Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Music of Messiaen, Part 7

I was in a seminar once on American experimental music and one of the participants, a composer, presented a piece in which he analyzed the formants (overtone structures) of various percussion instruments and, using an algorithm, converted them into rhythms that the percussion instruments would then play. Very clever and designed to appeal to theory and composition teachers as it was a novel way of achieving structural unity. After his presentation I asked "that was the syntax, now what is the semantic?" I received no answer. The whole idea of developing new compositional techniques which are then not used for any particular expressive end is one characteristic of modernism. The interesting thing about Messiaen is that he did take the next step and found uses for the techniques he developed whereas most of his colleagues simply stopped with the technique.

A case in point is the piece we are going to look at today, "L'alouette calandrelle" (short-toed lark), one movement from the Catalogue d'oiseaux for piano. This work, a set of thirteen pieces for piano, at nearly three hours in length, is one of the great accomplishments in 20th century piano music. Written between 1956 and 58, they were inspired by his student (and later wife) Yvonne Loriod, an extraordinary pianist. The work is very much more than merely a catalogue of birdsong: each piece is actually a representation of the songs of the main bird, other birds who share the same environment, and the environment itself.

L'alouette calandrelle, at around 5' in length, is the shortest movement (the longest is thirty minutes long!). Here is Messiaen's description of the movement:
Provence in July. The short-toed lark. Two o'clock in the afternoon. Les Baux, les Alpilles. And rocks, broom and cypresses. The monotonous percussion of the cicadas. Staccato alarm of the kestrel. The Route d'Entresson. The crested lark in two-part counterpoint with the short-toed lark. Four o'clock in the afternoon, La Crau. A desert of stones, intense brightness and torrid heat. Alone, the little, short phrase of the short-toed lark peoples the silence. About six o'clock in the evening. A skylark soars into the sky and delivers its joyous strophe. Amphimacer of the quail. A reminiscence of the short-toed lark.
"Amphimacer" refers to an ancient Greek metrical foot consisting of three syllables: long, short, long. The use of these rhythmic units was part of Messiaen's compositional toolbox.

A few days ago I was looking at IMSLP and saw quite a lot of Messiaen's piano music so I thought that I would be able to find lots of musical examples. But today I see it has all been taken down for copyright violation. So, I'm afraid we will have to get by with just verbal descriptions and YouTube clips!

Getting back to the music: what Messiaen has chosen to do here is remarkable in the extreme. What an amazing vision! I think I have experienced the kinds of things he is trying to capture here--that sense of the whole of a place, sounds, smells, light, air, landscape. It is a kind of reverence for our world that inspires music like this. The place is as important as the birdsong in these pieces. Oh, and the time of day as well, which influences the light, the feel of the landscape and of course the call of the birds. There are layers upon layers here: some things are static, almost mechanical, such as the repetitive sound of the cicadas. Other things develop, musically, such as the strophe of the skylark. There is exposition, development and coda. There is also an underlying, unchanging solidity. In L'alouette calandrelle, it is the pair of repeated chords that capture that static landscape. Alongside are a trio of monotonous sounds: the cicada, and the deadpan calls of the kestrel and quail. Over this soars the lark's song, which contains the only real musical development (which involves that two-part counterpoint with the crested lark).

This is a rather sophisticated and complex idea of musical form, with some elements unchanging and others reshaped and developed. Remarkably, there are no formulas here: each of the thirteen pieces pursues entirely different strategies and structures as it presents a different landscape with a different population of birds.

Let's listen to L'alouette calandrelle and see if we can hear what Messiaen is trying to do. I believe Tomislav Baynov is the pianist:


While we are at it, why don't we listen to another performance of the same piece. This is pianisHåkon Austbø:


My only question, is who goes out and measures lark's toes to see if they are short or not?

4 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

To complicate matters, there is the greater short toed lark (Calandrella brachydactyla [which is 'short toed']) and the lesser short toed lark (Calendrella rufescens): which is, in French [I think], alouette pipsolette. I suppose 'short toed lark' entered into English use before the taxonomists made C. brachydactyla its own species, distinct from the C. rufescens and others. Evidently distinctions amongst the larks are... quite subtle.

"In Beijing, larks are taught to mimic the voice of other songbirds and animals. It is an old-fashioned habit of the Beijingers to teach their larks 13 kinds of sounds in a strict order (called "the 13 songs of a lark", Chinese: 百灵十三套). The larks that can sing the full 13 sounds in the correct order are highly valued, while any disruption in the songs will decrease its value significantly."

Marc Puckett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marc Puckett said...

(It is fascinating to look at the Henry Lemoine publishers page of music for organ that is still up at IMSLP. Works by Claire Delbos, her Paraphrase sur le jugement dernier [Messiaen's first wife], Gluck, Vierne, Tournemire, Flor Peeters... and then a score of probably forgotten names, anyway names I've never seen.)

Bryan Townsend said...

As a matter of fact, since I looked it up, the bird in question here is the Greater Short-Toed Lark.