We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Early Twentieth Century


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

In language that seems as if borrowed from the Russian mystical symbolists who inspired (and were inspired by) Scriabin, Messiaen writes that one of his primary aims in composing as he does is “l’atrophie du moi”—the atrophy, or wasting away, of the “I,” the petty self. It will not be difficult to discover in his musical methods (to quote the English composer Wilfrid Mellers, one of Messiaen’s most sympathetic critics) the means toward the “complete reversal of the will-domination of post-Renaissance Europe.”28 One aspect of this reversal was simply and literally the revival of pre-Renaissance practices long since considered obsolete by musicians caught up in the flux of history.

Many of the rhythmic techniques Messiaen describes in his self-analyzing treatise of 1944—canons by augmentation, by diminution, by “the addition of the dot”—were common during the ars nova of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the heyday of “mensural notation,” as was the idea of organizing musical structures around what Messiaen called “rhythmic pedals,” durational plans that could be mentally conceptualized but not followed perceptually (that is, sensorially) during performance. Messiaen, who claimed to have been ignorant of it at the time, had in effect revived the concept of the isorhythmic motet, and for the same purpose the original medieval practice had served: to represent (and in some small measure render present to human understanding) the divine eternal harmony of the cosmos, a harmony that expressed itself precisely in the coordinated movement of heavenly bodies in seemingly independent orbits.

Rhythmic pedals (talea in Latin, tala in Sanskrit) were the chief medieval means for representing cosmic harmony. And at the same time they provided a genuine meeting point between time-honored European (in fact, French) and Indian musical practices. But Messiaen also revived the other aspect of medieval isorhythm, namely the abstractly conceived melodic ostinato or color. Ex. 4-25 embodies a hidden sequence of 16 pitches that is repeated four times (or almost, since the last repetition ends two notes short of completion). One discovers it with delighted surprise.

But of course it was never hidden at all. It was right on the surface, but too big—that is, too great—for immediate detection. Like the truths of astronomy and many other scientific truths (as well, needless to say, as religious truths), it is the sort of fact that reflective intellect reveals sooner than the senses. Putting such a thing into an artwork is an implicit warning against assuming that true knowledge can only be gained empirically. The highest truths, Messiaen’s music implies, are revealed truths. Theology was truth. Anything beyond that, Messiaen implied along with countless theologians, was mere history. Take that, Hegel, and all who followed.

And yet while the truths may be transcendent, the means of representation (the work, after all, of mortals) are inevitably historical, the product of the fleeting moment. Messiaen’s music does not sound like a medieval motet. His ear, like the ears he addresses, has been otherwise conditioned. His “musical language” confronted and accommodated the musical styles of its time in an openly omnivorous and opportunistic spirit, even as it sought to extend them in the spirit of maximalism. And that is why his work has been so useful as a model to many composers who not only failed to share his religious commitments, but were hopelessly caught up in “patent-office maximalism,” something Messiaen outwardly decried as the rat-race of historicism, and yet something in which he was willy-nilly a participant, and a very successful one at that.

A kind of summa or compendium of the practices cataloged in Technique de mon langage musical was the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the end of time,” 1940–41), for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano, written during Messiaen’s brief confinement in a stalag (German prisoner-of-war-camp) in the early stages of World War II, and first performed there by the composer and the three other camp inmates for whom it was written. The title, of course, is another reference to the Apocalypse, Messiaen’s eternal subject, and the work is prefaced by another epigraph from the Book of Revelation (10:5–6):

Then the angel that I saw standing on the sea and the land raised his right hand to heaven and swore by Him who lives for ever and ever, who created heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them: “There shall be no more time; when the seventh angel shall sound his trumpet, the hidden purpose of God will have been fulfilled, as he promised to his servants the prophets.”

Ex. 4-25 above, though taken from Messiaen’s 1944 treatise, was in fact a quotation from the Quartet’s dénouement: the sixth movement, a thunderous monody for all four instruments in unison called “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes” (“Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets”), a sort of speculative transcription of the apocalyptic angelic call. We have already observed some of its “timeless” qualities. The Quartet’s first movement, “Liturgie de cristal” is an evocation of prophecy. The piano part is organized isorhythmically throughout: that is, its pitch and rhythmic contents are organized in two independent repeating cycles. The rhythmic cycle, a pattern of seventeen durations, is taken (indirectly) from a thirteenth-century Sanskrit treatise by the Hindustani musician Sharngadeva, whose table of talas Messiaen found reprinted in a standard French reference source, Lavignac’s Encyclopédie de la musique et dictionnaire du conservatoire.

The pitch cycle consists of a series of twenty-nine chords that overlaps the rhythmic cycle just as the color of an isorhythmic motet overlapped its talea. Ex. 4-26 contains enough of the piece to permit the identification of both cycles. It was surely no accident that Messiaen selected for his pitch cycle another prime number to go with Sharngadeva’s seventeen, since that insured that the beginnings of the patterns would coincide neither with one another nor with any recurrent downbeat (at least until the 493rd repetition, unlikely to occur within the confines of a given piece). Their hidden conjunction, impossible to detect by ear, was already an intimation of eternity. The sounding piece is merely a sample of its infinite expanse.

So Old It’s NewSo Old It’s New

ex. 4-26 Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps, I (“Liturgie de cristal”), mm. 1–12

Above the isorhythmic piano part, the cello contributes a line, played entirely in ethereal artificial harmonics (“flageolets,” or flute tones, in French), that takes the form of a five-note melodic ostinato organized into patterns that display the “charm of impossibilities” in two dimensions. Its pitches are confined to the first mode of limited transposition (a.k.a. the whole-tone scale), and its durations are cast in a recurring series that is palindromic (or “nonretrogradable”) along two axes of symmetry (that is, from two midpoints), as shown in Ex. 4-27.

This, too, may be corroborated in Ex. 4-26 by noting the reversed recurrence of note values in the cello around the dotted quarter at the beginning of m. 9. The remaining parts, for clarinet (heard alone at the outset) and violin, are marked “comme un oiseau” (like a bird), and imitate actual birdsong: according to the preface to the score, the clarinet is a blackbird, the violin a nightingale, two birds that sing at dawn, thus adding another level of metaphor to the musical message. (Ornithological life-drawing would become an obsession for Messiaen in the 1950s, culminating in a massive cycle of piano compositions called Catalogue d’oiseaux, “Catalog of birds.”) These parts participate less than the others in Messiaen’s games of symmetry and invariance. The notes of the violin part may be referred to “mode 7,” the largest (ten-note) scale of limited transposition, but with a pitch collection that big, “referability” may be a happenstance. The clarinet part partakes of the full chromatic gamut—the ultimate mode of limited transposition, it may be tautologically argued, since it cannot be transposed at all; but Messiaen did not so regard it.

So Old It’s New

ex. 4-27 Analysis of Olivier Messiaen’s rhythmic palindromes

Yet these “free” parts, constrained not by systematic theory but by nature, are the most obvious symbols of revelation, for birds have been thought of as prophets, or as direct emanations from the Godhead, since ancient times and in many cultures. Recall the dove that whispered the divine chant to Pope Gregory the Great according to the tradition that arose in conjunction with the earliest musical notations. Recall Wagner’s Forest Bird who revealed the secrets of the gods to Siegfried, or Schumann’s Prophet Bird, both of them figments of German folklore. Russian folklore has its ornithological prophets as well, as we know from Stravinsky’s Firebird, and Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy tale that casts the nightingale in the role of Orpheus, the divine musician. Messiaen’s apocalyptic birds have a distinguished Romantic lineage.


(28) Wilfrid Mellers, “Mysticism and Theology,” in The Messiaen Companion, p. 228.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004011.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004011.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004011.xml