MESSIAEN: Preludes / 4 Rhythmic Studies / Canteyodjaya (Hakon Austbo) (Naxos: 8.554090)
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Piano Music Volume 3
Olivier Messiaen is among the most influential figures in the music ofthe twentieth century. At first alarming and shocking audiences, he later wonan unassailable position, respected at home in France and abroad for hisachievement through a musical language that is intensely personal, emotionaland informed by a deep Catholic piety. Born in Avignon in 1908, he startedpiano lessons in 1917 and two years later entered the Paris Conservatoire,where his teachers included Marcel Dupre, Maurice Emmanuel and Paul Dukas. In1931 he was appointed organist at La Trinite and held this position until hisdeath, writing, particularly in the 1930s, a number of important compositionsfor the organ. In 1940, as a prisoner-of-war in Silesia, he wrote his Quatuorpour la fin du temps ('Quartet for the End of Time'), returning, on hisrelease in 1942, to the Conservatoire. There he taught harmony but exercisedeven stronger influence in the following years through his teaching of analysisand his work at various centres abroad. As a composer his attention was nowturned also to composition for the piano, inspired by his pupil Yvonne Loriod,who became Messiaen's second wife in 1962, three years after the death of hisfirst wife, the violinist Clajre Delbos. Yvonne Loriod continued as a leadingexponent of his music. In 1966 Messiaen became professor of composition at theConservatoire and the following year was appointed a member of the Institut deFrance. In 1971 he received the Erasmus Prize and in 1978 retired from theConservatoire, although his influence continued unabated. He died in Paris in1992.
Messiaen's very personal musical language was derived from a number ofsources. His interest in bird-song is directly evident in his Oiseauxexotiques ('Exotic Birds') and Catalogue d'oiseaux ('Catalogue ofBirds', Naxos8.553532-34) and indirectly elsewhere in his music. Describing himself as a rythmicien,he had a profound interest in Greek verse rhythms, Hindu rhythms and therhythms of major Western composers, from Claude Le Jeune to Debussy andStravinsky. His harmony draws on a combination of sources, from serialism andatonality to tonal and modal writing, with an idiosyncratic use of organregistration and orchestral colour.
The eight Prelude, were published in 1929, while Messiaen wasstill a student, at the instance of Paul Dukas. While the titles sometimessuggest Debussy, the music itself shows considerable originality. The first ofthe set, La colombe ('The Dove'), is evocative in its binary form, thesecond half repeating the first until the final gentle ascent, acharacteristically symmetrical piece Chant d'extase dans un paysage triste ('Songof Ecstasy in a Sad Landscape') is similarly clear in structure. The openingsection, presented simply at first, frames a chordal section before returningin fuller form. At the heart of the piece is new material, ecstatic in mood,framing in turn a central section that presents its melodic material inimitative canon. The opening material returns, again framing the material ofthe second section, each offered in a varied form. There is use of canon in thefinal section of Le nombre leger ('The Light Number'), after the openingsection has returned in a higher, related key. Instants defunts ('DeadInstants') has a similar regularity of structure, with its opening materialframing secondary material, the latter elaborated, while the former isshortened at each re?¡appearance. The piece ends with a coda. Les sonsimpalpable, du r?¬ve ('The Impalpable Sounds of the Dream') has the symmetryof a rondo, its opening section returning to frame two interveningepisodes. It is followed by Cloches d'angoisse et larmes d'adieu ('Bellsof Anguish and Tears of Farewell'). Here a repeated note suggests the sound ofa bell, with its overtones above. After an intervening section the bell tollsagain, in a higher tonality, rising still further at the next repetition. Thematerial develops to a dynamic climax, followed by a tenderly evocative passage,dominated by a recurrent motif, before the return of the bell, heardintermittently as the piece comes to an end. The seventh piece, Plaintecalme ('Calm Plaint') is ternary in form. It is followed by Un refletdans le vent ('A Reflection in the Wind'), a piece with an equally clearstructure, perhaps obscured by the illustrative element that is present.
The two ?Äles de feu ('Isles of Fire'), dedicated to Papuaand written in 1950, were grouped together with Mode de valeurs etd'intensites ('Mode of Durations and Intensities') and Neumes rythmiques('Rhythmic Neums') of 1949 as part of Quatre etudes rythmiques (FourRhythmic Studies). Mode de valeurs et d'intensites initiates the use oftotal serialism. While Schoenberg had applied serialism to a series of thetwelve different notes of the octave in a determined order, then to be usedalso inverted, in retrograde form, or in retrograde inversion, Messiaen nowextended this from notes to durations, attack and intensity, specifying twelvekinds of attack, seven dynamic intensities, three series of twelve notes and 24durations. Written at Darmstadt, the piece had a strong influence on the youngcomposers present there, although aurally not at first easy to grasp. Inparticular its three sets of pitches are not treated as in a predeterminedorder, but differentiated by the other determined elements specified. The workhad a direct influence on the total serialism employed subsequently by PierreBoulez.
Neumes rythmiques takes its title from the note-?¡groupings ofplainchant, the rhythmic neums, that are framed here by recurrent refrains. Inthe first group of refrains the rhythm is gradually expanded while in thesecond Messiaen makes use of durations in a series of prime numbers, offeringwhat he refers to as 'non-?¡retrogradable rhythms', rhythmic patterns that, ifreversed, form the same pattern. The intervening episodes of rhythmic neumshave determined resonances and intensities, to be augmented by additiverhythms.
?Äle de feu I is based on a theme which is repeated in different registers. The themeof ?Äle de leu II is derived from this, but here there are interveningepisodes based on a mode of twelve durations, twelve pitches, four attacks andfive intensities, in a series of what Messiaen calls 'interversions', ten innumber. These are derived from an original series of twelve durations that isopened out like a fan, each succeeding 'interversion' derived from thepreceding one. In this way the series 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 can be openedout from the centre, offering the permutation.
Interversion I: 6 7 5 8 4 9 3 10 2 11 1 12
and this can be treated in the same way to form
Interversion II: 3 9 10 4 2 8 11 5 1 7 12 6
Successive 'interversions' are played simultaneously, each pair formingan episode. The mathematically inclined will see that the tenth permutationrestores the original order. The piece ends in a rapid and energetic coda.
Canteodjay?ó was written in 1948. Messiaen had long been interested in Hindu rhythms,relying on the listing of 120 such rhythms in the thirteenth-century Sangitaratnākaraof Sarngadeva. The score includes names drawn from this work and fromKarnatic musical theory, the latter including the title of the work, indicatingthe element with which the piece opens, interspersed with intervening material.
The sixth appearance of this characteristic rhythm and figuration is