these rhythmic mirror-structures un-
retrograde because when one is read backward (in retrograde) it is exactly the same as
when read forward. According to Messiaen, these rhythms would embody the symbol
of eternity in that they have no well-defined starting or ending point.11

Its extraordinary to think that the Hindus were the first to point out and use, rhythmically and musically,
the principle of nonretrodradationits a principle long applied to architecture; thus, in ancient art,
Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals, and even modern art, the decorative figures are.. symmetrically
inverse figures Ancient magic spells contained words which seemed to have an occult powerreading
words from left to right and right to left this time had (sic) the same sound and same order of lettersA
final symbol the moment which I livethis time which I beat, before and after lies eternity: its a
nonretrogradable rhythm 12

Ibid. p. 17.
Samuel C., Olivier Messiaen: Musique et couleur, 1986, English translation by E. T. Glasow, 1994,
Amadeus Press, Portland U.S.A, p. 77.

Messiaen elucidates that the non-retrograde principle has been for long recognized in
architecture, especially in ancient art and in decorative arts, and that it was also used in
magic formulas and codes to symbolize the symmetry found in nature, like the well-
defined structure of the butterfly wings or the symmetrical parts of the human body. In
his great last treatise Trait de Rythme, de Couleur, et d'Ornithologie (1949-1992),
Messiaen gives more meticulous explanation on the non-retrograde rhythm in Tome II,
after having displayed an accurate transcription of Indian talas and a painstaking
comparison of these with Western musical signs in Tome I.13
Messiaen combined rhythms with harmonic sequences in such a way that if the process
were allowed to proceed indefinitely, the music would eventually run through all the
possible permutations and return to its starting point. He achieved this by using the
technique known as the continuous variation (from the Classical and Romantic
traditions, mainly Beethoven and Brahms) which he extended to all the melodic lines, as
well as including the pedal in his organ compositions. For instance, in the second piece
of one of his early organ work, LAscension (1933), he already used this principle of
continuous variation with different textures in the accompaniment, occurring either
on the left hand or the right hand and on the pedal. This process, called variable-
ostinato, is a musical principle also found in Stravinskys La Sacre du Printemps, very
much appreciated by Messiaen. The variable-ostinato implies intrinsic oppositions
which means that the accompaniment (ostinato) is repeated each time with a different
variation (variable). It is not surprising that Messiaen had a great admiration of Igor
Stravinskys use of rhythm and of colour.
Another aspect of Messiaens conception of music particularly related to the Indian
culture regards the concept of melody. On discussing about melody and the choice of
its shape in Chapter VIII of his Technique, Messiaen focussed his attention on some
intervals he considered most important for a refined melodic quality. These are the
augmented descending fourth, for its natural resolution to the tonic, and the major
descending sixth. He makes examples of some refined melodies that are taken not
only from the Western folk songs and the Gregorian chant but literally from the Indian
raga (melodic type).14
Messiaen O., Trait de Rythme, de Couleur, et d'Ornithologie (1949-1992), vol. 1, 2, Alphonse
Leduc, Paris.
Perinu R., La Musica Indiana, Zanibon, Milano, p. 48.

The raga is not actually a simple melodic outline but it contains a symbolic meaning
too. Its essence is the expression of emotions, feelings, metaphysical ideas as well as the
seasons, the weather or the time of day. In fact, the word raga comes from the Sanskrit
base form ranj, meaning colouring; and the term colour in Hinduism stands for the
reaction of the soul to emotions. This relationship between music (raga) and feelings,
seasons, time etc. have social and religious implications. Every raga can evoke to the
listener a particular aesthetic reaction or feeling called rasa.15
During an Indian performance musicians choose one raga at the beginning and they go
on playing improvising around it. There are about 60 main ragas that the performer can
choose from, according to the mood he wants to evoke. The performance lies on his
capacity to improvise extensively without abandoning the chosen raga. There are some
rules characterising the raga: it must have the tonic (sa), either the fourth (ma) or the
fifth (pa), at least.16
This link between raga and rasa is the most important principle by which Indian music
aims at giving the listener a specific effect or mood wanted by the raga. Messiaen is,
thus, in accord with this Indian aesthetic theory concerning the essence of melody
(raga). Melody, for him too, can be the expression of nature (like the songs of birds he
had been recording throughout France and all over the world to make use of them in his
composition); it also can be the expression of colours (similar to the principle of
synaesthesia by which his chords and his modes can be transcribed into colours).
Another aspect common to both Messiaen and Indian music, when talking about melody
(or music in general), regards the transcendent symbolic meaning they confer to it:
music is not a simple succession of notes (melody - raga) or chords (harmony) but
rather it is a means that leads to an aesthetic rapture. While the Indian musician aims at
choosing musical elements (raga - melody) to achieve the transcendent by conveying
a mystical message to the listener, Messiaen finds an unshaken driving force for his
musical creativeness in his Catholic faith. Drawing his inspiration from the Catholic
doctrine, he uses the musical language to let the listeners meditate on the Mysteries of
the divine truth.

Ibid. p. 75.
Ibid. p. 37.

In Indian music the performer, who is at the same time the composer, improvises on a
raga chosen from those he learned in infancy directly from his teacher (guru), as part of
their oral tradition. According to Perinus version, the Indian meaning of music is
implied in the Yogic interpretation of the world in one of the branches of the Tantric
philosophy. Music is considered the immediate and direct expression of the unspeakable
primordial Sound -Verb (Logos) which is the creative energy (shabda, nda) that
vibrates in the universe from the very beginning of time in the mantra sound OM-AUM.
This sound comprises all the harmonics and it is the first perceptible expression of the
divine being (Braham) whom all living beings are a part of. In music, as well as in
poetry (chant), the very essence of the divine being (in a pure pantheistic sense) is
The Indian ontological and aesthetic conceptions were absorbed in the Western
philosophy by Schopenhauer and by the Romantic view of music. Earlier before that,
this concept already belonged to the Pythagorean metaphysics which held a rational,
mathematical interpretation of the Universe by comparing the intervals of the scales to
the harmonic movement of the planets. Messiaens interpretation of the Universe comes
close to that of the Pythagoreans and to the Indian one as we can infer from his notes of
Les visions de lAmen (1943) for two pianos. For instance, in the second piece of this
work the contrary and parallel movements of the two pianos evoke the sound of the
dancing planets.18
Messiaen undoubtedly grasped the symbolic meaning of music from both the Western
and the Indian metaphysical interpretations but he actually stood fast to his unfaltering
Catholic faith. In the Conversation with Claude Samuel (1986), Messiaen, declares that
his being attracted by the mystery and the magic of Hindu music ought not be
considered an offence towards his Catholic religion. He never converted to Buddhism,
Hinduism or Shivaism, he was only interested in the symbolic, philosophical meaning
of the Hindu rhythms and melody.19 From a philosophic point of view, his music was to
derive from his deeply rooted personal convictions, over which the Catholic doctrine
predominates in his linking the Western and non-Western musical traditions. Messiaen,
in fact, wanted to give no other but his Catholic interpretation to his composition and

Ibid. p. 181 - p. 190.
See his notes in Les visions de lAmen (1943).
Samuel C., Olivier Messiaen: Musique et couleur, 1986, English translation by E. T. Glasow, 1994,
Amadeus Press, Portland U. S. A, p. 78.

made, for this reason, specific notes on his work-sheets like, for instance, in Les visions
de lAmen. In this work he aims at giving a complete interpretation of Amen as the
total submission of all the living creatures to God (the Verb / the Almighty Father).20
Messiaen uses long and solemn chords in the first piece of Les visions de lAmen, where
the second piano presents the theme of Creation (Genesis) with long vibrating chords in
order to put the listener in a meditative and religious mood. These expedients are also
found in his early organ production, in particular in the last piece of LAscension (1933)
where the tempo is very slow and the harmony is static - it starts and finishes in the
dominant of G.
The continuation of a tone centre without modulation is another feature in Messiaens
composition which can be traced back to the Indian musical technique. Messiaen uses
mostly a parallel movement of the melody and of the chords with sudden tonal changes,
without modulation, creating a static harmonic process. At the same time Indian
improvisations are conceived in a horizontal way. They are based on one line (melody
/raga) held by a continuous accompaniment of the tonic in which some specific tones
come back (like the fifth) but without modulation between modes. The sound
impression is a melody, on long chords, without modulation which makes the harmonic
speed seem static.
The structure of Indian music, based mostly on one fundamental note (the tonic), is
linked to its aesthetic conception of transcendent. Since the corrupted human senses
perceive the phenomena as multiple varieties (the tangible particulars), the truth lies,
instead, in only one element (the whole - the divine being), which comprises all the
multiple varieties (pantheism). Such idea is reflected in the Indian conception of music,
by which a melody can be traced back and held by one note only - the transcendent -
(the tonic or the dominant), to which the other notes of the scale - the particulars- can
be referred to.21 For the Indian people the essence of Art is to feel, through the tangible
world, the divine truth behind, like an blouissement which, for Messiaen, is the
mystical message he wanted to confer to his composition.

See his notes in Les visions de lAmen (1943).
Perinu R., La Musica Indiana, Zanibon, Milano, p. 178.

Upon analysing some other of Messiaens organ works, we can find a strong use of the
static harmonic process probably associated to a mystical message: all the notes are
related to the fundamental (tonic) like all living creatures to God. Le banquet cleste
(published in 1928), for example, is based on C sharp major or F sharp major, without a
real modulation occurring from the beginning to the end of the piece, where the tonic
chord plus the seventh create a dominant sensation imbued with expectations causing a
feeling of endlessness. In Dyptique (1930), the same harmonic processes are observed in
both his organ and his Quartet version. In the first part Messiaen represents human
troubles through a fast succession of chords where each chord is changed in some
details, under the principle of continuous variation, but the same tonality (C minor) is
kept with short fragments in F minor or in G minor. In the second part, Messiaen wants
to represent Heaven by using C major in a really slow movement, and here again
without modulation. Although Messiaen uses mostly the static harmonic processes there
are some exceptions where he integrates complex modulation like he does in the last
part of Le Verbe and in the central part of Dieu parmi nous, ( the second and the fourth
book of La Nativit du Seigneur -1945).
It is interesting to see how Messiaen combines the classical forms with the use of the
static harmonic processes, as he did in LAscension. This work has two versions, one for
organ and one for orchestra, and it is divided into 4 pieces in the following tonalities: E
major, F major, F sharp major and the dominant of G major (D major). Messiaen makes
these tonalities follow one another as they actually run from E to G in an ascending
way. The symbolic meaning of Christ ascending to Heaven can be found both in the
title LAscension and in the choice of these tonalities. The four pieces of LAscension
are written in respect of the classical forms in that the first and the fourth are in an
ABA, the second and the third are in rondo form, whereas the static harmonic process is
used in contrast to the classical dynamic harmonic one.
The classical sonata of the eighteenth century is based on a dynamic harmonic process,
since two opposite themes, like two contrasting forces, are combined with modulations
from a tonic to a dominant, or to the relative minor tonality, into frameworks. These
modulations help to create a harmonic process which is essentially dynamic. Such a
dynamic process continues to be accepted throughout the Romantic period when music
was given an infinite connotation from its becoming the expression and the language
of feelings. In fact, Wagner spoke about an infinite melody in his works, Liszt used
the cyclic form and Brahms the continuous variation technique. This dynamic

Romantic view is linked to Hegels philosophy and his Dialectics which is based on the
forward movement from Thesis to Antithesis to Synthesis. Something changes in the
twentieth century music with, at first Debussy, and then Ravel, in the way they begin to
use a modal approach in combining tones in a chord. From a parallel movement of the
chords the melody develops, taking priority over the counterpoint, with a sudden tonal
change without modulation. It is from these principles that Messiaen shows his classical
background renewed by the twentieth century French novelties on one side and by
Indian music on the other, creating a personal, well-balanced and original mlange in
his compositional technique. His studies concerning the classical forms (in particular
the fugue and the sonata) are concentrated in chapter XII of his Technique.22 Messiaen
focuses on the essential parts of these forms which are divertissement and stretto in
the fugue, and development and variation on the themes in the Sonata. While the
variation technique remains the most important element in Messiaens compositional
structures, his static harmonic approach reveals to be completely opposite to the
dynamic classical one.
There is also a casual closeness between Messiaens respect of the classical form and
the Indian musicians observance of the structural sections during their performance.
Although Indian music seems mostly free from compositional rules on account of its
improvising characteristic, performance is based on formal structural sections similar to
the Western classical forms. The first part of an Indian performance is called alap which
is a slow, meditative mood-setter in free rhythm, like a long introduction, where the
musician presents and unfolds the raga. Then, there is the jor in which the performer
still plays without a very rhythmical pattern (tala); only later a rhythmical pulse is
introduced in the jod in a medium tempo and then in the jhala in a fast tempo, by some
virtuoso passages. After these three sections of alap the soloist starts the composition
and is accompanied by another musician (percussionist) improvising together, while
each one pursues his own individual variations on the raga and the tala chosen at the
beginning, creating in this way a double counterpoint

Messiaen O., Technique de mon langage musical (1944), Italian translation by L. Ronchetti, 1999, Leduc,
Paris, p. 51.

The Indian composition form is not completely fixed but consists of free elements.
Originally the composition form was called dhrupad which later became known as gat
(an instrumental composition form) and bandish (a song).23 Printed scores or written
scores do not exist in Indian music, patterns are handed down orally and are varied
during the performance that are mostly based on improvisations.
Even if Messiaen is open-minded towards Indian musical concepts, as seen so far, he
clearly states in chapter XVI of his Technique that there is one particular element, which
is not to be confused with the Indian one, and that is his own scale system based on
seven modes of limited transposition.24 Messiaen emphasises the originality of such
expedient in that his seven modes are not transposable 12 times, like normal scales, but
only a fixed number of times: the first mode is transposable only 2 times; the second,
(called the octatonic scale or diminished scale) 3 times; the third, 4 times; and the fifth,
the sixth and the seventh modes, 6 times.
Messiaen clearly states that his research regarding the modes must not lead astray from
natural harmony:

<< true harmony, the unique one, joyful in its essence, implied in melody, pre-existing within melody
and drawn from melody where it laid hidden until its outbreak. >> 25

Messiaen declares that, under the principle of synaesthesia he perceived the sound-
colour relationship physiologically.26 He set the conception of tone-colour to the
harmonic modes of limited transposition giving rise the idea of individual coloration.
In Tome VII of Trait de Rythme, de Couleur, et d'Ornithologie (1949-1992) Messiaen
made the exact correspondance between his modes of limited transposition and the
limited numbers of colours they should evoke: three possible colours for mode two,
four possible colours for mode three, six possible colours for mode four and mode six27.

The Raga Guide, ed. J. Bor, Rotterdam Conservatory of Music, p. 5-6-7.
Messiaen O., Technique de mon langage musical (1944), Italian translation by L. Ronchetti, 1999, Leduc,
Paris, p. 87 94.
Ibid. p. 75.
Samuel C., Olivier Messiaen : Musique et couleur, 1986, English translation by E. T. Glasow, 1994,
Amadeus Press, Portland U. S. A., p. 40.
Messiaen O., Trait de Rythme, de Couleur, et d'Ornithologie (1949-1992), vol. 7, Alphonse Leduc,

Then he combines the 15 natural harmonics into one chord, the resonance chord,
which he describes through a variety of colours as yellow, violet, mauve, leaden grey

There is another particular chord in Messiaens harmonic system, which comprises all
the notes of the major scales, called Chord on the dominant: 29

These chords can be transposed in their inversion on the same bass note giving, as he
said, a rainbow effect which recalls the effect of refracting light through a window
glass in a Cathedral.30


Messiaen O., Technique de mon langage musical (1944), Italian translation by L. Ronchetti, 1999, Leduc,
Paris, p. 70.
Ibid. p. 69.
Ibid. p. 69.

Messiaen also wants to reproduce the natural sound effect using a succession of chords,
like a waterfall of chords, which he calls resonance effect.31

This bar is taken from the beginning of the sixth Prelude (1930), Cloches dangoisse et
larmes dadieu, where Messiaen uses the resonance homophony in the sixth mode
above the principal homophony in the second mode to reproduce the resonance of
tolling bells through a a waterfall of chords in the lower and middle register of the
piano. All the musical elements (rhythm, melody, harmony) used by Messiaen have this
symbolic connection with nature (like in the above examples: rainbow, waterfall,
shades of colours) because nature clearly had a great impact on him as it is part of his
belief in the Almighty God: in it he sees the reflection of all His goodness, beauty and
might. Messiaen, thus, gives a symbolic meaning to his music by transcending towards
the divine truth, almost as revealing a juxtaposition of the Indian metaphysical
conception of music to his own background.
As an end analysis, it is worth saying that Messiaen can be considered an eclectic
musician of European twentieth century music because his personal style stands in the
originality and the ease by which he ranges from the Western classical tradition to the
Indian one, yet placing his unfaltering Catholic faith as the fundamental leitmotive
throughout his works.

Ibid. p. 71.


Works by Olivier Messiaen:

1943. notes on Les visions de lAmen.
1944. Technique de mon langage musical, Italian translation by L. Ronchetti, 1999,
Alphonse Leduc, Paris.
1949-1992. Trait de Rythme, de Couleur, et d'Ornithologie vol. 1, 2, 7, Alphonse
Leduc, Paris.

Books on Olivier Messiaen:

Samuel C., Olivier Messiaen: Musique et couleur, 1986, English translation by E. T.
Glasow, 1994, Amadeus Press, Portland U.S.A.

Johnson Sherlaw R., Messiaen, 1975, J.M. DENT & SONS LTD, London.

Articles on Olivier Messiaen:

Troncon P., Ricordo di O. Messiaen, Diastemia, Semestral issue on Musical Researches

and Musicology, July 1992.

Simundza M., Messiaen's Rhythmical Organisation and Classical Indian Theory of

Rhythm (I-II). International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music
18 (1987).

Kelley R. T., Tradition, the Avant-Garde, and Individuality in the Music of Messiaen,
From the website:

General research on early twentieth century music:

Salvetti G., La nascita del Novecento, 1991, E.D.T., Torino.

Books on Indian music:

The Raga Guide, ed. J. Bor, Rotterdam Conservatory of Music.

Perinu R., La Musica Indiana, Zanibon, Milano.



An analysis of Messiaens Huit Prludes by Giusy Caruso

The Huit Prludes are among Messiaens early works. He was only twenty years old, at
the time, when he had not yet undertaken to experiment with rhythm nor was he
completely involved with bird singing yet. He was, however, familiar with the
conception of tone-colour and he had already set up the harmonic modes of limited
transposition which gave rise to his idea of individual coloration. Messiaen
underlined that, contrary to normal scales, his seven modes are not transposable 12
times but only a fixed number of times: the first mode is transposable only twice; the
second, (called the octatonic scale or diminished scale) three times; the third, four times;
and the fifth, the sixth and the seventh modes, six times. Under the principle of
synaesthesia, Messiaen associates colours to his modes and combines the fifteen natural
harmonics into one chord, the resonance chord, which he describes through a variety
of colours. These chords, played in turned over manner, recall the effect of refracting
light through a window glass in a cathedral, a phenomenon which Messiaen calls
rainbow effect.
Yvonne Loriod, a great pianist, pupil of Messiaen and then his second wife, made an
historical recording of the Prlude. In the booklet included, Messiaen himself defined
his Prludes studies in colour. This explains how early Messiaen had in mind the
relation between colours and tones. Each Prelude is based on one mode creating a
particular atmosphere with a specific colour. At the end, Messiaen annotates that the
colours in his work as a whole are basically violet, orange and purple.

1. La Colombe The Dove is a binary sentence based on the second mode of limited
transposition which evokes bright colours like orange veined with violet. This Prelude
starts with a simple melody - on an obstinate accompaniment in E major - which moves
through the augmented fourth melodic interval (the tritone). Messiaen appreciated this
interval, which was not used in the past on account of its dissonant character and its
complex intonation. He used this interval in all the Prludes and, generally, in all his
works because he considered the augmented fourth the most important interval in the
harmonics produced by the natural resonance of the sound. The parallel movements of
the chords (at the beginning only on the right hand and at times on both hands) recall

much of Debussy and Ravels harmonic technique, renewed, however, by Messiaens

system of modes which he developed into a typical feature of his musical language.

2. Chant dextase dans un paysage triste Song of ecstasy in a sad Landscape is a

symmetrical rondo form based on the second mode of limited transposition (used in the
first Prelude) which here, in its second transposition, evokes not an orange bright
colour, but a dark grey, mauve, Prussian blue like the mysterious mood of a sad
landscape should be. At the beginning and at the end of the piece, a simple melody on
a melancholy obstinate introduces the static atmosphere. The middle part, instead, is a
faster, brilliant section whose colour is again bright: diamond-like, silvery.

3. Le nombre lger The light number is a short moto perpetuo in a binary form, with
the second appearance of the theme presented in the dominant and treated as a canon in
the coda. The static canons are colouristic rather than structural anticipating the
important use of mensural canons found in Messiaens later music. This Prelude is
based again on the second mode of limited transposition, like the first Prelude, with the
same colour: orange veined with violet.

4. Instants dfunts Defunct Instants has a fragmentary structure expressed by two

distinct musical idea in alternation. Each instant is a musical period with a different
rhythm so that the piece has a polirhythmic structure. This Prelude is based on the
seventh mode of limited transposition which expresses a dark mood in the following
colours: velvet grey with reflections of mauve and green.

5. Les sons impalpables du Rve The impalpable sounds of dreams is again a

symmetrical rondo form plus a coda where the asymmetry introduced by the expansion
and contraction capture the listeners interest. This Prelude illustrates how modes can be
used variedly. It opens with a polymodal passage consisting of a pedal-group of chords
on the right hand in the third mode, and the main homophonic theme on the left hand in
the second mode. The next section is based partly in the second mode and partly in a
different mode, not of limited transposition. The part, which introduces again the
polymodal section, is based on contrary movements of chords in the sixth mode. The
middle section is in the seventh mode and, here, the harmonic intervals come closer and
create a dissonant sound. The colours of the Prelude are basically orange blue in the

obstinate on the left hand and a violet purple in chordal cascades on the right hand,
treated in brass timbre.

6. Cloches dangoisse et larmes dadieu Bells of anguish and tears of farewell, as

the previous Prelude, anticipates future developments. It is an example of Messiaens
development-exposition form. A sense of intensification, which is typical of classical
development sections, is achieved in the first section by simple contracted repetitions
of the same material in successively higher keys. The piece begins with an additive
rhythm (unusual for this period) on repeated G, suggesting the tolling of a bell. The
beginning of this Prelude involves the use of resonance homophony in the sixth mode
above the principal homophony in the second mode, the whole of which in turn adds
resonance to the chords in the lower and middle register of the piano. Unlike Ravels La
Valle des cloches (the last piece of Miroirs, 1905) where the sound of the bells is
rendered by a simple succession of fourth and fifth descending harmonic intervals,
Messiaen uses a succession of full chords, a waterfall of chords played in the upper
register of the piano, which he calls resonance effect. All the high harmonics of the
bells resolve into luminous vibrations. Messiaen in particular, describes the colour of
the last three notes, the adieu, as purple, orange and violet.

7. Plainte calme Calm lamentation is in a simple ternary form and its first section is
repeated with open and closed cadences. Messiaen uses the second mode in its third
transposition evoking dark colours of velvet grey with reflections of mauve and green.

8. Un reflet dans le vent A reflection in the wind is a clear reminiscence of Debussy

with its occasional touch of surrealism, but Messiaen, differently from the
Impressionists, uses a definite formal structure: A - B(development) - A + coda. The
light storm that opens and closes the piece, based on the third mode in its fourth
transposition, evokes orange veined with green colours, dappled with a few black spots.
The central development is more luminous. The second theme, instead, is very melodic
and coated in sinuous arpeggios with an orange blue colour in the first exposition and
orange green in the recapitulation.