Saturday, September 5, 2015

Guest Post: Outline of Messiaen's Musical Language, Part 1, Student and Teacher

This is the first of a series of three posts on Olivier Messiaen contributed by Ken Fasano. Ken has been a frequent commentator on this blog for quite a while and made such incisive comments on a post on Messiaen that I asked him if he would like to contribute. He responded with three posts! Let's let him introduce himself:

Ken Fasano, b. 1958, Long Island, NY. Started composing at age 11, and was largely self-taught. Studied composition during high school with Albert Tepper, professor at Hofstra, then electronic music with Herb Deutsch (co-inventor of the Moog Synthesizer) at Hofstra (B.S. 1980) and Ursula Mamlok at Manhattan School of Music (M.M.A. 1982). Software Developer since 1982. My musical interests have been mostly in music history, especially the 20th and 21st centuries. I haven't composed much in recent years, instead reading a lot of history (not just music). I usually don't have much to say, musically or otherwise. I prefer to point towards others whose accomplishments I admire. I live currently in West Palm Beach with my wife Cheryl.

Olivier Messiaen was born December 10, 1908, in Avignon, France, and died April 27, 1992, in Clichy, near Paris. (Elliott Carter, by the way, was born one day later, on December 11, 1908) His father was a teacher of English, his mother a poet.

I will attempt to provide an overview of several influences on Messiaen’s musical language. This will be a very simple introduction; it has taken, and will continue to take, many volumes to examine the different aspects of Messiaen’s musical language. The influences here should not be taken separately; they interoperate within Messiaen’s personality and his musical language.


Messiaen entered the Conservatoire in 1919, age 11. He was a Student of the composer Paul Dukas (1865-1935), best known for L'apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and the composer/organist Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937), who succeeded César Franck at the Conservatoire. As a teacher, Dukas was conservative but encouraged his students’ individuality. His last major work was completed in 1912. Like Sibelius, Dukas had trouble accepting twentieth century musical language after Debussy. The influence of Franck on Messiaen’s earlier organ music is evident.

Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, was "a thunderbolt" and "probably the most decisive influence” on Messiaen. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps also had a profound impact on Messiaen, both on his rhythmic language and on his use of octatonic scales. I will look at Messiaen’s analysis of the Danse Sacrale using tala rhythms later. The later neo-classicism of Stravinsky after his Octet (1923), as well as his contemporaries had practically no influence on Messiaen.

Messiaen was recognized as an excellent student: second prize in harmony, first prize in piano accompaniment, first prize in fugue, first prize in organ playing and improvisation. After studying with Maurice Emmanuel, he was awarded second prize for the history of music in 1928.
Emmanuel (1862 - 1938) was the primary influence on Messiaen’s interest in ancient Greek and Indian rhythms and exotic modes – although Debussy and others had already explored the use of modal harmony. Emmanuel's wrote a treatise in 1895 on the music of Ancient Greece.
Messiaen’s stylistic proclivities were already evident at age twenty. His Préludes (1928) already exhibit Messiaen's use of his modes of limited transposition and non-retrogradable rhythms, but one can clearly spot the influence of Debussy (and Scriabin). Remember that Messiaen was twenty when he composed this – for the majority of composers, to have this much control is difficult at any age – and then to present such an original voice that will be recognized for the rest of one’s career as “Messiaen”, that is exceptional.

Here Pierre Laurent Aimard plays Préludes - 6. Cloches d'angoisse et larmes d'adieu (Bells of anguish and tears of farewell):

YouTube will not allow me to embed that clip, so you can either follow the link or listen to this performance:

Messiaen remained a student all his life, and though the teacher of many great composers, he was also their student, always interested in the work of his students and the additional possibilities it gave him.


Messiaen taught for thirty-seven years (1941-78) at the Paris Conservatoire. He was appointed professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire soon after his release from imprisonment in a German prison camp in 1941, later professor of composition in 1966, positions he held until his retirement in 1978. Among his students: Pierre Boulez (b. 1925), Karel Goeyvaerts (1923-1993), Karlheinz  Stockhausen (1928-2007), Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) and Yvonne Loriod (1924-2010), who became his second wife; Quincy Jones (b. 1933), Tristan Murail (b. 1947); Gérard Grisey (1946-1998), and George Benjamin (b. 1960).

Goeyvaerts was friends with Stockhausen, both excited, having heard Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d'intensités, about the possibilities of serialism, both interested in the prospects of electronic music composition with sine waves. Stockhausen had gone to Paris in 1952 to study with Messiaen as well as Musique Concrète at the Radiodiffusion Français, where he composed his Konkrete Etüde (his opus “⅕”). Messiaen’s analysis emphasized Mozart (to Stockhausen’s avant garde chagrin); Stockhausen wrote a paper, Kadenzrhythmik im Werk Mozarts, published in his Texte, vol II. We will see later the influence of music concrete on Messiaen.

Iannis Xenakis was referred to him in 1951, after being rejected by Arthur Honegger and Nadia Boulanger.  Messiaen recounts: “I did something horrible which I should do with no other student, for I think one should study harmony and counterpoint. But this was a man so much out of the ordinary that I said... No, you are almost thirty, you have the good fortune of being Greek, of being an architect and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music.”  []

His later students Murail and Grisey were the founders of Spectral music – “a compositional technique developed in the 1970s, using computer analysis of the quality of timbre in acoustic music or artificial timbres derived from synthesis.” [ ] Spectralism flows out of Messiaen’s concerns with harmony/color/resonance (which in turn arises from his synaesthesia!).

His pedagogy, while firmly grounded in the classical music tradition (Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Debussy), was inclusive of the most modern developments (unlike Messiaen’s teacher Dukas):
“The range of topics covered during the 1968-69 academic year: besides the critiquing of student works, Messiaen covered Greek meters, arsis and thesis in melody, Hindu rhythms, irrational rhythms, I-Ching, Renaissance vocal music, fugue, the oratorio, stochastic music, serial music as well as works by composers such as Claude Le Jeune, Chopin, Wagner, Berg, Varèse, Schaeffer, Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, Penderecki, and Ligeti.” [Symposium]

More information about Messiaen the teacher of analysis:


Marc Puckett said...

Many thanks for this! and will attempt the Benitez essay soon.

Am happy to see that Messiaen was not the proselytising dogmatist with respect to his own musical developments, innovations. Had wondered about that.

I've been reading a bit (a little learning is a dangerous thing! apologies to Pope, but I can't remember the rest) and evidently Messiaen (and/or Emmanuel?) got the Indian sources just wrong, or confused? or perhaps wrong in some respects and not in others....

Bryan Townsend said...

I have read that Messiaen used a book on Indian music that was what we might consider out-of-date scholarship, but I don't know the details. This may prove the idea that it is better not to tell anyone how you compose!

Ken Fasano said...

Carnatic music theories may vary over time and by author, and the French musicologist probably, given when he wrote, didn't have a good understanding of Carnatic music theories. This might be partly Eurocentrism, similar to the philologists who try to force non-Western languages into a Latin grammar. On top of that, Messiaen used what he found in the book for his own purposes.

Bryan Townsend said...

The fact that Messiaen's music sounds nothing whatsoever like Indian music makes me want to say that it probably doesn't matter what the original inspiration was. Every time a composer takes something from somewhere, the act of choosing such and such over something else is itself a deeply creative act.

cnb said...

There is no 20th century composer whom I dislike more than Xenakis, and it has always rankled a little that he was Messiaen's student. It is interesting, and a little reassuring, to learn that the relationship was more "hands off" than is typical.

I'm very much enjoying this series of posts on Messiaen.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, cnb. Lots more to come! I haven't listened to Xenakis for decades, but I am about to listen to some of his music. I'll report on my reaction.