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Messiaen and the romantic gesture: Contemplations on his piano music and pianism

Rae, Caroline ORCID: 2013. Messiaen and the romantic gesture: Contemplations on his piano music and pianism. Dingle, Christopher and Fallon, Robert, eds. Messiaen perspectives 1: Sources and influences, Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 235-256.

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‘I’m not ashamed of being a romantic’, declared Messiaen in his conversations with Claude Samuel. ‘The romantics were magnificent craftsmen […]. They were aware of the beauties of nature, they were aware of the glory of divinity; they were grandiose, and many of our contemporaries would be better off if they “romanticised” themselves’. While Messiaen made these statements in the context of his organ music, pointing out that accusations of romanticism had been levied against his works as a negative criticism, much of his music for piano bears witness to these traits. Revealing his own meticulous craftsmanship through a wide range of innovative compositional procedures, the gargantuan cycles Visions de l’Amen, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus and Catalogue d’oiseaux pronounce his affirmation of faith while celebrating awe of the divine through God’s presence in nature and the cosmos. Among the most substantial and significant contributions to the literature by any composer of the twentieth century, Messiaen’s works for piano explore new techniques and sonorities while making colossal musical and intellectual demands on even the most accomplished virtuoso performer. Yet, these works also reveal indebtedness to the past. Messiaen’s writing for piano was built on a pianistic foundation inspired not only by the outstanding abilities of Yvonne Loriod for whom most of his piano works were composed, but also by a deep appreciation of a virtuoso tradition that he described as stemming from Rameau and Scarlatti, extending to Mozart and Chopin and culminating in Debussy, Ravel and Albéniz. While Messiaen avoids mentioning Liszt no doubt for reasons of aesthetic alignment (his flag was otherwise nailed firmly to the Berlioz mast), this giant of nineteenth century pianism was a great admirer of Chopin as well as a major influence on the development of pianistic language in Ravel and Albéniz, and to some extent Debussy. While Messiaen claimed Chopin and Albéniz as important sources for his approach to the technicalities of piano writing, and used their works as study tools in his Analysis classes at the Paris Conservatoire, the influence of Liszt can also be found in his own piano music, not least in his highly orchestral approach to the construction of powerful, climaxes. Underlining the interconnectedness of these sources, this pantheon of keyboard composers also represents a tradition in which Loriod herself was immersed, as evidenced by her recital programmes and recordings of works by composers other than Messiaen, and upon which her own substantial technique was founded as a product of her performer’s training at the Paris Conservatoire. This essay will investigate the ways in which Messiaen acknowledged romantic tradition through the incorporation of pianistic gestures and figurations characteristic of Chopin, Liszt and Albéniz in his writing for piano. Exploring the physicality of Messiaen’s pianism as a tactile reference to his predecessors, examples will be considered from a range of the composer’s works including Visions de l’Amen, Vingt Regards, Cantéyodjayà and Catalogue d’oiseaux. In addition to brilliance of virtuosity and athleticism, specific issues relating to the use of arpeggiations, fingering patterns, orchestral juxtaposition of register, leaps, octaves, contrary motion, the creation of textural density and power through chordal figurations, hand alternation and tremolando will be examined in relation to their romantic precedents.

Item Type: Book Section
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Music
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
M Music and Books on Music > ML Literature of music
Publisher: Ashgate
ISBN: 9781409426950
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Last Modified: 21 Oct 2022 10:00

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