Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Messiaen and Program Music

I haven't quite done with Messiaen and likely won't be for quite a while. Apart from the sheer aesthetic quality and originality of his music, he provokes some interesting philosophical questions. One of these is the relationship between some of his music and the idea of program music.

Program music has been defined by Beardsley as "music with a program" which seems logical enough. He argues for not limiting that definition any further for several good reasons. So, to take an example, is Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux program music? It is not usually considered such but rather as incorporating stylized birdsong into pieces for solo piano. That has a suggestion of musique concrète or iconicity, but little more. Iconicity is a similarity or analogy between a sign and what it represents. In Messiaen's music incorporating birdsong, the assumption is that the music strongly resembles the birdsong. Well, let's have a look, shall we?

Here is a clip of a Calandra Lark singing an extended song: this starts at the 1'19 mark:


I choose this because the shortest piece in the Catalogue d'oiseaux is "L'Alouette calandrelle" which I think is the same bird. Here is another clip of the "Alouette calandre":


Now for the composition by Messiaen, based on this birdsong:


At the beginning you hear two chords interspersed with what sounds like birdsong. I think that comparing those quick, higher-pitched passages with the clips of the birds does show a considerable resemblance. So we have a case of iconicity similar to the passage in Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 where he reproduces the calls of three different birds, labeled in the score.

But now let's look at what Messiaen says about this piece, taken from the liner notes to the Warner Classics box "Messiaen Edition":
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.
The amphimacer is an ancient Greek metrical foot consisting of three syllables: long, short, long.

Based on Messiaen's notes, the piano piece is more than just variations on a stylized birdsong. It is a chronology of part of a day (something that Messiaen does in other pieces in the series) and purports to represent several different places in Provence as well as the songs of five different birds, not to mention the cicada. This begins more and more to resemble a program, though not a traditional narrative. You might call it a characteristic landscape or "soundscape".

The question is, how should we take the composer's notes and how do they affect our reception of the music? Are they a "program" or merely hints as to the mood of the music. Beardsley argues that Beethoven's notes about the Symphony No. 6 are not a program as such, but more metaphorical suggestions to the conductor: "make this passage sound like the running quality of a brook." In order to be genuine program music, the program and the music should fuse together to form one aesthetic object such as Berlioz created with his Symphonie fantastique.

The problems with program music are manifest: if the music itself does not have a real structural coherence, then tacking on a program will not give it one. If the narrative structure of the program and that of the music are both complex, then it will be very difficult, for both composer and listener, to relate the two. If the program is sufficiently vague consisting of little more than a suggestive title such as "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" then it might be able to be dispensed with entirely as it will have little effect on how we hear the music.

So how should we take the "programs" Messiaen has attached to his Catalogue d'oiseax? Can we dispense with them entirely and simply listen to the music as abstract instrumental compositions for piano? Would our aesthetic pleasure be significantly reduced? What if Messiaen had never mentioned that the pieces incorporate birdsong? Would a gifted ornithologist been able to, years later, present the public with his striking theory that Messiaen had used actual (stylized) birdsong in his piano pieces?

I'm not sure where I fall on these questions, but I am more and more interested in engaging with these pieces simply as pieces of music and not as soundscapes or narratives. I want to see how they work if we ignore all the verbiage and just listen. Here is another performance of "L'Alouette calandrelle". What do you think?


The performer offers this guide to the various sections:
0:06 - Short-toed Lark
0:30 - Chorus of Cicadas
0:38 - Lesser Kestrel
0:43 - Quail
1:14 - Crested Lark in counterpoint with the Short-toed Lark.
3:49 - The Skylark

2 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

Both of the bird song videos are of the calandra lark, Alouette calandre, Melanocorypha calandra [that is, the 'black' (melas) 'crested' (koruthos) lark].

The Alouette calendrelle, the calandrelle lark, of Messiaen's piece, well, I can't find a video of one singing, although as you saw I'm sure there are plenty of them just hopping about. But they are different birds, with different songs (as you can see described at that French birds site linked above). Doesn't affect your conclusions at all, I think.

Bryan Townsend said...

Darn, I knew I should have measured his toes! But yes, I don't think it hugely affects my discussion. I didn't really arrive at many conclusions, though.