Messiaen’s puzzle shrouded in a cloud of sound

The mountains have inspired composers as much as the sea. © Charles Thibo
The mountains have inspired composers as much as the sea. © Charles Thibo

Shocked, No. Amused? Definitely. Yesterday evening the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst performed Olivier Messiaen’s piece “Chronochromie” in Luxembourg. Those 25 minutes were an interesting sound experiment and an excellent prelude to Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem op. 64 “Alpensinfonie” that was to follow after the pause.

Messiaen, a 20th century composer from France, intended with his orchestral work to describe the sounds heard in the mountains untouched by human activity: tweeting birds, gargling sources, sloshing rivers, leaves in the wind. What may sound like a series of dissonant accords reveals after a few minutes a structure. Which makes sense. First, birds do not sing coherent melodies and sources does not gargle in a harmonious way, there is always an aleatory moment. Second, there is a carefully constructed logic behind the piece: seven segments, 32 different tone lengths, 36 permutations.

Random within structure

This structure becomes apparent only now and then, it is often drowned in a cloud of sound. One has to listen very carefully not to miss it. The birds’ chit-chat follows a certain rhythm. And those apparently dissonant parts are embedded in recurrent melodies. What is most interesting, is the fact that the piece, describing a pastoral theme, has an incredible inherent tension. During the two “strophes”, the strings play a continuous, monotonous background sound, while the percussions and the winds with seemingly random sounds imitate the birds’ chit-chat. The contrast creates a tension and lets you imagine a danger that is drawing closer. The tension is building up and then, by a magic hand, it disappears as the following “antistrophe” starts and ends with short harmonious melodies played by the strings.

Perhaps Messiaen remembered during his hiking tours in the Alps what he had seen during World War II: Peace is not to be taken for granted, it can turn into violence any time. Nor is the unspoiled state of nature to be taken for granted. While Man is absent, nature remains pristine, but once he penetrates it, he is trapped between contemplation and possession. This is just a speculation of mine, but as we have seen with Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps”, his imprisonment in a German POW camp had left its traumatic traces.

A bottom-up approach

When the German composer Strauss wrote the symphonic poem “Alpensinfonie” at the beginning of the 20th century, he had an idealized picture of the Alps in his mind and used music to evoke the different facets: night, climbing the mountain, at the waterfall, the summit, the fog, the storm… Strauss’ image is constructed in a purely romantic way and very, very different from Messiaen’s composition. Strauss started from the complete picture and broke it down into different aspects which he describes through his magic melodies and numerous sound effects (by using a wind machine for example). Its chief merit lies in pushing the envelope as far as possible in the field of sound exploration without leaving the traditional path of composing – the one established a century earlier.

While Strauss ranked among the avant-garde during his lifetime, he is part of the past when compared to Olivier Messiaen. The French composer proceeded in a bottom-up way: He had studied birds’ voices in the Alps, in France, Japan and Mexico before composing “Chronochromie”, took this raw material and rearranged it into different segments to build his picture of the mountains. Hence the seemingly random tweeting – unthinkable for Strauss.

Unthinkable for the German audience of the Sixties too. When “Chronochromie” was premiered in Donaueschingen (Germany) in 1960, people were grumbling, hissing and shouting. The revolutionary “Neue Musik” was not what concert goers wanted to hear when all forces were directed towards rebuilding Germany and getting back a feeling of security through Germany’s economic boom. The German “Behaglichkeit” (coziness) set in – Messiaen was to disturb it.

Strauss and the avalanche

Messiaen still disturbs. The Luxembourg audience was no less bewildered than the German audience 50 years ago. It takes a long time to build understanding fir this type of music. The audience at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg was much more at ease with Strauss’ op. 64. Too bad, I found Messiaen’s orchestral work of greater interest, and quite honestly, I had the impression that the winds of the Cleveland Orchestra tried to drown the strings in a sound cloud in the first half of the “Alpensinfonie”. As far as I remember, Strauss had not foreseen an avalanche! But of course, there were magic moments after the pause: the sunrise and the outlook from the top of the mountain made us enjoy a deeply romantic reverie, the soft-as-silk parts of “The fog” and “Silence before the storm” made us appreciate the discipline of the orchestra while the thunder-storm entertained us with a Wagnerian sound opulence. Thank you! Please be back soon!

If you have missed yesterday’s live performance of Messiaen’s piece, the Cleveland Orchestra has recorded it with Pierre Boulez, while there are numerous recordings of Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony”. My favourite is the old-fashioned 1983 recording by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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One thought on “Messiaen’s puzzle shrouded in a cloud of sound”

  1. An interesting analysis. The components of natural sounds dissolved in the language of their inspiration, or used as the springboard of formal imitation. Emerging from tradition or creating a new language? Interesting distinction.

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