Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Poetry of Olivier Messiaen, on his Centennial

“ionized laughter fury of a clock”

The Olivier Messiaen (born: December 10, 1908) Centennial is here!

Blast the church organs!

Let the birds sing!

Roll out the massive box set (14 CDs)
, and the REALLY MASSIVE (32 CDs) box set!

And – my focus here – let’s salute Messiaen’s poetry!

Messiaen’s poetry? Yes, his poetry. I refer specifically to the lyrics in two vocal works that Messiaen composed in the 1940s: Harawi: Chant d’amour et de mort (Harawi: Song of Love and Death) (1948) and Cinq rechants (Five Refrains) (1949). The words in these songs are wild, inventive, and by any measure, poetry.

Poetry is a key part of Messiaen’s nature, nurturing, and thus his musical temperament. While pregnant with him, his mother wrote and published a book of poems, titled L’Ame en bourgeon (The Budding Soul), that Messiaen believed were an auger or even a cause of certain of his core interests, including music, birds, and the culture of India and Japan. Messiaen’s father was the pre-eminent translator in France of, among others, Whitman and Shakespeare.

Messiaen himself read widely in poetry, including – to judge only by those he mentioned in interviews and his musical theory writings – Aloysius Bertrand, Rilke, the surrealists, and many others. During interviews, he said he was a great reader and admirer of Pierre Reverdy and Paul Eluard, and it’s also known he read and liked the work of Andre Breton.

Of course, the great majority of Messiaen’s works are purely instrumental, though who would deny the poetic power of that music? In addition, most of the relatively small number of compositions that have words are either somewhat staid (e.g., Chants de terre et de ciel (Songs of earth and heaven) (1938)), or not particularly noteworthy (the sometimes wooden libretto of the magnificent opera, Saint Francois d’Assise (1983)).

The words of Harawi and Cinq Rechants, however, are jeweled exceptions. These songs feature experimental non-narrative amalgams or accretions of, among other things, surrealistic imagery, Quechua (Peruvian Indian) and/or Sanskrit words, Tristan and Iseult concepts, made-up words, jarring juxtapositions, phonemic sounds, and the like.

Harawi is an hour-long suite of a dozen songs for a solo woman’s voice (a large soprano voice) and piano. Despite many moments of sublime melodic and beauty, none of the tunes will ever make the hit parade, or even universally embraced by fans of classical or “art” songs. Dissonance is a key composing principle, as are well as what Messiaen called “non-retrogradable rhythms,” which to my layperson’s understanding are symmetrical patterns of a kind not conducive to toe-tapping. I love these songs, but many people – forgive my presumptuousness – may not.

Harawi, of course, was written in French, so translation can only approximate the poetry, and presenting – as I am going to do here – only parts does not do justice to the whole. Still, a taste of Messiaen’s achievement with words is possible. The words of the first three songs of Harawi, for example, include such non-rational imagery as “The double of violet, to you” and “Mountain, listen to the solar confusion of dizziness.” These lyrics are poetic, obviously, but in context are but a warm up for what happens next, in the fourth song.

“Doundou tchil,” the song begins, an onomatopoeic expression that Messiaen lifted from a Quechua song that mimics the sounds made by the ankle bells of dancers. Messiaen has his singer rhythmically repeat this phrase twenty times, for about 45 seconds: very, very softly at the start, such that it is barely heard over the low octave piano notes, and then louder until it reaches an insistent gusto with the last three repetition. It’s subtle and hypnotic then riveting and jarring, similar (I hope) to how it looks right here:

doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil-doundou tchil-doundou tchil

The “doundou tchil” phrase is then used throughout the song as a sort of counterpoint to poetic images, including “Dance of the stars” and “Mirror of familiar birds.” Near the song’s middle, Messiaen drops in a phrase, which is repeated three times, that combines syllables or words from Quechua and Sanskrit words, apparently chosen more for sound than sense: Toun-gou - ma - pa - na - ma - ma - pa - ka-hi-pi-pas (or ma-hi-pi-pas). The song then ends with another twenty or so repeats of the “doundou tchil” chant, this time accompanied by a wild cascade of mixed low and high octave piano notes.

Hey, they don’t write ‘em like that anymore!

Many other songs of Harawi have lyrics that are similarly “out there.” The sixth song begins with a series of five almost shouted cries of “Ahi”(accompanied by wild bird-chatter high register piano) followed by the far calmer incantatory phrase “O mapa nama mapa nama lila, tchil repeated five times, accompanied by an almost drummed low octave piano melody. The whole set is then repeated. There then follow a number of stand-alone phrases or single words – images, really, that often are almost just whispered: “straddle a black cry, “black echo of time,” “winding staircase,” “whirlpool,” and “red star,” for example, along with sounds or single words, including “tchil,” all of which are set within driving piano runs. A series of cries, similar to those heard at the start, end the song.

The eighth song of the cycle is titled “Syllables” and that reflects the main thrust of its verbal component: onomatopoeic words and syllables are repeated again and again. This song also has a line, “The double of the violet will double,” in which Messiaen draws back an image (the doubled violet) and then expands it, suggesting the exponential growth of both a flower and a color. The eleventh song features a repeated adapted Quechua word, “katchikatchi” plus wonderful non-rational lines such as “nebulae spiral, hands of my hair,” “electrons, ants, arrows , the silence in two,” and (my favorite) “ionized laughter fury of a clock.” It’s all pretty spectacular.

The words of Cinq rechants, written for an unaccompanied twelve person mixed vocal chorus, are also compellingly poetic. One song is made up almost entirely synthetic words, seemingly made up of Sanskrit and Peruvian components but perhaps entirely invented too. One line, for example, goes, for example, “roma tama ssouka rava kâli vâli ssouka nahame kassou. Believe it or not, these words are downright catchy when paired with Messiaen’s melody and rhythms. I hear them in my head in the shower, or at grocery store, just like I hear Aretha for days when I hear her “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Speaking of poetry by letters alone, the last song of Cinq rechants has three brief sections in which only the letters “t” and “k” are spoken-sung (Messaien's score calls for the letters to be voiced (in French) “teu / keu,” which to my ears gives the passages an ornithological tint, with the sounds something like that of a bush-tit). The first section of letters, softly voiced by three bass voices, goes like this (dashes used to connote the approximate rhythm and rests):


The last such section is sung in an arrangement of counterpoint and harmony by the tenors and basses. The lines, one atop the other, can be approximated as follows (again, dashes are used to connote the approximate rhythm and rests):


These lines are an abecedarian rhythmic delight, another example of the lexical (here, phonemic) experiments in these songs.

Happy 100, Messiaen!

Sources and further resources:

Numerous recordings of Harawi and Cinq Rechants can be had, although not on a single CD, from the usual sources.

All translations quoted above are from, or largely derived from, Audrey Ekdahl Davidson, Olivier Messiaen and the Tristan Myth (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001).

The words to Cinq Rechants, in French and English (though without the alphabetic sections), can be found here.

A most excellent Messiaen biography is: Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen (Yale University Press, 2005).

The best Messiaen site on the web is maintained by Malcolm Ball -- check out the wondrous synaesthesia-inspired fractal image that's posted there now!

L’Ame en bourgeon (The Budding Soul), the book of poetry that Cecile Sauvage, Messiaen’s mother, wrote and published while pregnant with Olivier, can be found in French and English in: Christopher Dingle and Nigel Simeone, editors, Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art and Literature (Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007). This book also includes a great essay on Messiaen the bibliophile.

“They don’t write ‘em like that anymore” is a line from The Breakup Song, by the Greg Kihn Band (Beserkley Records, 1981).


John Olson said...

I was happy to find Song of Love and Death from Harawi on YouTube. The sound quality is less than ideal, but it gives an idea of what the music is like. The text is superimposed over a series of photographs. I'm guessing that is Olivier and his wife Mi walking along the railroad tracks. A friend recommends W.H. Thorpe's Bird-song: the biology of vocal communication and expression in birds. Cambridge. Univ Press, 1961. Also, Birdsong and the Origins of Music, by Matthew Head, which appeared in the 1997 issue of the Journal of the Royal Musical Association.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks for the bird-song book recommendations -- I'll check out the Thorpe for sure, and the Head article if I track down the journal.

The Harawi excerpt on YouTube is the first of the dozen songs of the cycle. The video there is of the singer and piano player, or of random folks, unfortunately not Messiaen or his wife.

Also, that first song isn't nearly as wild musically and definitely not as adventurous lyrically as many of the others in the cycle. But you are right, it does give a taste of the music.