Skip to page content

Composed: 1987-1991
Length: c. 75 minutes
Orchestration: 3 piccolos, 6 flutes, alto flute, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 E-flat clarinets, 6 clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 piccolo trumpets, 3 trumpets, 6 horns, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, contrabass tuba, percussion (bass drum, tubular bells, triangles, wind machine, woodblock, temple block, reco-reco, gongs, whip, suspended cymbals, tam-tams, crotales, glockenspiel, xylophone, xylorimba, marimba), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance

In Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà…, remarks Adès, “Messiaen hears the music that lies beyond this world.” The composer himself described the inspiration behind this mammoth work, the last he was able to complete, in an interview given a few months before his death: “I imagined myself in front of a curtain, in darkness, apprehensive about what lay beyond: Resurrection, Eternity, the other life.” In order to grasp such intimations of immortality, “I try simply to imagine what will come to pass, which I can sometimes perceive in ‘éclairs.’ I speak of course of Christ, who will be the light of the resurrected: they will shine with the light of Christ.”

Messiaen’s image for these transcendent epiphanies – éclairs – is, like the work itself, multiply allusive, suggesting the sudden flashes of a landscape lit by lightning as well as the transfiguring enlightenment attained in a mystical vision. Even though Messiaen experienced a deterioration of his health while writing Éclairs – the effort spanned nearly four years – he eagerly looked forward to participating with Zubin Mehta in rehearsals for the world premiere by the New York Philharmonic, which had commissioned the work to celebrate its 150th anniversary. This music has nothing in common with the melancholy, world-weary air of valediction that we tend to associate with final statements by an artist.

Instead of a specific, linear programmatic outline, Messiaen intercuts a diverse sweep of external allusions drawn from his lifelong fascination with the Catholic theology of St. Thomas of Aquinas, ornithology, and astronomy. The visionary aspect of the title is made more explicit in the headings and inscriptions included in the score for each of the work’s eleven movements. These include several passages from the Book of Revelation emphasizing the glorious reappearance of Christ and the fulfillment of the heavenly Jerusalem, along with excerpts from the Gospels as well as from the Old Testament; the ninth movement adds quotes from Jacques de Monléon’s commentary on the mystical meaning of Revelation.

Éclairs reviews many of the principal concerns – both extramusical ones and those that are irreducibly musical – that Messiaen explored throughout his career. The relation between the temporal and the timeless is central to his aesthetic perspective, so it follows that Messiaen expresses his Catholic faith with a slant toward the apocalyptic and visions of the afterlife. Like such earlier masterworks as the Quartet for the End of Time, the score’s most-resonant moments convey something akin to the mystic’s liberation from ordinary time and hence from the limits of the ego. Yet that doesn’t mean rejecting the reality of the visible, transitory world. Indeed, nature – on its grandest and its humblest, most intimate scale – presents a glorious reflection of the divine: hence the painstaking detail Messiaen devotes to depicting the vast array of birds whose diversity of song is a unifying musical signature throughout Éclairs.

His approach differs markedly from the stylized, picturesque representations of nature found with Classical and Romantic composers. Messiaen marries an astonishing realism (the fruit of endless hours of observation in the field) with rich symbolism. The third movement, for example, focuses exclusively on the song of the Superb Lyrebird, which he encountered during his 80th-birthday tour of Australia, and which caused him to rethink the overall plan for Éclairs. The bird’s lyre-like plumage, accompanied by its music, evoked for Messiaen “the betrothed of the Apocalypse ‘adorned for her husband’ [i.e., the holy city as the bride of Jesus],” as the composer’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, wrote in her analytical preface to Éclairs. A total of 48 individual bird species from around the globe, she points out, are represented throughout the score – “symbolizing joy and jubilation.”

In addition, Éclairs embeds a lifetime of Messiaen’s pioneering experiments with harmony and rhythm, the result of his James Campbell-like voracity to learn the secrets of classical Greek meter and Hindu and other non-Western rhythmic systems. He liked to think of a composer as a “rhythmician” bent on deploying permutations of pulse and duration to catch glimpses of eternity. The first movement, conceived as a prelude, introduces the harmonic language for the entire piece but also serves as a chorale-like procession of chords (for brass and woodwinds) that escort the listener into a state of mindfulness, leaving behind the mundane sense of patterned time. Immediately apparent, too, is Messiaen’s distinctive strategy of orchestration. The score calls for a gigantic ensemble of 128 players (including 28 woodwinds and 10 percussionists), yet each movement has a unique characteristic texture, and Messiaen uses his forces with chamber-like discretion.

The second movement (with its reference to the composer’s own star sign, Sagittarius) juxtaposes four separate strands of music, including string glissandos in harmonics (musical symbol for the galactic nebulae) and the first instance of birdsong. The contrast between the stately tread of the first part and the anarchic rhythmic freedom of the birdsong epitomizes a central dramatic feature of Éclairs. Messiaen also maps out interior symmetries between movements to create a unifying architecture. Thus the third movement – devoted to the Lyrebird alone – is mirrored by the more-diverse aviary of the ninth, both suggesting an almost scherzo-like joyousness. The first, fifth, and final movements are slow meditations, while the entire work pivots around the awe-inspiring sonorities of the lengthy eighth movement, in which the entire orchestra at last plays together.

After another dramatic overlay of different musics in the fourth movement, Messiaen arrives at the heart of Éclairs in an Adagio for divided violins, violas, and cellos – a hymn to love that is serene rather than passionate, even as it soars to a stratospheric G-sharp. The work’s most startling contrast comes in the following movement, a musical Day of Judgment conjured by relentless percussive thwacks and rhythmic cycles. In the seventh movement, a pastoral calm of ecstatic trills, horn, and solo flute represent divine compassion and restore composure before the parade of musical ideas in the eighth, with its sudden introduction of the orchestra’s lowest depths. An imposing sequence of double tritones is again offset by the blissful freedom of singing birds. The ninth movement reverts to flutes, clarinets, and percussion alone – the conductor simply cues the birds’ entrances – while the tenth refers back to many of the different types of music that have featured throughout: from the unison, plainchant-like proclamations of brass to joyful birdsong.

Messiaen rounds out Éclairs with another slow movement, scored for violins, violas, and cellos and a continual but barely audible soft rain of three triangles. Lush harmonies convey a warm, sonorous glow as the music – which is to sound “infinitely calm, and with intense expression” – offers a sustained glimpse of the composer’s final illuminations.

Thomas May is a frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.