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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)
Richard Taruskin

Messiaen named and described his “modes of limited transposition” for the first time in 1935 in the preface to La nativité du Seigneur (“The nativity of our lord”), a book of nine “meditations” for organ on passages from sacred texts, to be played during the celebration of Mass. Only the name that Messiaen gave his “modes” was new. The concept had been familiar as such for almost a century, ever since Liszt had made his first systematic experiments with symmetrical cycles of thirds and scales derived from them. Messiaen had in good scholastic fashion merely carried the process of systematization, begun by Liszt and already maximalized by Scriabin, to the point of theoretical exhaustion.

“Of limited transposition” was Messiaen’s term for invariance; it refers to the property certain pitch configurations have of replicating themselves when transposed by certain intervals. The one we have most recently been concerned with, thanks to Scriabin, has been the French sixth chord, which retains its pitches when transposed by a tritone. We also know that the French sixth chord can be embedded in two scales that share its properties of invariance: the whole-tone scale, which retains its pitches when transposed by any of its constituent intervals (thus being, except for the untransposable chromatic scale, the mode of most stringently limited transposition), and the octatonic scale, which retains its pitches when transposed by every alternating interval in its makeup (that is, by the minor third, the tritone, or the major sixth). These scales being the most firmly established modes of limited transposition, they are naturally enough the first and the second mode in Messiaen’s classification, and the ones most frequently used by far, even by him.

Messiaen, with his scholarly bent, was well aware of the historical precedents for the use of these scales. Any French musician would have associated the whole-tone scale with Debussy (and with Dukas, Messiaen’s teacher); but Messiaen also knew, as did few others at the time, that the octatonic scale was the special predilection of Russian composers—Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Stravinsky—and of Ravel, whose Russian affinities were common knowledge but rarely described so cogently in terms of actual technique. It is clear that Messiaen was an unusually perceptive music analyst, which not only enabled him to rationalize and describe his own techniques with remarkable detachment, but also gave him, in the words of grateful former students, clairvoyant insight into the half-formed methods they were groping toward in their own compositions. They thus acquired from Messiaen technical facility without it necessarily entailing dependence on his own methods.

Ex. 4-23 shows Messiaen’s seven modes of limited transposition as ingeniously arranged by the British music analyst Anthony Pople into a chart that indicates their interrelationships: to wit, that mode 1 is included in modes 3 and 6; mode five in modes 6 and 4; and modes 2, 4, and 6 (hence 1 and 5 as well) in mode 7, the largest of the lot.24 The reason why modes 1 and 2 are the most useful modes of limited transposition is simply that they are the most limited. Mode 1 can be transposed only once without replicating itself and mode 2 can be transposed only twice. Mode 3, which could be likened to a whole-tone scale with every other interval broken into two half steps, can be transposed without invariance three times. The rest have only one transposition (inevitably it is the tritone) at which replication takes place, leaving five or more available transpositions. As Messiaen puts it, the more limited a mode’s potential for transposition the more “strangely charming” it is, since it is “at once in the atmosphere of several tonalities, yet not polytonal, the composer being free to give predominance to one of the tonalities or to leave the tonal impression unsettled.”25

“The Charm of Impossibilities”

ex. 4-23 The modes of limited transposition

“The Charm of Impossibilities”

fig. 4-4 Magister Lambertus, illumination from Liber floridus (Flemish, fifteenth century) showing the three trumpets of the Apocalypse: (1) hail, fire, and blood; (2) the mountain hurled into the sea; (3) the flaming star.

Example 4-24 shows a passage from another organ work of Messiaen’s—Les corps glorieux (“Glorious bodies”, 1939), a set of “seven brief glimpses of resurrected life”—in which the modes of limited transposition are deployed in Messiaen’s most typical manner. It is the beginning of the second piece in the set, Les eaux de la grâce (“Waters of grace”), which carries an epigraph from the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament: “The Lamb [i.e., Christ], who is at the heart of the throne, will be their shepherd and will guide them to the springs of the water of life.” Like most organ music, the piece is notated on three staves: one for each hand at the keyboards, the third for the feet at the pedals. The three levels thus distinguished are rigorously differentiated by mode. Easiest to spot is the whole-tone scale (that is, “mode 1”) in the pedal part. Less obvious is the confinement of the right hand part to mode 2, what up to now we have called the octatonic scale. Partly it is the orthography—the note-spelling—that occludes it. Comparison with Ex. 4-23 will show that Messiaen has adhered strictly to the mode 2 orthography given there, using only sharps to represent the “black keys.” Thus the status of the first chord in the right-hand part as a familiar B♭-major triad may not be immediately apparent. But in fact all the chords in the right hand are major triads (or to be really fastidious, homologous to major triads), with roots—G, B♭, C♯, E—that lie along a familiar symmetrical track, the /0 3 6 9/ circle of minor thirds.

“The Charm of Impossibilities”

ex. 4-24 Olivier Messiaen, Les corps glorieux, no. 2 (Les eaux de la grace), mm. 1–8

The left-hand line belongs to mode 7, the ten-note collection, which at this particular transposition consists of the other two modes combined. As must necessarily be the case, the two notes not present in the scale (C and F♯) lie a tritone apart. The C is withheld for the duration of the piece; the F♯ makes an occasional appearance (in mm. 4, 6, and 8 within the confines of Ex. 4-24), but its inconspicuous rhythmic placement and its conjunct melodic behavior identify it as a “nonharmonic” tone, apparently allowed in for the same reason nonharmonic tones are used in ordinary tonal harmony, for the sake of smooth voice leading.

There are four points of intersection—F, G, B, and D♭C♯—between the mode 1 and mode 2 scales. One of these, G, is the root of the sustained chord that finishes each phrase in the right hand. Does that make G the tonic of the piece? It would be hard to justify such a conclusion, given the fact that the note G never coincides in the pedal part with the right-hand concluding chords. Instead, at these points there is a perhaps equally decisive cadential descent in the pedal to A. And the middle voice—the mediator, so to speak—emphasizes on every downbeat major thirds that correspond to every apparent root in the right-hand part except the G.

So no clear sense of pitch priority emerges from the texture. Instead there are three clearly defined but functionally inchoate tonal planes—polymodality, so to speak, in place of polytonality. The modal overload, plus the apparent carelessness of dissonance in Messiaen’s contrapuntal scheme, are two aspects of his maximalism (over Scriabin, let us say). In fact both aspects are more “maximal” than the look of the score conveys, for Messiaen employs the organ “registration” (the actual deployment of the organ pipes in relation to the keys and pedals, as regulated by hand levers, or “stops”) to complicate both the texture and the pitch content of the sounding music.

The pedal part is “registered” to sound an octave higher than played, so that the fast-moving left-hand part is the true bass. But that very part is so registered (by a stop called “Nazard et Tierce”) as to produce full triads on every note, the fifth and the third sounding softly in a register two octaves higher than that of the written note. “The general quality,” in the aptly metaphorical words of John Milsom, a British scholar, “is of a bright triadic halo hovering over each notated pitch.”26 All of this, perhaps needless to say, will be quite disorienting to anyone attempting to follow a performance of the piece from the score, and even to the player. And the “halos” produce an ineffable harmonic smudge that seems to contradict all the meticulous modal planning we have been considering. Recalling Scriabin, it is hard not to see these effects of disorientation and “analytical frustration” as part of the very point of the music.

Nor are such effects confined to the pitch domain. Another characteristic Messiaenic touch is the way he keeps the meter of the music as indefinite as its tonal orientation. Not only the number of beats per measure, but also the length of the beats themselves, is unpredictably variable. The variable lengths come about by the interpolation, in every other bar, of an extra sixteenth-note that lengthens one of the eighth-note pulses to a dotted eighth. This device—Messiaen calls it simply the “added value”—is one of the principal topics addressed in Technique de mon langage musical. He attributes it, perhaps significantly, to the music (or at least to the music theory) of India, a land that exerted a crucial influence, though not technically a musical one, on Scriabin as well.

Also Indian in origin, Messiaen assures his readers, is the other technical device with which his name is chiefly associated, that of “nonretrogradable rhythm.” The term means nothing more than a rhythmic palindrome: an arrangement of note values that reads the same both forward and backward. One arranges such a thing most easily by working outward from a midpoint. Messiaen called the midpoint the “free value” or the “central common value.” Functionally speaking, of course, it is an axis of symmetry. Ex. 4-25, taken from Technique de mon langage musical, consists of a lengthy melody in which each measure is cast as a rhythmic palindrome. The first and last measures have identical (nonretrogradable) rhythms as well, and the third and fourth measures from the end are rhythmically identical, adding extra (or, more precisely, inner) dimensions of self-reversability to the symmetry of the whole.

“The Charm of Impossibilities”

ex. 4-25 Olivier Messiaen, Technique de mon langage musical, example 33

Putting the two axes of symmetry together, the harmonic axis represented by the modes of limited transposition and the temporal axis represented by the nonretrogradable rhythms, allows the coordination of the vertical (spatial) and horizontal (temporal) dimensions in dual representation of invariance = constancy = immutability = eternity. That is the time-transcending truth that religion reveals through music, its handmaiden, in Messiaen’s esthetic universe. And that, Messiaen explicitly informs the reader, is the source of his mysterious hold on the listener. “Let us think now of the hearer of our modal and rhythmic music,” he writes, in a passage to which Scriabin might gladly have subscribed:

He will not have time at the concert to inspect the nontranspositions and the nonretrogradations, and, at that moment, these questions will not interest him further; to be charmed will be his only desire. And that is precisely what will happen; in spite of himself he will submit to the strange charm of impossibilities: a certain effect of tonal ubiquity in the nontransposition, a certain unity of movement (where beginning and end are confused because identical) in the nonretrogradation, all things which will lead him progressively to that sort of theological rainbow which the musical language, of which we seek edification and theory, attempts to be.27


(24) Anthony Pople, “Messiaen’s Musical Language: An Introduction,” in The Messiaen Companion, ed. Peter Hill (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1995), p. 21.

(25) Olivier Messiaen, The Technique of My Musical Language (1944), trans. John Satterfield (Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1956), Vol. I, p. 58.

(26) John Milsom, “Organ Music I,” The Messiaen Companion, p. 55.

(27) Messiaen, Technique, p. 21.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004010.xml