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’

Madonna and Child (Madonna Litta) by Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

French composer, organist, ornithologist and devout Catholic Olivier Messiaen began his masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus in 1944, and the work was premiered in 1945 by Messiaen’s piano student and future wife, Yvonne Loriod. The French title roughly translates as ‘Twenty gazes/ contemplations on the infant Jesus’. The entire work is a meditation on the childhood of Jesus, and it utilises recurring “themes” or leitmotifs to highlight certain ideas, such as the Star, the Cross, and the Father.

Messiaen’s music is rhythmically complex (he was interested in the rhythms of ancient Greek and Hindu music) and draws inspiration from many sources, including Indonesian Gamelan music (which also interested and inspired Debussy), Japanese music, the landscape of Utah in the USA, and the legend of St Francis of Assisi. My own serious interest in Messiaen’s music began after I discovered he was a fellow synaesthete, who experienced colours when he heard or imagined music. He devised his own system of modes (scales) based on his synaesthesia, and in certain scores he actually notated the colours, to help the conductor in interpretation, rather than to express exactly which colours the listener should experience. He also wrote descriptions of the colours of chords, ranging from the simple “gold and brown” to the highly complex “blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant”. My own synaesthesia manifests itself in a similar way to Messiaen’s, though each synaesthete’s experience is of course unique and personal, and I find his concept of colour in music – in the sense of real colours, as opposed to shadings of dynamics and articulation – entirely understandable. Indeed, my own score of the ‘Regard de la Vierge’ (No. 4 of the Vingt Regards) is littered with notes about colour.

As I teenager, I visited the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris where Messiaen was organist (my mother had a penchant for visiting places with ‘artist associations’: the same trip to Paris included a fascinating tour of the studio of symbolist artist Gustave Moreau, and a pilgrimage to the Père Lachaise cemetery to see the tombs of Oscar Wilde and Fryderyk Chopin). As a pianist, I was for a long time fearful of attempting any of Messiaen’s music – indeed anything atonal (Schoenberg, Hindemith) I regarded with extreme trepidation – but I heard the ‘Regard de la Vierge’ played at a piano course I attended last year, and was very taken with it. Hearing the Quator pour le fin du temps (‘Quartet for the end of time’) at the Wigmore last winter (with Stephen Osborne on piano), a deeply arresting and emotional experience which left me in tears at the end of the concert, confirmed that this was a composer whose music I should explore.

Hearing a selection of his Preludes (1928/9) at a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall, I was struck by how close these pieces are to Debussy and Ravel, with their uncertain harmonies (chords chosen for timbre and colour rather than strict harmonic progression), and impressionistic titles, such as La Colombe (‘The Dove’) or Les sons impalpables du reve (‘The Impalpable Sounds of Dreams’). The Vingt Regards were composed some 15 years later, his compositional style had evolved a great deal, and by that time Messiaen had also experienced the full horror of the Second World War as a prisoner of war, after the fall of France to the Nazis in 1940. While his deeply-held faith undoubtedly informs this music, one does not have to be religious oneself to be affected by it. The sheer scale of it (20 movements, a work lasting around 2 hours), the sounds and images it suggests, it is music that expresses something far greater than us.

While each Regard is different, they are linked by the use of recurring motifs (Messiaen’s “themes” of all-embracing love, the Virgin, the Star, the Cross, God the Father), “flashes” (clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”), tolling bells and chimes, references to devotional texts, portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate, repeating chord progressions, and birdsong. While Messiaen is absolutely specific in his writing, there is room for individual interpretation and variation, and, for me, this links the pieces back to the earlier Preludes, and the impressionist writings of Debussy and Ravel.

Messiaen prefaced his masterpiece with a detailed commentary, and each Regard has its own short explanatory paragraph which offer fascinating insights into his very personal visual, devotional and compositional landscape for these pieces, as well as offering useful pointers for performance.

In the ‘Regard de la Vierge’, the Virgin Mary contemplates the infant Jesus with a simple tender lullaby which demonstrates affection and recognition. A contrasting middle section, with birdsong, “flashes”, tolling bells and portentous double octaves interrupts Mary’s devoted gaze, and is a reminder of Jesus’s fate. The naive rocking theme is then restated with bell-like notes in the upper registers, as an expression of Mary’s intimate motherly response and God’s love for humankind.

Pianist Stephen Osborne is an acclaimed Messiaen-player, but for me Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of the Vingt Regards is sublime, capturing the mysticism and magnitude of this great work.

Interestingly, while looking up something unrelated to Messiaen, I heard this track by Radiohead, Pyramid Song, which contains a piano riff which could easily have been lifted from one of the Vingt Regards.

Radiohead – Pyramid Song

Messiaen on Debussy and Colour

Regard de la Vierge, No. 4 of Vingt Regards, played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

More on synaesthesia and music here