“I have waited, waited for the Lord…and he heard my supplication, and he put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God.”
One of the most extraordinary pieces in the Gregorian chant repertoire is the Offertory, Expectans, expectavi. Like many melodies of this idiom, this one changes modes, so that it ends on a different final than one would expect from the clues offered at the beginning. The uniqueness in this situation comes from the word painting that results from the modulation, as the key changes with the text “a hymn to our God.” The effect is utterly exhilarating and perhaps an admonition that if we really want God to put a new song into our mouths, we have to be prepared to sing in a new mode, to accept the unexpected.
Such a posture is fitting, even necessary, when approaching the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a French composer who is probably the most important church musician since J.S. Bach, and whose birthday is today. A devout Catholic, Messiaen’s work represents the apex of musical creativity in the Church in the late 20th century; yet he remains misunderstood by many. His interest in ornithology (the study of birds), theology, and exotic musical styles give his work a high degree of individualism. It is nearly impossible to mistake his work for someone else’s.
It has been said by some that Messiaen never intended his organ works to be performed in church. This seems to be a mirror image of the myth that Luther got all his chorale melodies from the town drunk. While Messiaen did say that, as an ideal, the only truly religious music is Gregorian chant, he did not rule out the performance of his own music at the liturgy. In fact, in his conversations with Claude Samuel he admits to keeping his ambitions in the early organ works in check owing to their eventual performance at Mass. Messiaen’s output encompasses far more than sacred music, but for purposes of this essay, that’s what we’ll focus on.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about Messiaen’s music. It has been called “dissonant.” One organ professor who was a fossil from the very late Romantic era called it sour. A friend told me that it didn’t have any logical structure. Someone else told me that there is no joy in it, which I must admit certainly requires a tremendous effort at selective listening. These misunderstandings motivate me to offer this attempt at explaining how this music really works. In doing this, I’m relying heavily on the work of Claude Samuel and Jon Gillock, who have both given us books that are incredible resources on this musical giant. Because this is complicated music, I will break it down into some of its more important components and discuss each one in isolation.
Messiaen based his compositions on what he called the modes of limited transposition. These are exotic-sounding scales which make use of unusual relationships between the intervals. Two examples are the whole-tone scale—a six-note scale in which the intervals are whole steps (C, D, E, F#, G#, A#, C)—and the octatonic scale, in which half and whole steps alternate (C, C#, D#, E, F#, G, A, A#, C). As the name implies, these scales can only be transposed a limited number of times before running out of new notes, unlike the major scale, for instance, which can be transposed 24 times.
The harmonies that Messiaen employs, however, are not based on these scales the way classical harmonies are based on the diatonic scale, with the tonic chord consisting of the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, for instance. The harmonies in this case are invented according to the specific sound that Messiaen wanted in a given instance. He based his decisions on color and timbre, using his synesthesia-like condition to help him make choices. (Messiaen associated modes and harmonies with colors, which he saw in his mind’s eye as he heard the sounds. The color complexes which he saw were usually quite intricate.)
Just as the specific sound or timbre of a musical instrument is determined by its particular overtone series, the unique sounds of Messiaen’s music are the result of his “weird” harmonies. The whole sound, therefore, must be listened to in order to hear the effect that Messiaen was after. Focusing on the “dissonance” of the individual notes would be like listening to Louis Armstrong and picking out the separate overtones of the trumpet. In this sense, Messiaen’s music needs to be listened to telescopically, from a distance. Listen with a new paradigm, and think of a kaleidoscope.
Somewhat related to Messiaen’s harmonic system is the use of organ registration. The organ features a number of stops that play the fundamental tone, the note that is perceived by the listener. Other stops, however, play various partials—the octave, the twelfth, fifteenth, etc. Messiaen liked to experiment with registrations which removed the fundamental, hence many of the high-pitched settings that you’ll hear during his music.
Olivier Messiaen employed many bird songs and Gregorian chant melodies, especially the jubilant Alleluias, in his works, yet much of what he wrote does not contain a melody as such. This is nothing revolutionary, though. In all honesty, much of the music of even Palestrina and Victoria contained themes rather than melodies, material developed polyphonically by several equal voices. This is not exactly Frank Sinatra; such music cannot be jotted down in a fake book. It is important to remember that Messiaen relies heavily on imagery and the musical manifestation of ideas. He is communicating, albeit in new and unexpected ways.
Rhythm figures very prominently in Messiaen’s music. He even anticipated that this aspect of his work would be his most important contribution to future composers. To him, music is rhythm.
Yet his music doesn’t have that tyrannical thumping sound like club music or a badly played Bach fugue in which all the downbeats are summarily slaughtered. This comes from Messiaen’s use of devices that do not rely on metrical divisions like much Western music does. Instead, he uses Greek and Hindu rhythms, the Hindu material being called deci-tales, or regional rhythms. The Greek rhythms make use of longs and shorts, like a line of Shakespeare. This might be the system that most closely resembles the rhythms in Gregorian chant, which has a primary, indivisible beat so symbolic of unity, eternity, and divinity.
Messiaen offered some interesting viewpoints on this subject. He considered Mozart a very rhythmical composer, but neither Bach nor jazz because the rhythms simply droned on with no changes to the fundamental beat. Even syncopation didn’t impress him. I myself want to look more into this, particularly his insistence on Mozart’s rhythmic qualities over and above other Western composers, especially in light of Mozart’s generally broad harmonic rhythm.
With Messiaen, we must abandon the Classical forms and their Romantic imitators. It is often said that all music is about departure and return, but Messiaen’s music seems to be more about leaving a lower plane of existence in favor of a higher one.
I’m reminded of the observation of Richard Weaver (1910-1963), literature professor at the University of Chicago, that artists have used stories not to re-tell the story but as a basis for form. In Messiaen’s case, a similar principle prevails, though he doesn’t really use chronologies. Rather, certain ideas around particular events are brought into interaction with each other and made not into stories, but meditations and sometimes even syllogisms. In his Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a work for chorus and orchestra, Messiaen quotes an entire section of St. Thomas Aquinas!
It seems best to use a concrete example. Let’s take a look at Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us, 1935, for organ), which is fitting for this time of year.
At the top of the first page, Messiaen posts the text which is the basis for the musical meditation:
[Words of the communicant, of the Virgin, of the whole Church:] Then the Creator of the universe laid a command upon me; my Creator decreed where I should dwell. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. (Some of this translation comes from the New English Bible.)
The music begins with the introduction of three themes:
- Descending chords followed by a roaring pedal line which represents the descent of the Second Person of the Trinity.
- The communion, the theme of love, played on the undulating string and foundation stops of the organ.
- The theme of joy, Mary’s Magnificat, which, as Jon Gillock points out, evokes bird song.
After the introduction of these themes, the first and third begin a back and forth dialogue , the theological story line of which seems rather obvious—the Child descending into the Mother’s womb and the Mother rejoicing. This is followed by an ecstatic development of the Magnificat theme in two-voice counterpoint that dissipates into the heavens.
Now the theme of love returns, in a frantic sort of way, punctuated by descending notes in the pedals. One person has told me that this represents the busy-ness of Paris, which Messiaen hated, interrupted by the grace of God coming down to mitigate the worldly garishness. This theme of love culminates in a restatement of the first theme, which, after its descent, is repeated in reverse—in ascending motion. Gillock wonders if this isn’t a hint at the Ascension, which introduces much opportunity for reflection on the relationship between the Incarnation, the Ascension, and the destiny of man (apologies to Reinhold Niebuhr!), all of which Messiaen may be commenting on in the exuberance of the toccata that follows.
This toccata (at 5:15 in the linked video), according to Messiaen himself, is really where the piece begins. Everything else that comes before serves as an introduction. It makes use of the Hindu rhythmcandrakala and the fourth Greek epitrite. While the hands play sparkling passages, the feet restate the first theme of the piece. The toccata builds into a whirlwind of activity, until concluding triumphantly so that even the stone pillars of the church rejoice.
Messiaen’s music is difficult to play, but his approach is driven neither by the taste for virtuosity nor musical eggheadedness. Rather, its genus is in the communication of ideas. He uses his language to talk about God, and therefore his language is not of the concert hall or the academy or the museum piece; it is the language of love. His faith is at the heart of every note Messiaen ever wrote. For him, his work was not a means to vainglory, but a vocation, the way in which he was to work out his salvation. “I am not a saint,” he told Claude Samuel, “but I would have given up all my musical works to be Mother Teresa.”