MUSICTEACHERS.CO.UK VOLUME 2 ISSUE 4, OCTOBER 2000  
Online Journal

Repatriated in 1942, Messiaen returned to the Trinité, and joined the staff of the Paris Conservatoire as Professor of Harmony, a post he was to hold for the next forty or so years. Many of his students went on to become renowned composers themselves, Pierre Boulez, Karl Heinz Stockhausen and George Benjamin amongst them. One student in particular, however, was to play a vital role in his works as a musician, the pianist Yvonne Loriod. She was to become the principal interpreter of his piano music, and it is not surprising that the piano began to feature more prominently in his output. Two prominent piano works appeared in 1943 and 1945: Visions de l'Amen for two pianos, and Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus. In 1944 came the publication of his treatise, Technique de mon language musical and four years later he composed his only symphony, the massive Turangalîla-Symphonie for Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, premiered by Leonard Bernstein in December 1949.

Messiaen continued in his role at the Conservatoire, ultimately becoming Professor of Composition in 1966. Until this time and beyond, he travelled the world teaching composition, analysis and rhythm, and on the death of his first wife in 1962, he married Loriod. His large-scale work, the opera St François d'Assise, took several years to complete. Finished and premiered in 1983, it was to be his last large-scale work. He remained working as both a teacher and composer until his death in May 1992 at the age of 83.

2. An Overview of Messiaen's Musical Language, by Gareth Healey

In 1944, Messiaen published his Technique de mon language musical, a treatise explaining his musical language up to that point, which appears to be a unique synthesis of various disparate elements. Since nearly all his works are based on a formulated musical language, a thorough examination of it is vital in forming a complete understanding of them. With the exception of his later, more detailed, excursions into birdsong and serialism, all his techniques are manifest in Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, and in certain cases, such as the third Regard, 'L'échange', dominate individual pieces. Thus, the piano cycle has been chosen to provide the majority of examples in this section.

Modes of limited transposition

In Technique of my musical language (1944: 59-62), Messiaen lists seven modes:

To hear these modes, click here.

Although Messiaen was the first composer to categorise and name these modes, the origins of only Modes 1 and 2 can be traced further back. (It should be noted that these have nothing to do with other modes of India, China, Ancient Greece and plainchant.) Mode 1, uniquely among the seven, does not contain a semitone step; composers such as Glinka and Liszt had used this whole-tone scale as early as the 1830s, but not in such a systematic way. Its presence in a series of modes of limited transposition is explained by the fact that it can only exist in two transpositions:

First transposition - C, D, E, F#, G#, A#

Second transposition - Db, Eb, F, G, A, B

The limitations provided by the whole-tone scale, allied to the fact that it had been used so often before, meant that Messiaen used it less than the remaining modes. (For this same reason it was deliberately avoided by Ravel.) As Messiaen explained:

Claude Debussy, in Pelléas et Mélisande, and after him Paul Dukas, in Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, have made such remarkable use of it that there is nothing more to add. Then we shall carefully avoid making use of it, unless it is concealed in a superposition of modes which renders it unrecognisable (1944, 59).

Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky had also used Messiaen's second mode: Rimsky-Korsakov employed it more simply as an octatonic scale of alternating tones and semitones, whereas its use by Stravinsky was more frequent and systematic. Similarly, it is Messiaen's favourite and thus the most used of the seven. First used in the fifth Prélude, Les sons impalpables du rêve (1929), the mode consists of four symmetrical overlapping groups of three notes, each group containing a semitone followed by a tone. This allows three transpositions thus:

To hear these transpositions, click here.

The theory of these transpositions is demonstrated below, which shows that when the second mode is transposed for a fourth time, it returns to the same notes as those of the first transposition (enharmonically speaking), highlighting that only three transpositions are possible.

Messiaen compares the second mode to the chord of the diminished seventh (which it outlines), as it too has only three transpositions.

Mode 3 is transposable four times and contains different groupings from those in Mode 2; three symmetrical groups of four notes each have the interval of a tone followed by two semitones. Its transpositions work in a similar way to the examples shown above.

Mode 4 differs from the previous three since, as the following example shows, it contains only two symmetrical groups. Therefore, a total of six transpositions is possible.

Modes 5, 6, and 7 work in the same way; these four modes form a similar group, but, due to their limitations, they were favoured less.



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