Messiaen’s ‘Preludes’

Olivier Messiaen composed his eight Preludes for piano in 1929. Debussy’s own Preludes were less than twenty 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 works, Visions de l’Amen (for 2 pianos) and 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.

Messiaen shared Debussy’s fascination with the percussive, tinkling, luminous sounds of the gamelan orchestra of Indonesia, and the piano and pianissimo measures in Messiaen’s music 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). 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.

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 French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who went to study with Messiaen at the age of 12:

from the Vingt Regards – X. ‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’


  1. I’ve always loved the preludes, and I think they come close to the top of the list of music I’ve listened to most often over many years, though I don’t think I’ve ever heard them live.

    It’s astounding how totally infused they are with Messiaen’s personal musical voice so early in his career. He had an exceptionally powerful, distinctive musical personality which makes his work impossible to confuse with any other composer, right from the Preludes up to to his final works. I do think that contributes to him being a little bit of a marmite figure – certainly among my circle! He has influenced so many, and yet really nobody sounds remotely like him – because his melodic and harmonic individuality transcend any technical features of the music.

    It’s perhaps when Messiaen was at his most radical, in the fifties, that he came closest to touching / leading the mainstream of compositional development, and so his works from that time come closest to sounding like other composers – the Catalogue d’Oiseaux is often reminiscent of Boulez and Stockhausen’s solo piano music (but full of bitds!).

    I’m interested in your comments about his spirituality, and I absolutely agree about not needing to share his faith! As with Bach, I find a strong spiritual resonance with Messiaen that makes no specifically religious demands. I think in Messiaen’s case religious ecstasy was very tightly allied with the worldly – nature, human love, and the erotic are all glorified as divine – whcih fits in very well with my own feelings and makes his Catholicism very palatable. Wagner is mixed in the pot there too, blended beautifully with Debussy.

    I look forward to hearing your interpretation of the Prelude. I hope at some stage you have a go at one of the Catalogue d’Oiseaux too. Though I expect they are VERY hard!

    • Thanks for another thoughtful comment, Tim. I agree that the Preludes already display M’s distinct musical voice, despite being virtually ‘student’ works. I haven’t found many other people – apart from you and a couple of piano colleagues – who like his music. It can be hard to enjoy if one’s ears are not turned towards discordant and/or atonal music, but there is something very arresting about his use of harmony and colour, both in terms of his synaesthesia – which fascinates me because I also have colour synaesthesia – and his particular use of dynamic and harmonic shading in his music.

      I have yet to attempt any of the Catalogeu d’Oiseaux, though Id like to. One day…. when I have time!

  2. Wonderful article – those Preludes are a work of genius! I’d never heard them before, thank you so much for introducing me to them!

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