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About this Piece

Composed: 1972-1974
Length: c. 90 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, alto flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, percussion, strings

In April 1972, Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod, composer and pianist, husband and wife, walked the exquisite and formidable landscapes of Utah and Arizona – Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks, and Zion Park. He listened intently to birdsong and transcribed the melodies in his notebooks.

They gazed in awe, which the devout Catholic composer would associate with one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the “Gift of Awe.” At Cedar Breaks the composer regarded the “wild and colorful beauty – a vast amphitheater plunging into a deep gorge.” He scribbled in his notebook the words “immense solitude.”

Messiaen had received a commission from art patron Alice Tully to write a new work to commemorate the United States bicentennial. Rather than read Jefferson or De Toqueville or travel to Valley Forge, the French composer chose to see with his own eyes parts of the southwestern landscape he had only seen in photographs – especially Bryce Canyon, which he envisioned as the most beautiful place on the planet. He traveled to the American West to absorb its earthly messengers of song and the natural cathedrals in which they sang.

From the Canyons to the Stars,” Messiaen wrote, “that is to say, ascending from the canyons to the stars – and higher, to the resurrected in Paradise – in order to glorify God and all His creations. The beauties of the earth (its rocks and birdsong), and the beauties of the physical sky and the spiritual sky. Consequently, it is above all a religious work, a work of praise and contemplation. It is also a geological and astronomical work. The sound-colors include all the hues of the rainbow and revolve around the blue of the Stellar’s Jay and the red of Bryce Canyon. The majority of the birds are from Utah and the Hawaiian Islands. Heaven is symbolized by Zion Park and the star Aldebaran.”


- Part 1 -

Le désert (The desert)
The horn’s solo voice sings across vast spaces. The desert is empty for the soul to be filled. A flitter of birdsong answers from the piano, and wind accompanies. A piccolo tests the air – frail voices at the Creation.

Les orioles (The orioles)
The xylophone and piano sing to each other because Messiaen’s universe is made of song.

Ce qui est écrit sur les étoiles… (That which is written in the stars…)
To read the stars is to seek meaning in the night sky and to believe that these are signs. The stars may be deciphered like oracles speaking in code. In these desert places, the artist Deborah O’Grady told me, you don’t see the birds, but the air is filled with their sounds. The invisible is mysterious, ominous, as is the spirit – and music offers the hint of their existence. Chords sparkle and give way to wind. Messiaen included words from the Book of Daniel in the score for this movement, words inscribed on a wall of Belshazzar’s palace: mene, tekel, upharsin, i.e. numbered, weighed, divided. This is Messiaen’s conception of the patterning and movement of the stars, which the composer translated musically as “an alphabet of sonorities and durations of fixed harmonies.”

Le cossyphe d’Heuglin (The white-browed robin-chat)
The piano sings a jazz tune like a bird of southeast Africa.

Cedar Breaks et le don de crainte (Cedar Breaks and the gift of awe)
The place of “wild and colorful beauty” and “plunging gorge” and “immense solitude.” The Clark’s nutcracker, robins, and hawks pierce the air. The sounds verge on the comical – a brass mouthpiece whirrs as a child would play it – but then vast deep chords appear, and an alarming precipice is revealed. Even in this exposed and open landscape gongs and cymbals suggest that there is an architecture to the earth and sky, a temple made for sound and reverence, its walls painted with long, bold brushstrokes contrasted with drips and drops of color. The gift of awe is the fearsome gift of the Divine Presence.

- Part 2 -

Appel interstellaire (Interstellar call)
The horn sings of the suffering and redemption of humankind. It offers up all it contains, all its colors, tones, bleeps, blaps, stopped trills, flutter tongues, oscillations. Messiaen offers two texts, from Psalms and Job respectively: “He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and gives to all of them their names.” “O earth, cover not my blood, and let my cry find no resting place.”

Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange (Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks)
Messiaen was synesthetic – he heard colors and saw sounds. He sees red and hears red, and red is E major. Messiaen could not resist the technicolor chords. The chamber ensemble plays to the stars. End in shimmer.

- Part 3 -

Les ressuscités et le chant de l’étoile Aldébaran (The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran)
We are risen. To the stars. With soundglitter. Raiments of sound. Silences broaden, but these are neither pensive nor ponderous. Silence is the sound of limitless space, bracketed by calm, rapturous chords – the ether given holy-ghost substance. In these silences we may hear our breaths, our minds, our hearts – the substance of souls adrift.

Le moqueur polyglotte (The mockingbird)
The piano speaks in multiple tongues. It starts and stops and stuttersteps. Even if Thelonious Monk were playing this in a smoky basement nightclub you would have a feeling of great open spaces.

La grive des bois (The Wood Thrush)
It sings its crooked song of piccolo arpeggios secure in the brambles of the strings’ harmonics.

Omao, leiothrix, elepaio, shama
Brass break out into melody, seeming to awaken these birds of Hawaii, China, and India.

Zion Park et la cité céleste (Zion Park and the celestial city)
The finale, in which, in Messiaen’s words: “The bells ring out heralding the ultimate joy.” The movement teases its way toward a radiant A major, progressing, resisting, again, again, until the celestial clock rings time, or no time – the chord sounds of no beginning and no ending, Jerusalem eternal. The bird chorus gathers. The brass sing out. The strings draw an ineluctable line.

Eddie Silva is the External Affairs and Publications Manager for the St. Louis Symphony.