Olivier Messiaen composed his eight Preludes for piano in 1929. Debussy’s own Preludes were less than ten years old at the time, and the influence of Debussy on the young Messiaen is obvious in these piano miniatures. Like Debussy, Messiaen gave each Prelude a title, suggesting a narrative for the work. Some are obvious, such as ‘La Colombe’ (‘The Dove’), a piece with delicate flutterings and cooings high in the register, or ‘Un reflet dans le vent…’ (‘A Reflection in the Wind…’), with its stormy gusts and eddies, while others have more esoteric titles: ‘Les sons impalpables de rêve…’ (The Intangible Sounds of the Dream) and ‘Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu’ (‘Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell’).
The Debussyan influence is clear in the use of unresolved or ambiguous veiled and misty harmonies, and parallel chords which are used for pianistic colour and timbre rather than definite harmonic progression, but Messiaen’s Preludes are also mystical rather than purely impressionistic, and look forward to his great and profoundly spiritual piano work, Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus. Messiaen described his Preludes as “a collection of successive states of mind and personal feelings”. Sadness, loss, and meditations on mortality are found in many of the Preludes, but there is light (physical and metaphorical) as well, as there always is in Messiaen’s music, and they contain many of the features which are so distinctive of Messiaen’s later works: a masking of literal definitions, shimmering sounds, colours, light, “flashes”, and already suggest the vastness of Messiaen’s spiritual and musical landscape, a landscape which makes the Vingt regards such extraordinary pieces to play and to hear. As Alex Ross says of Messiaen’s music in his book The Rest is Noise, it is “an evocation of the vastness of the cosmos that many experience when visiting mountains.” One has the sense, always, when playing or listening to Messiaen of something that is far, far greater than us.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I studied the fourth of the Vingt regards, ‘Regard de la vierge’, for my ATCL Diploma exam. This was my first contact with Messiaen as a pianist, though I was aware of his music and had even visited the church in Paris, La Trinité, where he was organist for many years. I am not a religious person, yet playing the Regard de la vierge put me in touch with a profound spiritualism, which I found deeply arresting and absorbing. Interestingly, Messiaen’s writing is so perfect that one does not need to share his faith to create a sense of the spirituality which imbues his music: it is all there, in the notes and the directions.
For my LTCL Diploma programme, I’ve chosen the second of the eight Preludes, ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ (Song of Ecstasy in a Sad Landscape). Written when his mother died, it combines the emptiness of loss (as expressed in the weary quaver figure of the opening ‘A’ section, which is later expanded with additional textures) with the joy of memories (the “ecstatic song” of the title in a B section which definitely owes something to Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse in its vivicious, dancing measures). It also occurred to me, while pondering this music as I was enjoying my morning swim (a great opportunity to allow the mind to wander along more abstruse by-ways), that, given Messiaen’s Catholic faith, this piece may also suggest the ecstasy of religion (unquestionably a recurring motif in the Vingt Regards and his organ music). I have recently seen the film The Way, starring Martin Sheen, in which a bereaved father walks the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. While not a film about faith and religion per se, there is an excitement amongst the travellers, a rather rag-tag group of people each with “issues”, on arriving at the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and the awe-inspiring experience of a mass within the cathedral. Forgive me if this seems fanciful, but I find references such as this helpful in thinking about how to convey the “story” of the music.
Messiaen’s printed music can appear complicated, often with three staves, which can be confusing. However, he is very clear in his directions, and because he was a pianist himself, the notes tend to lie comfortably under the fingers once learnt.
When I played the ‘Regard de la vierge’ to a friend, who kindly heard my entire Diploma programme a month ahead of the exam, he commented that the piano and pianissimo measures can be very effective if played with a slight stridency and brightness of tone. This is a very ‘French’ style of piano playing, and if you listen to Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife, playing his music, you can hear that sparkling clarity. This also applies to Debussy, whose music seems to suffer these days from a desire to make it gentle and soft. Remember that Messiaen shared Debussy’s fascination with the percussive, tinkling, luminous sounds of the gamelan orchestra of Indonesia. And Messiaen, like Debussy before him, capitalised on the piano’s sonorous potential, for example, in the inclusion of deliberately “wrong” notes (to be played more softly that the rest of the material), which create the illusion of the natural sympathetic harmonics set up by the release of the sustaining pedal. Another helpful tip, from pianist Murray McLachlan, who also heard my ‘Regard de la Vierge’, is to highlight the contrasts, of colour, rhythm and dynamics: this way, the music is truly brought to life with vibrancy, and subtle nuances of shading, beauty and expressiveness.
Here is Yvonne Loriod in the second of Messiaen’s Preludes:
Yvonne Loriod – Messiaen : 8 Préludes : II Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste
And here is Pierre-Laurent Aimard (a pupil of Loriod):
from the Vingt Regards – X. ‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’