LAURA FARRÉ ROZADA - Messiaen at the Piano: A Portrait
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) asked himself the following question: Is it possible to achieve success during one's lifetime without ceasing to be a true artist? (Ross  2010: 43).
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was an extraordinarily unique composer, particularly devoted to mysticism and spirituality. A great improviser at the organ and a man of deep faith, he held the position of Kapellmeister at the Trinity Church in Paris for six decades. Messiaen was also one of the most popular teachers at the Conservatory where he gave harmony, counterpoint and orchestration lectures based on synaesthesia: the ability of sound to evoke sensations of colour.
Despite not being a true piano virtuoso, he has been described on several occasions as playing with a very special sound, and offering a new artistic perspective to the language and possibilities of this instrument. According to Yvonne Loriod (1924-2010) who was his wife and one of the main performers of his music, Messiaen was “the creator of contemporary piano, opening the barriers that were ‘imprisoning’ registers”, and moving beyond the ‘Romantic’ piano notion that the low register was essentially used to reinforce the harmonic bass, while the highest one was kept unexplored (Loriod 1996: 75). Through this emancipatory procedure, the composer also contributed to the establishment of a new harmonic conception of the piano, due to his specific and curious research of timbre and sound objects.
A few years after the end of the Second World War, Messiaen would establish a new paradigm in piano performance and its technique while sketching the highlights of serial music: the definition with “almost mathematical” precision of pitch, duration, amplitude and articulation of every single note. This challenge to music theory was exemplified in the piano etude Modes de valeurs et d’intensités (1949-1950), in which the role of the performer was to be entirely relegated as all possible digital articulations were synthesised in a single fast and precise movement, practically always superficial. In other words, the composer was introducing an “expressionless” technique, partially based on the ideas of Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the digital method of Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831) and Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849), who questioned the real function of the performer. “The piano, which a priori seems to be an instrument lacking in timbre, is precisely for this lack of personality, propitious for its search, as the timbre does not depend on the instrument, but on the performer himself” (Chiantore  2007: 543-544).
This new creative procedure and performance insight would become the inception of the musical aesthetic of the Darmstadt School and the language of Messiaen’s most distinguished students including Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), who would start creating series of twelve values for each musical parameter and using mathematical functions to combine and arrange them into compositions.
Throughout his life, Messiaen found in birds an inexhaustible source of raw material through which to develop his own language, and which inspired him to record —just as Béla Bartók (1881-1945) did with folklore— birdsongs of different continents, with all sorts of detail, including the timing and environment in which every single chant was produced. This ornithological procedure allowed him to loosen his bonds with classical forms and achieve a free contrast of sound masses (Messiaen  1993: 38). The biggest accomplishment of this new musical concept would be found in his colossal Catalogue d’Oiseaux (1956-1958), a cycle of thirteen pieces in which expressiveness and musical speech would cede the spotlight to multiple birdsongs, interacting as leitmotivs. The beauty of these pieces is that the composer aims to reproduce the sound of the natural environment of the bird to whom is dedicated the piece and the dialogues that it would establish with others at a certain time of the day.
The following examples are a brief lecture by Messiaen and Loriod on the transcription of bird songs to the piano and his artistic sound portrait of the Black Wheatear in south-west France.
Nevertheless, the composer was entirely aware of the limitations of Western instruments and notation when trying to shape with accuracy that rhythmic and melodic complexity. For this reason, his transcriptions include tempo variations, transpositions, interval simplifications, chord invention and the selection of a very precise instrumentation. This extraordinary capacity for transcribing the tremendous complexity of birdsongs would not have been possible without Messiaen’s determination and obsession for rhythm precision, which he studied exhaustively while developing an interest in the Karnatic Rhythmical Techniques from southern India. This influence would be clearly emphasised in the piano compositions Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas (1936), Canteyodjaya (1948) and Études de rythmes (1949), in which Messiaen would also use prime numbers, chromatic duration ranges and value modes.
However, the sensory experience that evokes Messiaen’s music and the uniqueness of his harmonic language is created by the usage of the seven modes of limited transposition he compiled in his treatise La technique de mon langage musical (1944). This selection includes the whole-tone scale already used by Debussy in his works and by Paul Dukas (1865-1935) in his 1906 opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, the octatonic scale introduced by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) in his 1896 opera Sadko, and the enneiatonic scale, which is based on the pattern tone-semitone-semitone. Each mode provided harmony as well as a range of colours that he would use, led by his synaesthesia. The intensity of these colours depended on the octave in which they were played.
These modal boundaries are also what create the impression of being in more than a single tonality at once, as can already be appreciated in the early cycle Préludes (1929), specifically in the eighth prelude Un reflet dans le vent, which is mainly based on the harmonies of the second mode in its three possible transpositions.
Messiaen also experimented with what he referred to as the “glass-window effect”, which is the result of keeping a common base while modifying the remaining voices. Surprisingly, this technique allows us to establish an interesting connection between all his masterpieces: the church is not only a symbol of his faith and inspiration, but also reflects through its stained-glass windows the colours that “synaesthesically” sparkle and shine through his music or indeed in the feathers of his praised birds.
In the two-hour work of art Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944), Messiaen achieves a pure spirituality through the perception of resonance in an immense space, while giving an interesting set of twenty different perspectives of the new-born in his crib through several relevant characters. The basis of each piece is the interaction of several leitmotiv: the theme of God, the theme of the Star and of the Cross, and the theme of Chords, whose appearance is conditioned to the main character of the movement. In the following Régard du Pére, the theme of God is introduced in the left hand while the right hand provides an accompaniment with a colourful texture that explores the delicacy and refinement of the piano’s resonance.
Understanding Messiaen’s music —in particular his piano works— requires a complete comprehension of his passion for ornithology, his obsession for rhythm, his fascination for colour, and above all, his faith.
On 14 May 1992, more than two thousand people gathered in Trinity Church, Paris to pay a last tribute to Olivier Messiaen. Before dying, the composer had left a note to be distributed amongst all those present: “Thanks for attending to this last valuable moment, friends. I’m in the presence of the Creator, and he knows which have been my good and bad actions; and I’m convinced that the good ones will predominate. Signed, Olivier Messiaen” (from an unrecorded interview on 10.07.2014 conducted by Pierre Réach: piano professor at ESMUC in Barcelona, and assistant professor to Yvonne Loriod for twelve years at the Paris Conservatory).
Laura Farré Rozada is a pianist and mathematician who specialises in contemporary music. She is currently based in London and studying for her Master of Music degree with Andrew Zolinsky at the Royal College of Music. She graduated from her studies at ESMUC (Catalonia College of Music) and UPC (Polytechnic University of Catalonia) with several First-Class Honours. Additionally, she is extremely interested in research and exceptionally passionate about working with composers.