An Audubon in Sound

Messiaen's radiant birdsongs, the crown of his creation, belong as much to the artist as to nature

Bird, Color, Music, Sound Audubon

IN 1945 Virgil Thomson was spreading the word to America of a "thirty-seven-year-old boy wonder" whom Parisians were calling the "atomic bomb of contemporary music." Olivier Messiaen was his name, and he had published a two-volume treatise, Technique de mon langage musical, the year before. Such self-analysis was not as megalomaniacal as its eyebrow-raising title might suggest; almost nothing Messiaen wrote followed traditional forms, and musical progressives wanted to know what he was up to.

Already his output featured large-scale, ingeniously crafted works for orchestra, piano (solo and duo), and organ, the lush song cycle Poèmes pour Mi (Mi being the nickname of Messiaen's first wife), and the masterpiece Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), scored for the unusual combination of violin, clarinet, cello, and piano. These happened to be the instruments, broken-down though they were, available when Messiaen, a famished and frozen prisoner of war, wrote the piece in a Silesian internment camp. There the quartet received its first performance, before an audience of 5,000. "Never," the composer later wrote, "had I been listened to with such attention and understanding."

In the future lay the Turangalîla-symphonie (the title, taken from Sanskrit, implies a cosmic love song, a hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death). An eighty-minute pageant of volcanic energy alternating with voluptuous serenity, the symphony displays throughout a knowledge second to none of what musical instruments can do. Also still to come were a sequence of phenomenal piano and orchestra pieces dazzlingly wrought from the real songs of birds; the monumental La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, which runs an hour and forty minutes and calls for seven instrumental soloists, a chorus of one hundred, and an immense orchestra heavily reinforced with percussion; the opera Saint François d'Assise, of Wagnerian duration (four solid hours of music), depicting moments in the spiritual history of Saint Francis, in deliberately action-free fashion; and much, much more.

Acceptance of Messiaen's scores was by no means instantaneous or general. In 1960, outside the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées after the world premiere of the challenging Chronochromie (which in one now-famous passage requires the eighteen string players to play eighteen different birdsongs simultaneously), an exasperated member of the orchestra hit the composer with a shoe. Through the very end of the sixties Messiaen's music continued to encounter insult and abuse. These still smarted in the last years of his life, although by then the tide was turning. Detractors notwithstanding, prestigious commissions had long been coming and continued to come Messiaen's way. In 1992, at the age of eighty-three, he died showered with honors, a cult idol in his native France and throughout the world, notably in the United States and Japan. Before long he may be joining the universal pantheon as a new colossus -- the next Mahler, as it were, though as unlike Mahler as Mahler is unlike Mozart.

TO outward appearances Messiaen was a gentle soul, quietly earning his bread as a teacher, first at the École Normale de Musique and later at the Paris Conservatoire, and as the organist at the church of La Trinité for fifty years. But in his art he was intrepid. His classes in harmony and analysis attracted the most daring talents of the postwar generation: Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and, toward the end, George Benjamin, whose compositional abilities Messiaen likened to the young Mozart's. With his students Messiaen explored Western music from Gregorian chant and Monteverdi through compositions still wet on the page, not to mention exotica like rhythmic systems from India (the intricate deçi-tâlas that figure so prominently in Messiaen's own writing) and metrics from ancient Greece. His knowledge of the musical heritage was encyclopedic; constant interaction with the brightest of his juniors kept him young.

Receptive as Messiaen was to impulses from far-flung sources, his sympathies were by no means all-embracing. No postmodernist, he recognized that aesthetics has a history; he saw no point in trying to replay the gambits of the past. Unlike the eclectic Stravinsky, who plunged into ism after ism, Messiaen dabbled in new developments (electronic music, total serialism) only in a very controlled and time-limited way. The son of a father who translated Shakespeare and a mother who wrote mystical, rather purple verse, Messiaen found his voice early -- a voice like no other. To judge from his earliest publications, his musical godfathers were César Franck and Claude Debussy; his precocious love of Wagner echoes in musical reminiscences of the lonely English-horn solo of Tristan und Isolde. But what is original in Messiaen infinitely outweighs any influence. The atomic-bomb metaphor is grotesquely inappropriate. To discover Messiaen is to make landfall on a virgin continent teeming with life, rejoicing in that natural condition perhaps best called a state of grace, unravaged by civilization -- if an abode for humankind at all.

At first the explorer may be as much bewildered as bewitched. Messiaen discloses many-splendored landscapes mystical and sumptuous, ajangle with birdsong, awash in rainbows. One will not go away from a concert humming the tunes; melody, in the linear sense, is seldom prominent. Messiaen's is supremely a music of simultaneities, of layers and textures.

Typically, it comes complete with a map: Messiaen's own painstaking record of his intentions, materials, and techniques. How much practical guidance the map offers is another question. The symphonic Réveil des oiseaux lists, in order of appearance, more than three dozen birds. Good luck picking them out -- and what exactly is gained if one does? And what on earth is one to make of the knowledge that a certain Messiaen "mode," or sequence of notes, consists of "horizontally layered stripes: from bottom to top, dark gray, mauve, light gray, and white with mauve and pale yellow highlights -- with flaming gold letters, of an unknown script, and a quantity of little red or blue arcs that are very thin, very fine, hardly visible"?

FOUR key factors set Messiaen's music apart. First is his Catholicism, a faith he claimed to have been simply born with (though his parents were nonbelievers), which to him was an inexhaustible font of metaphysical ideas. Second, his idiosyncratic notion of color. Third, his iconoclastic approach to rhythm. Fourth, his use of meticulously transcribed birdsong, from which he spun fantasias of bizarre brilliance. In various ways each of these wellsprings of inspiration put Messiaen in what he termed "eternal conflict" with the public at large.

Messiaen wove divinity into his music by every musical and extramusical means he could devise: individual sections of his works appear under theological headings or quotations from Scripture; musical motifs are explicitly associated with such entities as God and the cross; he even went so far as to invent a musical alphabet of tones and durations for spelling out texts from the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

In conversation Messiaen spoke with quiet conviction of the Resurrection and the joy to come. Judging by the evidence of the music, I would say that he heard the voice of God the Father in bleak, granitic tones of the abyss (shades of Wagner's dragon, Fafner); even agnostics may sense with awe the cliff against which all creation is bound for shipwreck. Elsewhere Messiaen's music offers existential consolation, in strains inspired by the mystery of the Trinity. Whatever the message, Messiaen was preaching mostly to the unconverted. "I speak of faith to atheists," he said. And this, he could see, was a problem.

Perhaps it no longer is. True, our cynical century has in the main tolerated sacred subject matter only from artists long dead. But on the cusp of the millennium ears, and possibly hearts, have opened to the messages of Pärt, Górecki, and Kancheli -- not to mention Gregorian chant, which is racking up recording sales in the millions. These days Messiaen's showy, formerly unfashionable spirituality may well attract new listeners rather than turn people off.

THE first of Messiaen's four "eternal conflicts," in other words, turns out to have been political and hence negotiable. The other three probably really are eternal, to the extent that they concern not his message but his material. Start with color, the most perplexing issue of all. As Messiaen explains it, color seems to be a function equally of instrumental timbre, melodic shape, and harmonic underpinning. In his view it is no less fundamental a musical property than resonance -- even superseding that traditional cornerstone tonality (which Messiaen summarily dismissed).

It always confuses layfolk when musicians speak of color, but the tradition for doing so goes way back, as technical terms such as "chromatic" and "coloratura" show. When "palette" or "shade" or "hue" or "dark" or "light" appears in musical discourse, what is usually meant has to do with expressive nuance -- not with visual impressions at all. On the rare occasions when musicians get more specific, their paintbox proves pretty crude; they may aver, for instance, that the key of A major is an "intense sky blue." Messiaen's boundless aural vision took in the full spectrum of the psychedelic.

A clearer understanding of exactly what Messiaen meant by his descriptions of color in music has eluded just about everyone who has tried to find out. Pierre Boulez, who remained close to Messiaen throughout his life and has conducted transcendent performances of his scores, once asked him if he actually, physically, saw colors. "No!" Messiaen replied. "They're only for me. I imagine color. It has no reality."

Regarding rhythm, which is measurable and objective, one would expect to be on firmer footing, but here, too, Messiaen confounds expectation. Whereas in common usage "rhythm" implies movement either with or against a more or less steady beat, Messiaen insisted that a repetitive pulse intrinsically precludes rhythm. Virtually the only classical composer he was prepared to acknowledge as a "rhythmician" was Mozart -- without peer in this respect as in others.

So what is rhythm? In Messiaen's view, it arises from elaborate subdivisions of time, hypnotic in themselves but also implicated in cabalistic correspondences to the nature of eternity itself. Like many mathematicians, Messiaen felt the strange spell of prime numbers. He liked to manipulate his basic musical material according to all manner of arithmetical formulas. He particularly delighted in constructing rhythmic palindromes -- phrase units that play out (rhythmically, though not necessarily melodically) the same way forward and backward; they form, as it were, immobile arches within the cathedrals of his pieces. Messiaen accounted himself a "static" composer, and part of what he thought made him one was his symmetrical rhythms, which he called "nonretrogradable."

I, too, often find Messiaen's music static, perhaps for a different reason. Even when it is charging at a gallop, it scorns what in the vocabulary of classical masters from Haydn to Beethoven and beyond is called "development": the countless strategies of anticipation, amplification, antithesis, and recapitulation that give a piece of music its sense of direction, its quality of being a journey from a point of origin to a point of arrival and fulfillment. Messiaen abjured such potent means of closure as clean triads; his pieces end in dissonance, trail off in mid-phrase . . .

Indeed, a better word than "static" might be "spatial." The internal structures of his music feel less organic than geological: unrelated elements jostle and abut like boulders in a geological basin. In general Messiaen's music makes no pretense of carrying us forward; we must traverse it by our own effort, step by step. Rather than unfolding, it gyrates on some unseen axis, no structural logic dictating how long it goes on doing so. Whether one judges a movement of a Messiaen work short or long depends strictly on one's mood. At performances of the Turangalîla-symphonie and Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà, I have felt like a tourist in a place of marvels beyond number, rapt but frustrated: now rushed, now bored and forced to linger by a guide whose sense of the proper pace is not mine. If only one could wander through the music as one wanders through rooms! Messiaen disciples to whom I have floated this idea have not dismissed it out of hand.

WHICH leaves us the great dazzlement of Messiaen's birdsong. Birds, as Messiaen never tired of saying, were earth's first musicians, and to his ears the best. People have been mimicking birds in music since the dawn of time. Certainly the Western canon, from Rameau, Vivaldi, and Bach on to Wagner, Strauss, and Stravinsky, abounds with owls, nightingales, cuckoos, and larks, evoked in picturesque but simplistic approximations. Until Messiaen the challenge of catching the complexities of contour and timbre of any but the plainest birdsongs went unattempted.

For Messiaen the desire was there long before he had worked out the requisite technique. In his early prelude La Colombe (1929) he was already making the piano coo and gurgle, but still operating well within the sphere of impressionist precedent. In the years following, Messiaen -- music's Audubon -- devoted a scholar's zeal to transcribing whole choirs of birds, always in traditional notation, always in the field. Often his second wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod (whose performances of Messiaen's piano works, dedicated to her, remain unsurpassed), would tag along with a tape recorder, capturing backup material that proved invaluable later on. Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux (for piano), depicting birds of France, eventually grew to seven books plus the half-hour coda and summation La Fauvette des jardins (The Garden Warbler).

Sometimes Messiaen would present birds individually; sometimes he would place them among the fauna of their habitat, amid detailed sonic "scenery." Sometimes he went so far as to reflect biorhythms, stage-directing air traffic; sometimes he would juxtapose the songs of various birds without regard for where they came from, seduced by their vocalizations and perhaps also by the romance of their names (Australia's superb lyrebird or an elusive specimen, heard but unseen, whose mystique he preserved in the makeshift phrase "the bird of Persepolis").

Birds do not sing the way people write music, and transcribing them was like concocting algebra to reproduce calligraphy: it took creativity of no small order. Some two dozen relevant birdsongs taped in Europe and Israel, appended to Hans-Ola Ericsson's recording (on the BIS label) of Messiaen's last major organ cycle, Livre du Saint Sacrement, bring home the difficulty of the problem.

Birdsong moves faster than human fingers; the first thing to go when an instrumentalist mimics a bird is tempo. Also, Western melodies are strung together from notes, well-defined pitches neatly arrayed on scales. Birds sing microtones. They phrase in arabesques that swoop and glide. Their staccato "notes" are more like jagged shards than human musicians' points and beads of sound. The timbres and attacks are often energetic to the point of harshness, yet to our ears in the wild they may sound ineffably sweet. For the piano and for instruments of the orchestra Messiaen invented ways of clustering and combining notes to produce, often with uncanny verisimilitude, an impression of the real thing. Call it trompe-l'oreille.

At the same time, Messiaen took amazing liberties. He transposed certain songs deep into the registers of bassoon and bass clarinet, for instance. Real birds cannot make sounds that low. Boulez remembers joshing Messiaen about the incongruity: "No bird," he pointed out with Cartesian wit, "is gigantic enough." In the end Messiaen's birdsongs resemble his colors. "What he wrote," Boulez says, "was his imagination of birdsongs. If you analyze birdsong scientifically, you find none of the intervals Messiaen wrote. The starting point is in reality. The elaboration is very irreal."

Stained glass, Messiaen said, is light captured by man. By the same token, art is life captured by man. Like Monet's water lilies, Messiaen's birdsongs belong no more to nature than to the artist. Gathering the materials in the first place and then weaving them into his own warp and woof, as Messiaen did, would have been impossible without his ears, his mind. Unlike Bach's fugues, which have served as procedural examples for generations of composers and can still serve that function, Messiaen's accomplishments in Chronochromie and Réveil des oiseaux and the great sermon to the birds in the opera Saint François -- blazing walls of bejeweled sound -- transcend emulation. The next composer who wants to sing the music of the birds will have to start from scratch. Birdsong is the crown of Messiaen's creation; there's none left where his came from.

FIVE years after falling silent Messiaen continues to speak through his music, though live performances are hardly commonplace. Still, he is well represented on CD. The authorized version, as it were, of most of the principal works is a twelve-volume box on the Erato label. These albums (many are also available separately) feature Messiaen himself on the organ; Yvonne Loriod, who is as imaginative as she is magisterial on the piano; and a host of other musicians close to the master's circle -- among them the golden-hued soprano Maria Oràn, making an eloquent case (no easy task) for Messiaen as a composer for the human voice.

Many individual performances recommend themselves as introductions to Messiaen's sound world. The pinpoint brilliance of combined timbres in Kent Nagano's startling new Réveil des oiseaux, also on Erato, brings to mind the pointillism of Georges Seurat. The Deutsche Grammophon label's Messiaen discography is short but choice, with Boulez in charge of a transparent yet intoxicating Chronochromie and Myung-Whun Chung leading a radiant Éclairs and a Turangalîla imbued with the spirit of dance.

Deutsche Grammophon has also issued an inviting seventy-five-minute sampler under the title -- the "cherry centers," as one of the producers calls it, of the complete recordings. Reinbert de Leeuw's account of La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (on Auvidis Montaigne) had the composer -- ever an appreciative auditor, often effusively so -- in exceptional ecstasies, and one can understand why. The consensus of informed opinion has been fairly unkind to Des Canyons aux étoiles, commissioned by Alice Tully and inspired by Bryce Canyon and other Utah locales. Gaudy it is, but grand, and the long horn solo "Appel interstellaire" ("Interstellar Call") numbers among the most haunting passages in the Messiaen canon; Esa-Pekka Salonen's reading with the London Sinfonietta, on CBS Masterworks, shows the music to splendid advantage.

The very best place to start, however, is probably Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Which recording? Take your pick. Its song of hope that no power can shatter has inspired many responsive readings.

Illustration by James Endicott

The Atlantic Monthly; March, 1997; An Audubon in Sound; Volume 279, No. 3; pages 90 - 96.