Messiaen: From The Canyons to The Stars – Sydney Opera House 12th March 2016 By Tony Mitchell


French composer Olivier Messaien’s From the Canyons to the Stars, a 90 minute work in 12 movements for piano, horn, xylorimba (a xylophone with an extended range), glockenspiel, eoliphone (wind machine) and orchestra, was last performed at the Sydney Opera House in the presence of the composer in 1988, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, four years before his death, when Messiaen visited Australia for the first and only time. He had brought a geophone, a drum filled with metal pellets, which he had invented, and is also featured in the large percussion section of the work, on the plane with him from France. His wife Yvonne Loriod (1924-2010) performed the piano part, one of the longest and most demanding in the classical repertoire, entirely from memory, in Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney.

On this occasion, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, David Robertson, who had been nurturing this project for the past fifteen years, had commissioned US photographer Deborah O’Grady to provide a series of photographs of the Bryce Canyon, the Zion National Park – where there is now a mountain named after Messiaen – and Cedar Breaks, which the composer described as ‘a vast amphitheatre sliding down to an abyss with walls, turrets and columns of orange, yellow, brown and red rocks’, in Utah, which was the inspiration for the original work, commissioned for the bicentenary of the USA in 1973, and first performed in 1974 at the Lincoln Center in New York. In a Sydney Morning Herald article it was suggested that O’Grady’s images ‘completed’ the work for an audience over-satiated by the music, and while they certainly provided some spectacular visual accompaniment, to suggest they were a necessary completion was going too far, especially since some of them reminded us what a tourist site these Utah landscapes are, especially when they were augmented by time-lapse photography and cinematography which included tourists.

one of Deborah O’Grady’s images of Bryce Canyon. Photo: Deborah O’Grady

one of Deborah O’Grady’s images of Bryce Canyon. Photo: Deborah O’Grady

Earlier this year it was performed in a joint commission with the SSO, St Louis Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, and other US orchestras, in Los Angeles and St. Louis, conducted by Robertson. You can see it here.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

The pianist in this Sydney performance was the extraordinary Frenchman Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a much recorded former pupil of Loriod, whose flamboyant style of playing really animated the work, which he appeared at times to be conducting along with Robertson when he wasn’t playing, although there is only one section of the piece, a horn solo that doesn’t include piano.

The immensely difficult horn solos were played with consummate skill by Robert Johnson, principal horn player with the SSO since 1986, the xylorimba by Rebecca Lagos, a member of the SSO and Synergy percussion ensemble as well as numerous other percussion groups since 1987, and principal percussionist with the SSO since 2006, who also played it in the 1988 performance, and the glockenspiel by Timothy Constable, artistic director of Synergy. Together with flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and contrabassoon, two horns, three trumpets and three trombones, six violins, three violas, three cellos and double bass, a total of 43 instruments, the work’s enormous scope and power plumbed the depths of the orchestral palette, even if the wind machine raised a few titters in the audience to begin with. From the Canyons … is one of a series of vast sonic extravaganzas by Messiaen which often make for difficult listening for the uninitiated – there was a steady trickle of walkouts on the third of the three nights at the Opera House which intensified after the hopeful applause that heralded the concluding notes of section 7 but revealed that there wasn’t going to be an interval. It’s an exhilarating, inspiring work, combining music and vast landscape, on a par with his ‘superhuman, overflowing, dazzling and abandoned’ (Messiaen’s own words) Turangalila Symphony, written in 1948 and performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 1988 and the SSO in 2007 under the baton of Simone Young, whose highly expressive style of conducting I had a birds-eye view of from the back of the Opera House stage. Turangalila’s ondes martenot, an early type of synthesiser similar to a theremin, played by Loriod’s sister Jeanne in Melbourne and Cynthia Millar in Sydney, added other-wordly and frequently garish elements to what SMH music critic Peter McCallum described as ‘a gargantuan monument of musical modernism’, while Stravinsky had called it ‘a great marshmallow with Massenet inside’, and Pierre Boulez described some of its sections as ‘brothel music’.

the ondes martenot

the ondes martenot

Messiaen was never afraid to include elements which verge on the kitsch, but usually within an almost overwhelmingly epic sweep of blocks of sound and daring contrasts between pianissimo and fortissimo. The Massenet point was picked up by pianist Aimard in an interview about another monumental two-hour Messiaen piece for solo piano, Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus, (Twenty Contemplations of the Child Jesus), which he performed the following Monday evening at the Sydney Recital Centre (and at the Melbourne Recital Centre on March 20). Aimard, who was mentored by both Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod since the age of 12, commenting on his long association with Pierre Boulez, noted that ‘the heritage of Massenet in this [piece]was not his [Boulez’s] cup of tea’, referring to the ‘the F sharp major sugar kitsch aspect’ of Vingt regards. Aimard, who was last in Australia in 1988, always intended to visit again, and wanted to provide something special, hence his performance of Vingt Regards, which was stupendous in every sense, along with performances of Boulez’s Dérive 1 in Sydney and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in Melbourne. I was sitting above him and facing him, and was reminded of flautist Timothy Munro’s description of Vingt Regards in his program notes as being all about ‘gazes’: ‘Two gazes are especially intense in a concert hall: the audience on the performer, and the performer on their instrument’. Aimard has very expressive eyebrows, which echo what he is playing, and his arms tend to flourish in follow-through to particularly intense and elaborate passages; he plays the piano with his entire body, and even his pauses, as when he stopped to reverse his squeaking piano stool, are eloquent. The piano has never sounded more like an orchestra.

Messiaen was of course an ornithologist, and the influence of birdsong was never far away in all his work. His huge and only opera, St Francis of Assisi (1983), which runs over 4 hours, and includes a spectacular section in which the saint preaches to the birds, and From the Canyons … is no exception, the composer having mentioned the names of 57 bird species referenced in this work. The Bifaciated Lark occurs in Section 1, Section 2 is called the Orioles (Loriod’s name being the French word for this bird), and Section 4 is a piano solo devoted to the song of the East African White-Browed Robin. Section 9 is devoted to the Mockingbird in a piano solo which also incorporates the songs of Australian birds such as both types of Lyrebird, the Golden Whistler, the White-backed Magpie and the Grey Thrush. Section 10 features the Wood Thrush, Section 11 is entitled ‘Omao, Leiothrix, Elepaio, Shama’, the names of exotic birds of the Hawai’ian Islands, and includes a horn section which incorporates the songs of no fewer than 13 other birds. Messiaen was a devout Catholic, believed that birds were ‘God’s messengers’, and devoted his life to travelling the world recording their songs, many of which he incorporated into his works. While he was in Australia, for almost a month, he tracked down the multi-mimicry of the lyrebird, which is of course unique to Australia.

The superb lyrebird became a symbol of the ‘bride city’ from the Book of Revelation in the 3rd section of his last work Glimpses of the Beyond (Eclairs sur l’au-delà), lasting a mere three minutes and 51 seconds: ‘And I saw the Holy City coming down out of heaven, beautiful as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Revelation, 21:2). The liner notes written by Loriod to this section of the 1994 Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille recording of the work describe their discovery of the superb lyrebird:

The song of the superb lyrebird symbolises the appearance of the bridal city (the new Jerusalem). The entire piece is written to the song of this bird (also known as a ‘master mimic’) which we observed in the forest of Tidbinbilla, near Canberra in Australia, in June 1988. Its song is very varied and carries over long distances. Luminous, it extends through several registers, forming an iambic metre (short-long) of rapid extended glissandos, rotations, and rising tones culminating in repeated notes. The superb lyrebird can switch in three notes from high tones to low tones and return to high tones, ‘swelling’ a sustained note followed by a cry of two notes shifting from high to low, and sing a long strophe of twenty notes, changing register on each note … a whistled, flute-like, grating, radiant, metallic, disjointed song in which the sounds of water merge with imitations of other birds, performed with a virtuosity and a prodigious range of attacks and nuances. As three lyrebirds are singing together here, the impression is of an orchestra filling an entire forest trumpeting joyous colours. The composer was in a sunlit forest full of giant eucalyptus trees like the columns of a cathedral, full of vibrant light, when suddenly he saw the bird just a few metres away from him majestically raise its tail feathers to form a lyre twice as large as its own body. He was greatly moved by this ritual, which reminded him of ‘the bride of the Apocalypse preparing for her wedding’. Is not the lyre the emblem of music? The piece is very difficult because the music shifts from woodwinds to strings, from xylophones to brass, at a very fast tempo. There is no rest, the joyous iambics illuminate the forest!

Glimpses of the beyond is one of the most frequently recorded of Messiaen’s works, and it was recorded in 1994 by the SSO, conducted by David Porcelijn. Messiaen also incorporated an Albert’s lyrebird, sighted on Tambourine Mountain, into the 8th section of the work, ‘Les Etoiles et la Gloire’, along with a number of other birds, including a kookaburra, transcribed for brass, and a butcherbird, as well as birds from Papua-New Guinea, Europe and India. As Hollis Taylor and Syd Curtis, an expert on the lyrebird who assisted Messiaen in his ornithological expeditions in Australia, have noted of his use of the Albert’s Lyrebird:

“With the lyrebird, as with the others, no programmatic attempt is made to duplicate the bird’s song with exactitude or to evoke the entire soundscape of the bird’s environment. Instead, he revels in the freedom and inspiration provided by these natural models, creating an amalgamated Albert’s Lyrebird and placing it in his context of choice. … The resultant composite bird, although influenced and transformed by Messiaen’s own imagination and aesthetic preferences, remains vivid and faithful enough to nature that Curtis, an ornithologist rather than a Messiaen scholar, has no difficulty in deciphering the Albert’s Lyrebird entrance in a recording of ‘les Etoiles et la Gloire’ …”

Messiaen’s presence in Australia in 1988 had considerable impact on Australian composers, and generated a renewed interest in birdsong, as noted by Vincent Plush, who was part of the Messiaen entourage, and later composed a 1998 work entitled Sherbrooke Forest, a Victorian rainforest visited by Messiaen during his quest for lyrebirds. In a rather crassly entitled 2008 article written to commemorate Messiaen’s centenary in the Australian, ‘Grand composer who created on the cheep’ Plush reminisces: ‘The Messiaen visit was a transformative time for many Australian musicians and composers, yet memories are varied, particularly among composers’. He chronicles attempts by Australian composers such as Nigel Butterley to entice Messiaen to Australia in the 1970s, but suggests that some local composers found the Frenchman aloof and unwilling to speak English. Bearing in mind that Messiaen was 80 at the time, and clearly rather disoriented, this is perhaps unsurprising. But Syd Curtis’ recollection of Messiaen’s powers of recollection of the lyrebird’s song are rather different:

“After twenty minutes or so, no new bird sounds were being made, and he decided he’d got them all down. So he turns back to the beginning and goes through his notation, whistling or singing with such accuracy that I had no trouble in identifying the species for him. What a fantastic performance! He had never been to Australia before. They were all bird sounds that he had never heard before. And of course, none of their songs fit our human diatonic scale or strict rhythms.”

The French composer was also attentive to the terpsichorean capacities of the lyrebird, which contributed to his personification of the bird as the ‘bride of the Apocalypse’, as he noted in his journals in Sherbrooke forest:

The bare patches of black earth are where the lyrebird dances! In the nuptial ceremony the lyrebird raises its tail feathers above its head, forming two symmetrical curves – like a lyre – and at the same time it dances and sings!!

Messaien was also synaesthesic, being able to hear colours, and he describes From the Canyons … as ‘a geological and astronomical work; a work of colour-sound, where all the colours of the rainbow revolve around the blue of the Steller’s Jay [bird]and the red of Bryce Canyon’. Colours in Vingt regards begin with blue-violet in the opening section, with flashes of gold, orange, royal blue, and deep red elsewhere, with clusters of black chords. He was also fascinated by numerology, and various configurations occur in Vingt regards, notably figures of divinity every 5 numbers, ‘cross’ at no. 7, ‘angels’ no.14, and so on. The tenth section is described by Munro as ‘full of frenzied triumph, heaven-storming perorations, psychedelic colours and gaudy dance-tunes (like dissonant Liberace)’, indicating further embrace of kitsch. Stained glass windows are also an influence, along with Balinese gamelan, Indian ragas, plainchant and Tibetan ritual music. He was a musical polymath, and any consider him to be the greatest modern composer, if not the greatest composer of any time. The SSO’s continued association with Messiaen’s work does them great credit, despite the antagonism they receive from more conservative audiences. His music is sublime, and deserves to be widely heard.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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