Olivier Messiaen’s devotion to Catholicism is well-known to audiences of his music throughout the world. In nearly every composition in his oeuvre, we can find traces, if not fully fledged statements, of Catholic theology.
In addition to his theological preoccupations, Messiaen was a professional ornithologist steeped in the notation and study of birdsong from nearly every continent on Earth. In fact, he thought that birds are the greatest musicians on the planet; he was able to readily identify hundreds in France and Europe and other parts of the world by their song. His use of birdsong however, bears witness to the glorification of God in nature; the Divine is never far away in a work by Messiaen.
Another peculiarity to be found in Messiaen’s character and consequently in his music, is his emphasis on the colors of chords, sounds, and melodies, complexes of colors corresponding to complexes of sound that he sees “intellectually” when hearing music, both real and imagined. His “modes of limited transposition” and chords, therefore, are colors lacking the direction, attraction, and resolutions of classical tonality. Still, though birdsong and color vibrations are the most pronounced materials in Des canyons aux étoiles…, biblical and theological symbolism metaphorically form two transparent hands shaping the colored sounds in time.
The commission for Des canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars) was proposed by Alice Tully for Lincoln Center on the occasion of the Bicentennial of the United States. The proposal took place during a dinner to which Tully had invited Messiaen. He was prepared to turn down the offer, when Tully recounted to him the extraordinary story of how she had been invited to India by a maharajah in order to shake the paw of a lion, which she did. The story so impressed him that he accepted the commission from this unusual person.
Having accepted the commission of a work for the United States, Messiaen consulted his library and found in an art book what he decided to be the most beautiful natural environment: Bryce Canyon in Utah.
Messiaen set out in the spring of 1973 with his wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, to the canyons of Utah to record the songs of the indigenous birds and to photograph the colors of the cliffs, rocks, and landscapes.
They visited Zion, Bryce, and Cedar Breaks parks with eyes and ears open to as many perspectives as the canyons had to offer. As Messiaen related in an interview in 1978:
“I’d seen the canyons from two different perspectives. I’d seen them from on high, with the vertigo of the abyss, that’s important, one sees vast black holes against the red of the cliffs. Afterwards, my wife and I went down the trails…we made our way to the very depths of the abyss, we could see the path circling very high above us, and that is what inspired the title of the work, Des canyons aux étoiles; one progresses from the deepest bowels of the earth and ascends toward the stars.”
Apropos of this physical description and emphasis on color and natural cum spiritual perspectives, Messiaen had in mind the composition of a geological work in tribute to the canyons and the accompanying translation of the red-orange rocks into his chords and orchestration. It was also an ornithological work including birdsong, not only from the United States – particularly Utah – but also from Africa, Japan, and the Hawaiian Islands. Lastly, he wanted to compose an astronomical work. Messiaen again:
“I had to raise myself from the depth of the canyons to the beauty of the stars… Having left the canyons to climb to the stars, I had only to keep going in the same direction to raise myself up to God. So my work is at once geological, ornithological, astronomical, and theological. Despite the importance of color and birds, it’s above all a religious work of praise and contemplation.”
Des canyons aux étoiles… consists of twelve separate movements divided into a palindromic structure of 5-2-5 with a landscape from one of the Utah sites at the conclusion of each part. The titles and a brief description of each movement follows:
- I) “Le désert” (The Desert), an empty, spirtualized desert, symbol of the soul. The theme played on the horn evokes a peaceful state; birds and desert wind (performed on the Éoliphone) define the vast silence of Creation.
- II) “Les orioles” (The Orioles) This movement consists almost entirely of birdsong sounded in the solo piano and orchestra.
- III) “Ce qui est écrit sur les étoiles…” (What is written in the stars…) is the first direct reference to the astronomical plane. However, Messiaen turned to the Book of Daniel, inscribing the three words etched on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace: mene, teke, l peres, that is, “numbered, weighed, divided.” For Messiaen these words describe the order of the placement and movement of the stars in the universe.
- IV) “Le cossyphe d’Heuglin” (The White-Browed Robin) is a piano solo based on the song of this African bird.
- V) “Cedar Breaks et le don de crainté” (Cedar Breaks and the Gift of Awe) In his preface to the score, Messiaen refers to Cedar Breaks as “a vast amphitheatre, sliding down toward a deep abyss,” evoking a sense of awe at the overwhelming beauty in unspoiled nature and a symbol of the Divine Presence. This ends Part I.
- VI) “Appel interstellaire” (Interstellar Call) Part II opens with a horn solo that symbolizes both humanity’s suffering and redemption. Two texts, one from the Psalms: “He (God) heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and gives to all of them their names.” The other is from the Book of Job: “O earth, cover not my blood, and let my cry find no resting place.”
- VII) “Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange” (Bryce Canyon and the Red-Orange Rocks) This is the central movement of the work. Messiaen indulges in E major, emphasizing the color red-orange. This movement ends Part II.
- VIII) “Les ressuscités et le chant de L’étoile Aldébaran” (The Resurrected and the Song of the Star Aldebaran) Again, the book of Job furnished the inspiration: “the stars sing,” they posses their own natural sonority. The stars sing, the resurrected revolve around the stars.
- IX) “Le maquer polyglotte” (The Mockingbird) In the second long piano solo, Messiaen utilized damped strings to stress particular harmonics from tone-clusters.
- X) “La grive de bois” (The Wood-Thrush) The song of this bird is portrayed as arpeggios for piccolo, high-tuned percussion, and violin harmonics.
- XI) “Omao, Leiothrix, Elepaio, Shama” These birds from the Hawaiian Islands, China, and India form the nucleus of this ‘long symphony of birds.’
- XII) “Zion Park et la cité céleste” (Zion Park and the Celestial City) Nature and the Divine fuse in this vision of paradise. We have risen from the depths of the earthly canyon to the celestial city of Jerusalem.
The world premiere took place on November 20, 1974 at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, New York.
Steven Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.