Olivier Messiaen: Musical Rhetoric in "Visions de l’Amen, Amen de la Création”




Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for two pianos, first premiered in 1943, is aesthetically similar to better known pieces from Messiaen's mid-20th century oeuvre, such as Quatour pour la fin du temps, premiered only a two years prior in 1941. The use of ostinato, repetition, and slight variation is highly prevalent during this compositional period, and naturally finds its way into the musical language of Vision de l’Amen. In these works, Messiaen makes extensive use of isorhythmic sequences paired with quartal harmonic/melodic pitch collections to communicate his music's formal unity. While dissonant quartal harmonies and complex isorhythms underpin the music's form, lyrically accessible diatonic melodic pitch collections guide the listener through the dramatic arch of the music. Through isorhythm, ostinato, fixed pitch relationships, and lyrical melodic progression, Messiaen is able to imbue his music with a comprehensible musical rhetoric, creating a harmonically and rhythmically complex yet formally communicative music.


In the first movement of Visions de l’Amen, Messiaen initiates a systematic approach to composition, which he carries through the entire work. This system utilizes two pianos to highlight the piece's fundamental dualism: form and progression. Often confined to its upper register, Piano I functions for many of the movements, and particularly in the first movement “Amen de la Création,” as the formal organizer of the music. In the upper piano Messiaen places his overlapping isorhythms, utilizing sequences of non-retrogradable rhythms with repetitive descending quartal harmonies. Contrastingly, Piano II is mostly confined to its lower register, frequently (exclusively in the first movement) given the narrative momentum of the melodic materials. While the isorhythms in Piano I provide a skeleton upon which to develop musical materials, the melodic content of Piano II provides the dramatic plane upon which the music may be developed.


Piano II is both a rhythmic and melodic ostinato. While each hand has an independent rhythmic structure, each line is derived from the same musical material. Refer to Figure 1 and notice Messiaen's four basic rhythmic ideas a, b, c, and d. Each rhythmic cell consists of a long tone followed by a tone that is half the first's value followed then by the original duration. Rhythmic cells a, b, and c are directly related to the long-short-long pattern. Cell d is not directly correlated to a, b, or c; rather, it is an additive derivation of them. The added rhythmic values (in brackets) are ¼ the values of c, creating a new yet similar rhythmic pallet. Rhythmic cell e is a freely composed non-retrogradable rhythm which Messiaen employs to add variation to the overlapping isorhythms.


Having determined the rhythmic cells, Messiaen assigns them a specified registral position and order. While the right hand of Piano I uses only rhythmic cells a and b, the left hand only uses cells c, d, and e. The fixed and off-set sequence of these cells in each hand creates a rhythmically rich ostinato upon which Messiaen develops his melodic materials.



Figure 1: “Amen de la Creation” – Messiaen’s Rhythmic Pedals



Messiaen also employs a non-coinciding isomelic sequence of pitch collections over the isorhythmic materials. His melodic/harmonic sequence consists of three descending quartal trichords in each hand, each a transposition of pitch-class (016). Refer to Figure 2. Messiaen generates each successive trichord from the previous through a transpositional process. Furthermore, he derives the lower set of three trichords from the upper by a tritone transposition. Both the relation between the trichord sets and the pitches within the trichords themselves demonstrate Messiaen’s heavy use of the tritone as a foundational musical element - a common melodic, harmonic, and structural device throughout Messiaen’s oeuvre. The isorhythmic overlapping of the melodic/harmonic material (color) and rhythmic sequences (talea) provide “Amen de la Creation” with its formal skeleton. When one traces the sequences, the form of this piece becomes very clear.


Figure 2: “Amen de la Creation” – Messiaen’s Ostinato Collections




The rhythmic cell sequence for the right and left hand of Piano I is as follows (Note: Messiaen provides some free rhythmic material in this sequence, which allows further rhythmic interest, eliding our expectations. This material is simply the respective trichords in even eighth note descents. All three-chord groups of free material are labeled as “f” with its corresponding number of iterations).


Right Hand:

ab-f(x3 & 1/3) ab-f(x3 & 1/3) ab-f(x14 & 2/3) ab (pause) 29 & 1/3 cycles of trichord groups

ab-f(x3 & 1/3) ab-f(x3 & 1/3) ab-f(x14 & 2/3) ab (pause) 29 & 1/3 cycles of trichord groups

ab-f(x3 & 1/3) ab-f(x3 & 1/3) ab-f(x14 & 2/3) ab (end) 29 & 1/3 cycles of trichord groups

Total of three compound talea cycles Total of 78 cycles of color


Left Hand:

cdcde cdcde cdcde cdcde cdcde cd (end) 10 & 1/3 trichords groups each talea


Notice that the end of the right-hand talea and color coincide with physiological ends within the movement. The first section ends on the first trichord of the color; the second section ends on the second trichord of the color; and the third section ends on the final trichord of the color, completing the isorhythmic cycle after 38.5 measures of 4/4 time.


In the left hand, every three statements of the rhythmic talea align with 33 statements of the color to create a cyclic close. It takes three cycles of talea to make an even 33 cycles of the color in the left hand. The consequence of this is that the isorhythm in the left hand is left incomplete at the end of the piece. While the right hand has completed its cycle by its final measure, we conclude on the left hand's first, rather than last, trichord. This allows the piece to remain open-ended, propelling the work into the next movement. In fact, the last sonority by any of the piano voices in this movement is the “hanging” trichord of the left hand, necessitating further development.


While Piano I provides the piece with rhythmic momentum and form, Piano II, supposedly played by Messiaen himself at the piece’s premiere, provides the listener with an accessible and dramatic melody, giving the music narrative drive. Without Piano II, the piece might sound like an exercise in rhythmic dexterity and harmonic confusion, producing little more than a static soundscape. However, with the addition of the low and sonorous tones of the second piano, which ground the light and floating textures of the first piano, the piece gains melodic and timbral dynamism.


The melody expounded by Piano II, in contrast to the first piano's material, is highly diatonic and harmonious, utilizing almost exclusively major and minor triads as harmonic foundations to a mostly Mixolydian melody (see Figure 3 and 4). Figure 3 outlines the phrase and pitch skeleton of this melody. Variation processes give aural coherence to Messiaen's melody. While the isorhythm of Piano I creates a peripheral soundscape, requiring little development, the melody of Piano II is foreground drama of this movement, suggesting a necessary development and expansion of this idea.



Figure 3: “Amen de la Creation” – Theme of Creation (Outline)

Figure 4: “Amen de la Creation” – Messiaen’s Melodic Mode



Messiaen first allows the melody to repeat three times, each time heightening the music's drama by raising the melodic register by an octave and providing it with more harmonic support. Beginning as a low rumble, an octave below the bass clef, it climbs upward, with successive statements in the bottom bass and middle treble clefs. The second time, in measure 9, Messiaen transposes the melody to the bottom of the bass staff. The third time, the melody climbs into the middle of the treble staff. After the third iteration of the melody's beginning, which has blossomed into musical fullness, Messiaen departs, introducing the second melodic idea in measure 25. Here, Messiaen transitions from an A-E to an E-B tonal centricity – a clear reference to the traditional tonic-dominant shift in classical forms. This shift remains unresolved, come the end of the movement, only finding resolution in the final movement, which returns to and ends on A.


As one can see in Figure 3, the second half of the melody utilizes various processes of Messiaen's rhythmic language, such as addition, subtraction, and fragmentation. Furthermore, Messiaen begins from a small melodic cell and derives each proceeding melodic fragment on this initial cell. Both rhythmically and melodically, Messiaen uses generative processes to not only provide musical coherence but also musical material itself.


Visions de l’Amen, along with many of Messiaen’s works, concern itself with generative processes. The use of small rhythmic or melodic ideas in various and perhaps endless combinations is a hallmark of Messiaen. The coherence his music offers through its formal organization allows Messiaen to be adventurous in other musical realms, such as harmony and rhythm. Perhaps it is because of his generative process that Messiaen is able to create music of such novel complexity both rhythmically and harmonically while still achieving a communicatcble musical rhetoric.


The large and small repetitions create a musical language that allows the listener to acquire the language as they listen. Perhaps this is why composers like Schoenberg, who adamantly campaigned against repetition in music, have not found as much wide-spread popularity as Messiaen. A listener confronted with Schoenberg and no knowledge of the 12-tone system has little to grasp hold of. The music constantly undulates and develops, one moment hardly ever returning to the prior. Schoenberg himself writes about his musical aesthetic, saying he "[employs] constant variations, hardly every [repeating] anything unaltered, [jumping] quickly to the remoter stages of development." Furthermore, Schoenberg "[takes] for granted that the educated listener is able to discover the intervening stages for himself." Messiaen seeks the antithesis of Schoenberg's obscurity in his music. He creates a complex language out of very simple and individually understandable materials. He then presents his language in a rhetorical form of reinforcement, re-utterance, and return, which allows one to reflect on what has past and what will probably come again, while absorbing the essence of the discourse, as it happens.


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- Jordan Alexander Key -

Composer, Musicologist, Organist, Bagpiper

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