Modern music: Messiaen

Messiaen's music was a large influence on me well before I started writing regularly online and for publication in the early 1990s. By that time, and certainly by the time this page was cursorily created in 1996, I had come to think of Messiaen more as a guilty pleasure than as a composer whose music really continued to speak to me.

I had subsequently been interested in the more linear influence of Tournemire, the various composers (such as Xenakis or Boulez) whom Messiaen had inspired, and had gone on to study Indian music more carefully myself. The amount of repetition and the way pieces were arranged in symmetric blocks of sound by Messiaen did not appeal to me as much.

However, I have returned to an admiration of Messiaen's music over time, especially in the context of tonal chromaticism and his approach to rhythm combined with harmony. It seems as relevant today as ever. Rightly or wrongly, I hear whispers of Messiaen in e.g. Beatles songs, for instance. His piano pieces encapsulate most of his style, because in spite of the orchestral coloring elsewhere, the music always seems worked out on keyboard and I have never quite warmed up to the extensive set of organ works.

The series of bird pieces is an encyclopedia of rhythmic-harmonic ideas, even if one ignores whether there is any "nature" to it. This is one set that I have always enjoyed, and there is no real need to listen to the entire thing in sequence. One quality recording, a slight favorite:

Catalogue d'oiseaux / La Fauvette des Jardins
Anatol Ugorski
Deutsche Grammophon "Trio" 474 345 (3 CDs)

The liner notes for this release also make the argument that the Catalogue d'oiseaux is a central work in Messiaen's output, and I certainly agree. It reflects my mental organization of his music from much listening in previous decades. Although some of his other works for more instruments are inherently more colorful, or take on larger forms, this set has a great concentration of mature ideas, still ripe for more elaboration.

Although the above series contains many wonderful pianistic ideas on rhythm & harmony, and serves as a valuable touchstone for ideas that have not yet been exhausted by subsequent exploration, my favorite piece by Messiaen is actually Harawi for voice & piano:

Messiaen: Harawi
Dorothy Dorrow / Carl-Axel Dominique
Bis 86

The lyrics are often made of nonsense syllables, and the entire series is based loosely on Peruvian folklore, but the sheer passion of the vocal technique & shifting harmonies is often highly engaging and enjoyable. This is surely one of my favorite pieces from the mid-20th century, even if I was once too shy to admit it in public.


Back to Modern music page.

Todd M. McComb
Updated: 15 December 2010