Messiaen and the Young Pianist

Matthew Schellhorn considers how we can encourage young pianists to engage with Messiaen’s piano music.
When, at the age of fifteen, I was requested by my piano teacher to start preparing a piece by a recently deceased French composer, little did I know that this musical encounter would spark the beginning of a lifelong passion! As I acquainted myself more with the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) I was stunned by its vivid colour, its rhythmic power and its overwhelming sense of joy.

In this centenary year, Messiaen’s music is being performed with love by many who share my enthusiasm, but the piano repertoire continues to be considered the preserve of the professional artist. As teachers of music, how can we ensure that this inimitable composer is not overlooked? How can we encourage young pianists to engage with this most important figure of twentieth-century music?

It seems to me that the problems of approaching Messiaen’s music at a young age are the same as attempting to grasp any music, particularly the most recently composed, without being given any background explanation. Much twentieth-century music can be viewed as prohibitively complicated for the learner, but only if we cling to the traditional norms of our Western music tradition. Mostly, technical difficulties are only as serious as the unfamiliar terminology used to describe them. But in Messiaen’s ‘musical language’ scales are now ‘modes’, harmony is ‘colour’, and rhythm is ‘the ordering of movement’. To understand how our horizons can be opened, take this last category: Messiaen said that the classicists, in the Western sense of the term, ‘were bad rhythmicians, or rather, composers who knew nothing of rhythm’. This might seem surprising, as we teachers require of our pupils to play their Bach preludes ‘in time’ and their Haydn sonatas ‘with the beat’, but to Messiaen such works are by no means the apogee of rhythmic music: ‘In these works we hear an uninterrupted succession of equal durations that puts the listener in a state of beatific satisfaction; nothing interferes with his pulse, breathing or heartbeat. So he is very calm, receives no shock, and all this seems perfectly “rhythmic” to him. … The march … with its uninterrupted succession of absolutely equal note-values, is anti-natural.’

While it is difficult to imagine avoiding Bach when learning keyboard technique, it is intriguing to consider Messiaen’s point of view, and as a teenage pianist his anti-traditional notions about music theory fascinated me. Discovering rhythmic palindromes in music had a kind of Poirot-esque delight about it, and I began to appreciate how the evident building blocks of composing rely on a performer almost to obscure them. For although Messiaen’s ‘musical language’ is still, even now, somewhat outside our tradition, it repays close inspection, and it is remarkably transparent on the page. This is because Messiaen was an enthusiastic teacher himself: Messiaen said he could have ‘died from grief’ the day he left behind his teaching duties at the Paris Conservatoire. In particular, Messiaen’s scores abound with interpretative detail about tempo, nuance, rhythmic emphasis and dynamic: learn to read Messiaen well, and you are reading music well.

The piano is present in the majority of Messiaen’s works, and his concentration on the instrument is owed mainly to the ‘transcendent virtuosity and the absolutely amazing technical facility’ of Yvonne Loriod (Messiaen’s wife from 1961 until his death): ‘I was therefore able to allow myself the greatest eccentricities… . I knew I could invent very difficult, very extraordinary, and very new things: they would be played, and played well.’ Messiaen’s piano music is at times, then, highly virtuosic, and unsuitable for very young pianists. But for all its ‘eccentricities’, it sits well with other ‘standard’ repertoire, and judiciously chosen works can form part of any young pianist’s repertoire. Messiaen’s own favourites were Rameau, Scarlatti, Mozart (‘an extraordinary rhythmician’), Chopin (‘the greatest composer for the piano’), Debussy, Albéniz, Bartók, Prokofiev. The common factor here is colour, the importance of which in piano repertoire cannot, in my opinion, be over-emphasized. Messiaen said that he himself played the piano as though he were ‘conducting an orchestra, which is to say by turning the piano into a mock orchestra with a large palette of timbres and accents’. This is surely a good recommendation for anyone!

I can think readily of repertoire suggestions for the young pianist which are excellent introductions to Messiaen’s style and from which useful lessons about general pianism can be drawn. The obvious starting place in encountering Messiaen’s piano music at young age would be one of the Préludes (1928–29): ‘La Colombe’ and ‘Plainte calme’ are among the shortest and the most charming. The beauty for the learner about these pieces is the amount of repetition. Messiaen’s forms are easily explained and easily communicable.

‘Je dors, mais mon coeur veille’, No. 19 from Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944), is another a prime (if somewhat more challenging) example of the accessibility of Messiaen’s piano style. This piece is certainly for the pianist with bigger hands. That said, the emphasis is again on subtlety of expression, and there is much here to be learned about phrasing and counting. Once again, repetition of material comes to the learner’s aid.

‘Premiere Communion de la Vierge’, No. 11 from Vingt regards is also very approachable. Even though one could at first be intimidated by the copious amount of hemidemisemiquavers (!) the figuration is surprisingly comfortable if a sensible fingering is chosen and stuck to. Moreover, the piece’s tranquil effect is only enhanced by a slower tempo – one can take Messiaen’s ‘rapide’ marking with a pinch of salt, if necessary – a testimony to how a judicious choice of a modest tempo (with flow) can assist in creating a beautiful sound-world. Here, repetition is tempered by charming modification: have fun explaining and counting in prime numbers towards the end…!

For the more ambitious young pianist, one of Messiaen’s pieces written in the ‘style-oiseau’ will undoubtedly fascinate. ‘Le Merle noir’ from Petites esquisses d’oiseaux (1985) is a good first choice, using a blackbird’s song to articulate a musical form. As familiarity with this style increases, pieces from the Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–68) will only beckon….

For maximum entertainment value (to the teacher!), Messiaen wrote a wonderful sight-reading piece – Morceau de lecture à vue – in 1934 for his own students to try their hand at. One page long, in 6/8 throughout, this rarity can be found in the recently published Messiaen (Yale University Press) by Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone.

I myself came to Messiaen’s piano music blithely unaware of its compositional complexities. But I was fortunate to have teachers at an early age who had already instilled in me a sense of curiosity and respect for the unknown. Surely the most important lesson to teach a young musician is to cultivate an open mind.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Piano Professional