by John Phillips
It has been a full and complete week at WASBE 2011. Notwithstanding the wonderful concerts, the opportunity to indulge in scholarly discourse on new and familiar areas of research is welcome among many delegates. In the first research session of the conference, Jon Mitchell shared his insights on Holst’s Second Suite, unveiling original material in a key most are unaccustomed to, F minor. It is a rather large leap from the sonic identity of Holst to the music of Olivier Messiaen. Or is it? Thanks to Dr. Colleen Richardson, Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, participants in the final research session of the week gleaned a number of insights into Messiaen’s work that may assist in making his music as accessible as Holst’s Suite.
Presenting a highly detailed and structured analysis of Couleurs de la Cite Celeste (Colors of the Celestial City), Dr. Richardson provided a lens through which to examine Messiaen’s music, revealing a number of characteristics prominent not only in this work but others as well. Knowing some of the inspiration behind Messiaen’s compositional style is a starting point in appreciating the complexity of his craftsmanship.
Written in 1963 and premiered in 1964 under the baton of Pierre Boulez, Celestial City features four prominent compositional characteristics according to Dr. Richardson. Nature, specifically birdsong, is perhaps the primary influence on this work. Messiaen believed that “Birds are the greatest musicians on our planet.” Colour is another source of inspiration and underscores the entire sonic environment within the piece. In particular, the composer’s interest in spirituality and his affinity to the Catholic Church with its iconic stained glass windows can be considered another point of origin. Colour is further consequential through the use of plainchant, specifically using five quotations from the Apocalypse: Revelations IV, 3; Revelations VIII,6; Revelations IX,1; Revelations XXI,11; and Revelations XXI,19-20. On this point, Richardson’s research presents a blueprint aligning thematic material based on various Alleluias from the religious calendar that are embedded in the Messiaen’s source material. In addition, we learn how the composer underpins many of these tonal aspects with his interest in Hindu Rhythms.
The content of the presentation was no doubt a bit daunting for some, myself included. However, upon reflection, Richardson’s thorough analysis helps one come to terms with the overarching characteristics of form in this work. As Dr. Richardson acknowledged several times during her presentation, the music is not for the casual listener and determining the structure by means of salient features is not possible. In order for the emotional and aesthetic elements of Messiaen’s creative design to take root among an audience, one must have some understanding of the structural features and intellectual understandings of the composition. To this end, Dr. Richardson’s formal analysis was most successful in highlighting the complexity and artistic scope of Couleurs de la Cite Celeste.