A Creative Legacy: Messiaen as Teacher of Analysis

October 1, 2000

Olivier Messiaen, along with Arnold Schoenberg, must be considered as one of the most important composer-teachers of the twentieth century. As with Schoenberg, several composers of note studied with Messiaen, some of whom attained international stature. At the top of the list are Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Iannis Xenakis; the list continues with French composers Jean Barraqué, Betsy Jolas, and Tristan Murail; British composers George Benjamin and Alexander Goehr; the Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts, and the American composer William Albright. Messiaen taught for thirty-seven years (1941-78) at the Paris Conservatoire, first as a professor of harmony in 1941, teacher of the analysis class in 1947, and professor of composition in 1966. He was a charismatic teacher who encouraged his pupils to find their own musical paths. He did not impose his opinions on his students nor did he promote the imitation of his compositional style.

In this paper, I study Messiaen's work as teacher of analysis at the Paris Conservatoire. I explore a side to his creativity that is addressed infrequently in the scholarly literature.1 My examination is limited to his pedagogical approaches regarding harmony, sound-color relationships, rhythm, melodic accentuation, and aesthetics. In certain instances, I compare Messiaen's teaching methods with American pedagogical perspectives to characterize his work. Finally, I hope that this paper will encourage further research into Messiaen's role as an educator and suggest various applications that may reinvigorate our own approaches to analysis and its teaching.

For my study of Messiaen's work as a teacher, I draw from a variety of sources. First, I rely on the composer's Technique de mon langage musical (1944), Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d'ornithologie (1949-1992), and the interviews that Messiaen gave to Claude Samuel (1967/1986).2 Second, I derive information from student recollections, particularly those assembled by Jean Boivin in his La classe de Messiaen.3 Finally, I use transcribed excerpts from a filmed class session of Messiaen teaching at the Paris Conservatoire. When Messiaen was professor of composition in 1972, Denise Tual and Michel Fano filmed one of his classes as a part of their documentary Messiaen et les oiseaux.4 Messiaen played and commented on the Prelude and part of the first scene of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande in the filmed segment. Boivin, with the permission of Tual, transcribed the class session, and it is his transcription that I use in this paper.5



Messiaen began his teaching career outside the Paris Conservatoire as an instructor of piano accompanying at the École Normale de Musique and organ improvisation at the Schola Cantorum from 1934 to 1939.6 After his release as a prisoner of war by the Germans during World War II, Messiaen joined the faculty at the Paris Conservatoire as professor of harmony. In 1943, he began teaching a course in composition and analysis at the home of Guy Bernard-Delapierre, a musicologist and fellow prisoner during Messiaen's captivity by the Germans. This private course covered the analysis of melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and orchestration of music from all stylistic periods. During this time, Messiaen's unofficial course attracted many students such as Pierre Boulez, Yvonne Loriod, Françoise Aubut, Yvette Grimaud, Jean-Louis Martinet, Serge Nigg, Claude Prior, and Maurice Le Roux. After learning of Messiaen's class, Claude Delvincourt, director of the Paris Conservatoire, set up the same type of class at his institution and appointed the composer as teacher.

Messiaen described his analysis class, which ran from 1947-1966, as a course in "super-composition." His students were normally from eighteen to twenty-eight years old and very sophisticated musically, often the winners of prizes in composition, performance, or both. Messiaen taught three times a week with each session lasting four hours. The topic of the class was different each year. Messiaen would not repeat or recycle topics: he decided the class' topic based on the students in the class and their needs. As a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, Messiaen still analyzed music from the classical repertory as well as ancient, exotic, and contemporary music. In fact, a perusal of notes taken by Sister Blanche Leblanc reveals the range of topics covered during the 1968-69 academic year: besides the critiquing of student works, Messiaen covered Greek meters, arsis and thesis in melody, Hindu rhythms, irrational rhythms, I-Ching, Renaissance vocal music, fugue, the oratorio, stochastic music, serial music as well as works by composers such as Claude Le Jeune, Chopin, Wagner, Berg, Varèse, Schaeffer, Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, Penderecki, and Ligeti.7

Teaching was viewed by Messiaen as a means to assist young composers seeking guidance and to further his education through musical analysis. Musical analysis as a major preoccupation in Messiaen's life can be traced back to his prisoner-of-war period. While a captive in Görlitz, in Silesia, at Stalag VIIIA, the Germans allowed Messiaen to keep music paper and some scores, which included Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Berg's Lyric Suite, Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye, and Stravinsky's Les Noces.8 Furthermore, a German officer gave him an edition of Beethoven's piano sonatas as a gift. Messiaen immersed himself in a study of these sonatas along with the other musical scores in his possession. It was this experience that prompted Messiaen to become interested in musical analysis. As he stated when referring to his time in captivity, "[t]hat's how musical analysis came into my life."9


Teaching Approaches

The first thing to consider regarding Messiaen's teaching was its subjective nature.10 According to Betsy Jolas, the French consider analysis as the result of an experience, and the most qualified people to teach analysis are composers. They offer subjective visions of a composition to students. To construct one's vision of a piece, a student begins with what they learn from a composer-teacher.

As a primary pedagogical goal, Messiaen sought to direct his students to what was fundamental in comprehending a composer's work. He could analyze a score from different parametric viewpoints, but would still focus on the substance of a composition, looking at details but never ignoring the big picture. He never conceived of analysis as dismantling a work bit by bit. Messiaen often worked at the piano in class, even going through a piece measure by measure, but always dwelling on the most significant passages.

Throughout his teaching, Messiaen mixed genres and time periods freely, jumping from one work to another while associating dissimilar composers and pieces. True analysis, the composer believed, was not limited to one period or one particular composer. For example, Messiaen might discuss Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and then in the same breath suddenly switch to Musorgsky's Boris Godunov or Monteverdi's Orfeo. Furthermore, Messiaen not only pointed out compositional techniques shared by composers from different time periods, he even related them to non-European musics.

When illustrating his points, Messiaen used keen musical metaphors and tasteful pictorial images. He did not hide behind technical terms nor pseudo-scientific language. His analytical language was precise and easy to grasp. He would emphasize his ideas with creative analogies that captured the gist of a technique or musical passage. Messiaen constantly strove to stir the imaginations of his students. They, in turn, were often inspired to explore and discuss his ideas outside of class.

Finally, apart from the student recollections regarding his pedagogical work, the most important general consideration concerning Messiaen's teaching was that it reflected his compositional outlook. While Messiaen did not force his students to believe in what he believed in, often preferring to remain silent, he did influence them, nevertheless, as a composer through his teaching. Indeed, his pedagogy was not connected to the super-compositional outlook of some ideal composer but to Messiaen himself.



According to Boivin, Messiaen strived to show the evolution of harmony from Monteverdi to the twentieth century, i.e., the harmonic techniques of Debussy, Bartók, and Stravinsky, in his harmony class. Furthermore, Messiaen incorporated functional analysis in his teaching of that class.11 Things changed, however, in his analysis class. Messiaen emphasized the structure and historical development of various chord types. To illustrate this aspect of his teaching, let us "view" Messiaen in the filmed class session as he discusses the structure and development of Golaud's chord from m. 12 of Debussy's Prelude to Pélleas et Mélisande.12 Before this point in the film, Messiaen had already played mm. 1-27 of Debussy's Prelude, interrupting himself at m. 28. Accordingly, Example 1 only contains those measures that are relevant to our discussion.


Example 1: Debussy, Pélleas et Mélisande, Act I, Scene 1, mm. 1-13



MESSIAEN—Now for the harmonic analysis. It is a little long. There is. . . . For a harmony professor, there is a chord, a vol40id774-major chord. Here it is: (Messiaen plays the vol40id774-major chord.) With an added sixth (He plays:)


Example 2: vol40id774-major chord, vol40id774-major chord with an added sixth


MESSIAEN—And then there is a triple embellishment. Listen. (Messiaen replays the last three beats of measure 12). This is the ordinary analysis, this is the classic analysis. All the same, we must point that out, because if we refer to the classics, I'm thinking of any composition by Weber or by any composer of that time, [. . .] who would have written (He plays:)


Example 3: vol40id774-major chord, alternating with chromatic lower neighbors



MESSIAEN—You can see how banal and ridiculous that would be; one note is enough (Messiaen replays the first two chords of m. 12, then with the added sixth), one note is enough to change the sonority and make it extraordinary. But what is marvelous is that this embellished chord—if in fact it has been embellished—is drawn out, and therefore we do not hear it as an embellishment, in spite of its repetitions; we hear it as a thing in itself, a sound complex in itself. And in the same way I suppose that is how Darius Milhaud must have heard this chord when he was young.


Example 4: Embellished Chord



MESSIAEN—Do you recognize it? Ah, this is something very well known. (Messiaen waits for his students to recognize the chord, then he plays from memory essentially the following:)


Example 5: Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé, Danse générale, mm. 1-10



BÉROFF13(from a distance)—Ravel.

MESSIAEN—Yes! What is it?

BÉROFF—It is Daphnis.

MESSIAEN—Yes! It is the finale of Daphnis et Chloé, the Bacchanale movement.

A STUDENT (who did not recognize the excerpt)—I did not recognize it because it was played on the piano.

MESSIAEN—Of course, of course, because I played it on the piano (large roars of laughter). Ah yes, ah yes, I know, I play very badly, it is not my fault (laughter). We are going to ask Béroff to play Daphnis et Chloé for us. (Messiaen plays the two chords again:)


Example 6: Ravel, Chord from Daphnis et Chloé; Debussy, Golaud Chord from Pélleas et Mélisande



MESSIAEN—Do you hear the rearrangement of the chord? This is the rearranged chord. And I haven't finished! (Silence. Messiaen concentrates.) Now, I am going to play the same thing for you; if you wish, I am going to transpose it by a diminished fifth. Here it is. (Messiaen replays the Golaud chord:) I am going to place it in a lower register. (He plays:)


Example 7: Golaud Chord; Golaud Chord transposed



MESSIAEN—Ah, immediately, your ears perk up. Now I am going to add a note.


Example 8: Golaud Chord with Added Note



MESSIAEN—I'll add one more note to it. (He plays:)


Example 9: Golaud Chord with Further Addition



MESSIAEN—Listen carefully. (Without waiting, he plays, still from memory:)


Example 10: Stravinsky, Le Sacre du printemps, Les Augures printaniers, Rehearsal 13, mm. 1-5



MESSIAEN—What piece is this?

SOME STUDENTS—It is the Rite of Spring.

MESSIAEN—Correct. It is the Rite of Spring. It is what we call the Dance of the Young Girls and the Augurs of Spring. That's it, right? The Augurs of Spring.

A STUDENT (from a distance)—Don't we also hear this chord in Ravel's Concerto?

MESSIAEN—Eh . . . yes, but not in the same way as in the Rite of Spring. There are two added notes, and obviously it is muddier, dirtier, and darker. It has to be, since the Rite is a brutal work; it is not at all the same type of thing. Yet, curiously, it is the same chord as in Pélleas.

From most American pedagogical perspectives, Messiaen's emphasis on studying chords in isolation and tracing their developmental history is weak. In general, he did not distinguish between structural chords and linear chords. Harmonic motion at different structural levels is not explored. Essentially, we receive no explanations as to how one chord progresses to another. But Messiaen only read French and probably was unfamiliar with Anglo-American and Germanic approaches to analysis, particularly the work of Heinrich Schenker. Messiaen's harmonic approach also set him apart from his contemporary French pedagogues, namely Nadia Boulanger, who revered Stravinsky and emphasized counterpoint exercises, and René Leibowitz, who admired the Second Viennese School and twelve-tone techniques.14 We can conclude that Messiaen was unacquainted, in all likelihood, with contemporary American analytical viewpoints, especially circa 1972.

Messiaen's pedagogical focus on chords in isolation is related to his harmonic practice as a composer. Chords are used because of their particular sonic qualities. This is illustrated in Messiaen's treatment of melody: chords support rather than harmonize melodic lines. His sense of harmonic coloration, furthermore, is derived from his enthusiasm for harmonic resonance in which sonorities are viewed in terms of combinations of partials from the overtone series, producing a fusion between harmony and timbre. Thus, the study of chords in isolation—their structure, registral realizations, subtle changes in timbre, and developmental history—is beneficial for all composers who seek to understand and manipulate harmonic elements.

Although not explicitly stated in the class session, Messiaen viewed the chords by Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky as connected by polytonality. Consider the reduction of the Golaud chord contained in Example 6: it is an A-major chord superimposed over a vol40id774-minor chord. Despite the re-notations, transpositions, and added notes, polytonality is the structural principle that drives Messiaen's discussion of these chords. This is confirmed in the Technique de mon langage musical and the Traité de rythme where these chords and their relationships to each other are discussed. For example, when referring to two chords from Pélleas et Mélisande in the Technique, one of which is the Golaud chord from m. 12, Messiaen stated that they inspired (the beginning chord of) Ravel's Danse générale and a "polytonality particularly dear to Milhaud." He went on to remark how much harmonic science had developed since the time of Monteverdi.15 Thus, as early as 1944, Messiaen thought of these specific chords used by Debussy and Ravel, and aspects of Milhaud's compositional approach, as related by polytonality.

In the Traité de rythme, Messiaen reinforced the polytonal connections of his earlier treatise. In the first volume, he pointed to the same chords by Debussy and Ravel as different superimpositions of A-major and vol40id774-minor chords.16 He linked both chords to Milhaud, but this time referred the reader to Milhaud's Ténèbres and Les Choéphores as additional examples of the superimpositions of these two chords. In the second volume of the Traité de rythme, Messiaen referred to the motto chord from the Rite of Spring as deriving from the Golaud chord and characterized both as polytonal.17 He viewed the Golaud chord as expressive and warm and the Stravinsky chord as ugly, heavy, and dirty. In addition, the Stravinsky chord, according to Messiaen, is repeated with the utmost indifference.

Many American music theorists would dismiss Messiaen's use of polytonality as an analytical concept, especially with respect to the Stravinsky chord, which seen from American viewpoints has an octatonic base.18 Pieter C. Van den Toorn analyzes this chord as a combination of Collections III (vol40id774-vol40id774-vol40id774-G) and I (E-vol40id774-B). The motto chord is not a pure octatonic structure but a hybrid entity.19

While we may view polytonality as a simplistic compositional procedure and the identification of its component parts as equally unsophisticated, it is associated with the compositional aesthetic of many French musicians active in the first part of the twentieth century. Historians have pointed to Milhaud, of course, as spearheading the way for this compositional technique. In his article "Polytonalité et Atonalité," Milhaud argued that tonal canonic writing at non-octave intervals contributed to the practice of polytonality in the twentieth century.20 Milhaud then outlined his ideas for polytonality by first exploring the different superimpositions of a C major triad with every other major triad, which he believed was the first step in understanding the superimposition of two keys. Different combinations of major and minor triads as well as the inversions of two different major triads are subsequently studied. After analyzing a number of compositions, including the passage that contains the famous "bitonal" chord from Stravinsky's Petrushka, Milhaud expanded his polytonal framework from two to three parts. In essence, Milhaud's promotion and use of polytonality was merely a way, as Robert P. Morgan puts it, "of spicing up an essentially traditional harmonic conception, an element of `modernity' without unwanted complexity or cluttered chromaticism."21 Thus, Messiaen's views regarding polytonality and its analytical application to chords by Debussy, Milhaud, Ravel, and Stravinsky derive from this early twentieth-century harmonic orientation that he probably assimilated as a student.


Sound-Color Relationships

As is well known, Messiaen possessed the ability to see colors when he heard music. From the beginning of his work as a composer, his synesthesia drove his harmonic language. Sound-color relationships, moreover, grew more important than melody or rhythm in Messiaen's later musical views. In fact, Messiaen classified all music as being colored or devoid of color.22

Messiaen brought this coloristic agenda into his classroom. He characterized composers according to the colors that they used in their music.23 The music of atonal or serial composers, for example, is black or gray, devoid of coloration. Conversely, Mozart and Debussy are judged to be exceptional colorists. Indeed, Mozart's use of color is what differentiated him from other classical composers. For instance, Messiaen cited the last scene of Don Giovanni (when the Commandant's statue enters) as a noteworthy example of how Mozart could change harmonic colors and orchestration for dramatic purposes. The list of composers and their use of color continues: Monteverdi, Chopin, Musorgsky, Wagner, and Stravinsky. Messiaen was fond of Wagner's use of subtle colors in the love duet and in Brangäne's call from Tristan und Isolde as well as the somber and brutal colors that begin the second act of Götterdämmerung.

Sound-color relationships are a troublesome aspect of Messiaen's pedagogy from American teaching perspectives (or any other country's). It is difficult to perceive the colors expressed by him in various sources; we can only take his word for them. Messiaen was aware of his students' reactions to sound-color relationships. In an interview with Almut Rössler, he remarked that "I've often played chords for my pupils and asked them: "Which colour is that?"—they've seen nothing at all or they saw something in order to please me."24 To illustrate this aspect of Messiaen's teaching, let us go back to our class session in which the colors of the Golaud theme from the Prelude to Pélleas et Mélisande are discussed (see Example 1).25

MESSIAEN—I am going to play it again for you. (Messiaen plays the first measures of the Prelude.) It is truly marvelous. It has a non-temporal quality that is extraordinary—he probably did not write it that way on purpose, but the result is there, nonetheless. And then comes the second presentation of Golaud's theme; I am going to play it for you. (Messiaen replays measures 12 and 13.)26 You can hear for yourselves that this presentation is totally different, with regard to color, from the first. I see it as something more orange, more copper-colored than what preceded it. A mixture of orange and blue, if you will, whereas what preceded is a gray-violet. I am going to play both for you. Here is the whole-tone scale. (Messiaen plays measure 5.) And here is the second presentation. (Messiaen replays measure 12.) This color is much . . . warmer. Do you agree? The first was cold, the second is warmer—are we in agreement on this point?27 Do you agree on a gray-violet for the first? (Amused silence. Messiaen turns to the camera:)—They are always very uneasy about colors.

A STUDENT (joking)—I am color blind. . . . (Laughing)

MESSIAEN (replaying measure 12)—This seems orange to me, an orange in which there are all the same specks of . . .

A STUDENT—. . . specks of green.

MESSIAEN—. . . of blue. Specks of green . . . ? The blue and the green are cold, right, but does the orange dominate?

A STUDENT—Yes. (aside:) I still see specks of green. . . .



Alain Louvier ends his preface to the Traité de rythme by quoting Hans von Bülow's paraphrase of the Gospel of John (1:1), a quote that best sums up the role of rhythm in Messiaen's aesthetic: "In the beginning was rhythm."28 Clearly, rhythm is a significant component of Messiaen's teaching. Its position in his pedagogy is yet another example of his compositional interests entering the classroom. In Messiaen's music, we are confronted with many rhythmic elements and techniques—added values, nonretrogradable rhythms (palindromes), Hindu rhythmic patterns, Greek meters, rhythmic cells and their manipulation, rhythmic canons, isorhythmic practices, and algorithmic permutations—that point to the depth of the composer's innovations in this field. But these elements and techniques can be reduced to two macro-principles that Messiaen emphasized: the use of long and short note values and the separation of rhythm from pitch.29 Messiaen believed that rhythm should be inspired by nature where movements are free and unequal. It is only through the juxtaposition of long and short note values that one can avoid the equal divisions and square repetitions of classical music and achieve a truly rhythmic music.30 As for the separation of rhythm from pitch, Messiaen found specific parallels in Medieval music. This separation, as well as that of other parameters, is a hallmark of Messiaen's musical style.31

Messiaen's rhythmic teaching centered on Greek meters, Hindu rhythmic patterns, and melodic accentuation derived from the work of Vincent d'Indy. Due to the limited scope of this paper, I discuss the latter two concepts in broad terms and their roles within Messiaen's pedagogical approaches to rhythm.


Hindu Rhythms

Messiaen discovered the 120 deçî-tâlas of Śarńgadeva, a thirteenth-century Indian musician, through their reproduction in Lavignac's Encyclopédie de la musique.32 Deçî-tâlas mean "provincial rhythms" and are listed by Śarńgadeva in his treatise Samgîtaratnâkara ("Ocean of Music"). Messiaen studied and assimilated these Hindu rhythmic formulas into his musical language. In sum, he interpreted them as arising from the free multiplication of a short note value. Furthermore, Messiaen derived his principles of the added value, inexact augmentation, and non-retrogradable rhythms from his study of deçî-tâlas.33

Messiaen's analysis of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, especially the Glorification of the Chosen One and the Sacrificial Dance from which he developed his ideas of rhythmic characters (personnages rythmiques), was his most important pedagogical work involving Hindu rhythmic patterns. (In fact, Messiaen believed that rhythm was the most brilliant element of Stravinsky's ballet score.34) Messiaen first analyzed the Rite of Spring around 1930. He taught this analysis to his students after World War II, first to his harmony class at the Conservatoire and the composition class at Guy Bernard-Delapierre's, then to his analysis class.35 What Messiaen observed in the Rite of Spring was Stravinsky's manipulation of rhythmic cells, particularly their progressive augmentation and diminution, and superimposition of different rhythmic layers. In the following discussion regarding Messiaen's analysis of the Sacrificial Dance, I explore the derivation and construction of the rhythmic cells contained in the opening refrain.36

In the second chapter of the Technique de mon langage, Messiaen stated that Stravinsky, consciously or unconsciously, made use of the Hindu rhythm simhavikrîdita ("Bond of the Lion") in his music.37 Simhavikrîdita, which is the twenty-seventh deçî-tâla in Śarńgadeva's list, is divided into two rhythmic cells, one that progressively augments and diminishes by a basic value while the other stays the same:


Example 11: Simhavikrîdita, Technique de mon langage musical


Reproduced with the kind authorization of Editions Alphonse Leduc, proprietary editor worldwide, Paris, France.


According to Messiaen, Stravinsky transformed the first cell into separate variable cells in the Sacrificial Dance. Furthermore, Messiaen considered Stravinsky's manipulation of both the variable and stationary cells in the dance as comparable to that of living entities and hence referred to them as rhythmic characters.38

Three characters are used in the opening refrain of the Sacrificial Dance (Example 12). Character A is associated with the polytonal Golaud chord. Both it and Character C are mobile and varied irregularly. Character B is stationary. In Messiaen's view, the characters are locked in a perpetual struggle with one another by means of their changing durations.


Example 12: Stravinsky, Sacrificial Dance, Rite of Spring, R142:1, 4-5; R144:1-2, Traité de rythme


Reproduced with the kind authorization of Editions Alphonse Leduc, proprietary editor worldwide, Paris, France.


(In analyzing these characters, Messiaen ignored the low notes of the double basses, tubas, and timpani due to their separation in register from the rest of the music. He considered rests, moreover, as belonging to preceding sounds.)

Messiaen came up with following rhythmic scheme for the entire refrain (R142:1-R148:3):


Example 13: Rhythmic Scheme of the Refrain from the Sacrificial Dance (R142:1-R148:3), Traité de rythme


Reproduced with the kind authorization of Editions Alphonse Leduc, proprietary editor worldwide, Paris, France.


Each letter indicates a different character while each number their total duration based on a sixteenth note. The barlines have nothing to do with Stravinsky's; their function is to enclose each rhythmic character. Lastly, A8 is an example of the deçî-tâla vijaya (no. 51), a nonretrogradable rhythm, and B7 is the retrograde of çrîmandana (no. 90).39

From Stravinsky's Sacrificial Dance, Messiaen developed his compositional device of rhythmic characters. Three different rhythmic types create motion through repetition and juxtaposition. One rhythm expands by a fixed note value with each repetition, another contracts with each repetition, and the third remains constant.40 This device can be intensified by superimposing an additional set of characters and incorporating further compositional techniques. But the basis for rhythmic characters lies ultimately in the concept of rhythmic patterns generated from the free multiplication of a smaller note value.

By drawing attention to Stravinsky's rhythmic practices through his teaching, Messiaen contributed to the dissemination of a rhythmic approach that departed radically from traditional Western practices. Stravinsky used rhythmic cells in an additive manner, combining them in various ways to produce larger, irregular rhythmic periods. As Larry Wayne Peterson has stated, rhythmic cellular organization was increasingly employed by composers as Stravinsky's work became better known. Cellular approaches are evident in works, albeit in different manifestations, by Boulez, Carter, Pousseur, Stockhausen, and Webern.41 Thus, through his analysis of the Rite of Spring, let alone his work as a composer, Messiaen was in the forefront of contemporary rhythmic thought. While exploring cellular manipulation in more detail than his teacher, Boulez clearly owed and acknowledged a debt to Messiaen's analysis in his famous discussion of rhythmic organization in the Rite of Spring.42 The composer's analysis was also recognized by another student, Jean Barraqué. In his study of rhythm, Barraqué examined the music of Machaut, Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Boulez and proclaimed Messiaen as the pure rhythmician.43 We can conclude, therefore, that Messiaen's analysis of the Rite of Spring along with his studies and teaching of Hindu rhythmic patterns were significant and influential aspects of his pedagogy both inside and outside the classroom.


Melodic Accentuation

Messiaen was indebted to d'Indy's Cours de composition musicale (1912) when he taught melodic accentuation.44 Messiaen's ideas on this topic can be found in his conversations with Claude Samuel, at the end of a book on Mozart's piano concertos that originally began as program notes for Yvonne Loriod's 1964 performances of the complete concertos, and in the fourth volume of the Traité de rythme where Messiaen discussed accentuation in the music of Mozart.45 The common denominator in all of these sources is Mozart, who was, according to Messiaen, the greatest rhythmician of classical music.46

Of the pedagogical approaches discussed in this paper, Messiaen's teaching of melodic accentuation was, I believe, motivated more by his interests in performance.47 Indeed, Messiaen concluded that those performers who did not have a proper understanding of melodic accentuation would play Mozart's music badly.48

The essential components of Messiaen's approach to melodic accentuation consist of a three-fold group—preparation, accent, and descent—that is an expansion of the tension-relaxation principle. An accent is a strong and lengthy sound, an intense apex, that is preceded by an anacrusis, a preparatory period consisting of a note or group of notes, and followed by the mute or inflectional ending, a weaker note or a group of notes.

When discussing accents in general, Messiaen followed d'Indy in relating accents to both spoken and musical language.49 D'Indy believed that accents affected music in a manner analogous to the effects of accents on spoken language. Thus, musical discourse is understood by means of accentuation, which is the key to rhythm. Messiaen described accents, accordingly, in terms of words and musical phrases. The tonic accent falls on an individual syllable of a word; in musical phrases, it falls on one of the beats of a rhythmic group, the musical image of syllables. The important word of a phrase is emphasized by a stronger accent; in musical phrases, a rhythmic group is emphasized by an expressive accent. This accent is classified as a dramatic type, and, according to d'Indy, always outweighed the tonic accent in intensity. Indeed, the expressive accent exercises such an influence on musical rhythm that the tonic accent becomes less pronounced or even disappears. Messiaen believed, on the other hand, that the tonic accent was the true rhythmic accent and the expressive accent did not have any rhythmic importance. Accordingly, I limit my discussion to the role of the tonic accent.

Messiaen borrowed d'Indy's ideas concerning masculine and feminine rhythms and groups. To explain these ideas, let us begin with d'Indy's binary rhythmic cell that consists of a light beat followed by a heavy beat,50 the equivalent of plainchant's arsis and thesis:


Example 14: Rhythmic Cell According to d'Indy



In the binary rhythmic cell, a masculine rhythm occurs when the heavy beat contains a single note regardless of the preceding notes on the light beat. A feminine rhythm occurs when the heavy beat contains a principally accented note followed by one or several notes that diminish in intensity, similar to the silent syllables of a word.


Example 15: Masculine and Feminine Rhythms According to d'Indy



In terms of the types of accents described above, a tonic accent is placed on the light beat of a masculine rhythm with the heavy beat resulting from the accent. In a feminine rhythm, a tonic accent is placed on the heavy beat and affects it in such a way that other notes rebound from it.

We can go a step further by applying these principles to masculine and feminine groups, which are successions of rhythms that suggest, according to both d'Indy and Messiaen, masculine and feminine characteristics. In d'Indy's masculine group, the tonic accent is placed on the light portion of the group:


Example 16: Principal Theme, Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor, II, According to d'Indy



Messiaen disagreed with d'Indy regarding the presence of a tonic accent in a masculine group. When a tonic accent is placed on the light portion of a masculine group, it may occur at the beginning or in the middle of the arsis. Perhaps this was not a compelling observation for Messiaen, for he believed that there was no tonic accent at all in a masculine group.


Example 17: Wagner, Götterdämmerung, Spear Leitmotif, According to Messiaen


Reproduced with the kind authorization of Editions Alphonse Leduc, proprietary editor worldwide, Paris, France.


The tonic accent is placed on the heavy portion of the feminine group, which contains the ending.51 For Messiaen, a feminine group always contained a tonic accent.


Example 18: Mozart, Zerlina's Aria ("Batti, batti, o bel Masetto"), Don Giovanni, Act I, According to d'Indy



Messiaen expressed reservations with d'Indy's statement that all melodies begin with an expressed or understood anacrusis.52 D'Indy defined an anacrusis as those notes that prepared the tonic accent in both masculine and feminine groups. The first group of any melody usually begins with accessory notes. These notes prepare the first tonic accent in a masculine group and comprise an anacrusis. In a feminine group, the entire light portion prepares the first accent. But unlike a masculine group, the accessory notes lengthen the light portion (or anacrusis) and contribute to the intensification of the first tonic accent.

Messiaen believed that d'Indy contradicted himself by separating the anacrusis from its function of preparing the accent in the feminine group after having stated that it did. I believe that d'Indy was consistent in describing an anacrusis as the preparation for the accent in his prose; the contradiction, per se, lies with his musical examples. D'Indy confused matters by labeling a feminine group's accessory notes as an anacrusis and separating it from the light portion of the group (see Example 18 above).53

To simplify matters, Messiaen offered alternative definitions for masculine and feminine groups. The light portion of a masculine group contains no accent, and the heavy portion consists of a single note that stops abruptly on the thesis. In a feminine group, the entire light portion is the anacrusis, whatever the number of notes. (Again, I believe that this is what d'Indy stated in his description of a feminine group.) The heavy portion begins with a tonic accent that is followed by one or several notes of decreasing intensity. A feminine group consists, therefore, of the three parts that exemplify the tension-relaxation principle mentioned previously: preparation, accent, and descent. For Messiaen, the feminine group was more significant and representative of rhythmic activity. Mozart used feminine groups, moreover, regularly in his music.

Messiaen's teaching on melodic accentuation carries performance implications that cannot be addressed within the confines of this paper. But its emphasis on examining the rhythmic structure of melodies in order to produce sensitive melodic declamation makes it a topic worth pursuing in American music classrooms. Indeed, it could serve as a topic in an upper-level undergraduate course devoted to analysis and performance or be introduced with some simplification in lower-level courses as part of the study of melody.



I close my study of Messiaen's teaching by exploring a side to his pedagogy that was most dependent on the composer-teacher's vision: aesthetics. In directing his students' attention to what was fundamental in a composition, Messiaen went beyond the discussion of theories and techniques and emphasized the aesthetic beauty of a piece. According to Boivin, Messiaen "explored daily the delicate correspondence between la parola and la musica, an old preoccupation indeed in musical aesthetics."54

To examine this aspect of Messiaen's teaching, I return to the filmed class segment and Debussy's Pélleas et Mélisande. Debussy's opera had been a source of inspiration for Messiaen since he was ten years old. The opera offered plenty of material for the composer to use in his classroom to explore relationships between words and music. Thus, let us observe Messiaen discuss the first meeting between Golaud and Mélisande.55

MESSIAEN—So, you see, in this passage, you have first of all Maeterlinck, you have Debussy, and Pelléas. It is a very important passage as far as the text is concerned, and the way in which Debussy sets it to music is very, very important also. So, do you want to tell me what is astonishing in this passage? For me, there are two things that impress me immediately, two important words.

A STUDENT (from a distance)—"Far."

MESSIAEN—There is—thank you, young lady. There is Mélisande who says: "I am not from here, I was not born here, I was born far, far away." And she repeats many times: "far." In other words, the more she repeats it, the more we move away, and the more we feel that she does not belong to our world, that she comes from another world, that she is in another dimension. But immediately Golaud follows up and says to us: "What is that shining under the water?" Does this not impress you? What is extraordinary about this phrase? This phrase must have delighted Debussy! Why?

A STUDENT—The material: water and light.

MESSIAEN—Yes, exactly! Because there is water and light, something that shines under the water. These are the two things about which all of his music is written. Reflets dans l'eau, the title of one of his pieces.

A STUDENT—Poissons d'or. . . .

MESSIAEN—Poissons d'or, in fact, all of Debussy's pieces are written about things in the water and about things that shine. So, I am going to play it for you now, and then I am also going to ask you some questions.

(Then we hear a recorded excerpt from Pelléas et Mélisande in a version directed by Roger Désormière, and the voice and piano playing of Messiaen superimposing itself on it.)


Example 19: Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande, Act I, Scene 1, Golaud



MESSIAEN—Then Golaud says to her: "Where are you? . . . (He sings while playing.) "Where were you born?" Excuse me, I sing very badly, but [. . .] I have a composer's voice, you must admit. (We hear on the recording the sung response of Mélisande.) She responds (he sings): "Oh, far from here, far . . . , far." (We listen to the rest of the recording; Messiaen goes on with the passage, still singing and playing:) "What is that shining under the water?"

Are you able to point out to me, outside of this word "far," which is as important in Mélisande's text and which is followed by a silence [. . .], another place where the orchestra is completely silent in Pelléas? Ah, this is perhaps the most beautiful passage in the score. A place where there is absolutely nothing, and then suddenly there is a harmonic played by the violins. At what moment is it? (General silence.) Ah, it is the most crucial moment for the lovers! It is the moment when they say, "I love you." And yes, in many operatic scores, we see the guy who says: "I love you," clutching his heart and bawling like an animal (Messiaen strikes himself on the chest with his fist. Laughter). Here, though, there is nothing spoken or played other than "I love you"; there is nothing. She answers: "I love you too"; there is nothing.

In this portion of the class session, Messiaen drew attention to what he felt was the essence of Debussy's music: water and light. In Messiaen's opinion, all of Debussy's music sparkled and was associated with water. He believed that Debussy contemplated and appreciated nature, particularly its mobility and continuous undulation, something that the older French composer communicated in his music.56 Hence, Messiaen proposed basic questions for his students to consider as to why Debussy's music was creative and inspirational.

Messiaen pointed to Act 4, scene 4, where Pelléas proclaims his love for Mélisande, as a tremendous moment for the lovers. Other operas would make the most of such a dramatic moment with their characters displaying exaggerated emotions. Not so with Debussy; understatement is even more effective.



Messiaen became an international musical figure and personality through both his composing and teaching, rivaling Arnold Schoenberg. Understanding and appreciating his teaching legacy will better help us evaluate his work in the second half of the twentieth century, because teaching was an important creative outlet for him. Messiaen viewed analysis as a way to further his musical education. We can easily surmise that it had to have played a part in his work as a composer. Conversely, his compositional agenda entered the classroom, producing original analytical insights that he conveyed to his students.

Messiaen was a creative teacher with a gentle soul. He displayed a tremendous command of music literature, style, technique, and aesthetics. His great musicianship was self-evident in his teaching approach at the piano, fluently reading many difficult scores for his students. We may disagree with Messiaen's subjective viewpoints, point to deficiencies in his teaching of harmony, or continue to be perplexed by his sound-color relationships. Yet, we cannot deny the tremendous influence he exerted on countless generations of fortunate pupils who studied with him. This paper aspires to promote that legacy.

1Many studies of Messiaen focus on his work as a composer and neglect his work as a teacher. But according to Pierre Boulez, Messiaen viewed teaching as an important creative outlet. Messiaen's teaching, Boulez continues, probably influenced the composers that studied with him more than his music (see Jean-Jacques Nattiez, ed., Orientations: Collected Writings by Pierre Boulez, trans. Martin Cooper [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986], 406). In recent studies, Jean Boivin has focused on examining Messiaen's work as a pedagogue. With La classe de Messiaen, an abridged version of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Montreal, Boivin characterizes Messiaen's pedagogical approaches and their influences on twentieth-century music (Paris: Christian Bourgois Éditeur, 1995). In two later essays, Boivin explores Messiaen's personality to explain his influence as a teacher ("Messiaen's Teaching at the Paris Conservatoire: A Humanist Legacy," in Messiaen's Language of Mystical Love, ed. Siglind Bruhn [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998], 5-31) and evaluates the contents of the first four volumes of the composer's Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d'ornithologie ("Le Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d'ornithologie d'Olivier Messiaen [tomes I, II, III, IV]," Circuit 9, no. 1 [1998]: 17-25).

2Olivier Messiaen, Technique de mon langage musical, 2 vols. (Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1944); idem, Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d'ornithologie (1949-1992), vols. 1-5 of seven (Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1994-98); Claude Samuel, Entretiens avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1967); trans. Felix Aprahamian as Conversations with Olivier Messiaen (London: Stainer & Bell, 1967); and Claude Samuel and Olivier Messiaen, Musique et couleurs: Nouveaux entretiens avec Claude Samuel (Paris: Belfond, 1986); trans. E. Thomas Glasow as Olivier Messiaen: Music and Color: Conversations with Claude Samuel (Portland, Ore.: Amadeus Press, 1994).

3Boivin, La classe de Messiaen, 181-211.

4Olivier Messiaen et les oiseaux, film by Denise R. Tual and Michel Fano, 80 min., SOFRACIMA, Denise Tual et Fondation Royaumont, 1973.

5Boivin, La classe de Messiaen, 214-223.

6The following background information regarding Messiaen's teaching career is taken from Samuel, Music and Color, 71-72, 175-80.

7Boivin, La classe de Messiaen, 443-46.

8Ibid., 30.

9Samuel, Music and Color, 175.

10Our general considerations are derived from student recollections contained in Boivin, La classe de Messiaen, 182-89.

11Ibid., 194.

12Ibid., 217-20. I would like to express my gratitude to Jean Boivin for granting me permission to reproduce a translation of his transcription and its accompanying musical examples. In addition, I thank Chad Langford for his advice in the refinement of my translation. Lastly, I alert the reader that all descriptive actions contained in brackets and parentheses in this and other translated excerpts are Boivin's interpolations.

13Michel Béroff played Messiaen's piano works at a young age and was the laureate at the first Messiaen Competition. See Samuel, Music and Color, 202.

14According to Boulez, Leibowitz criticized Messiaen's dissociation of musical elements in the Technique de mon langage, saying, for instance, that "one cannot separate rhythm from polyphony." See Pierre Boulez, Notes of an Apprenticeship (Texts Collected and Presented by Paule Thévenin), trans. Herbert Weinstock (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 61.

15Technique de mon langage musical, 1:45.

16Traité de rythme, 1:124-25.

17Ibid., 2:99-100.

18Pieter C. Van den Toorn, The Music of Igor Stravinsky (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983), 63-64.

19Idem, Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring: The Beginnings of a Musical Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 178.

20Darius Milhaud, "Polytonalité et Atonalité," Revue Musicale 4, no. 4 (1923): 29-44.

21Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1991), 165.

22Samuel, Music and Color, 63.

23Ibid., 62-63, 241-42.

24Almut Rössler, Contributions to the Spiritual World of Olivier Messiaen: With Original Texts by the Composer, trans. Barbara Dagg, Nancy Poland, and Timothy Tikker (Duisburg: Gilles und Francke, 1986), 73.

25Boivin, La classe de Messiaen, 216-17.

26Boivin's transcription contains a minor error at this point in which he has Messiaen re-playing measures 10 and 11 instead of 12 and 13 as the film clearly shows. The context of the composer's discussion, furthermore, confirms the measures in question as 12 and 13.

27Messiaen's references to warm and cold colors are drawn from color theory. This should not come as a surprise given his many references to painters and their use of color in his interviews and lectures. Charles Blanc-Gatti, Robert Delaunay, and Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis were among the modern painters mentioned frequently by Messiaen and deemed most influential with respect to his handling of sound-colors in his music.

Messiaen's interest in painting and its relationship to music was evident in his teaching. According to George Benjamin, Messiaen brought reproductions of paintings to class so that students could discuss the employment of colors by each painter (Boivin, La classe de Messiaen, 197). Messiaen drew comparisons between a painter's use of colors and a composer's use of chords. Chords, like colors, move and can change rapidly through transposition, placement in different registers, or the addition of notes that mimic harmonics.

28Alain Louvier, preface to Traité de rythme, viii.

29Rössler, 82-83.

30Samuel, Music and Color, 67.

31See Paul Griffiths, Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time (Ithaca N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 33; and Anthony Pople, "Messiaen's Musical Language: an Introduction," in The Messiaen Companion, ed. Peter Hill (Portland, Ore.: Amadeus Press, 1995), 31.

32Joanny Grosset, "Inde: Histoire de la musique depuis l'origine jusqu'a nos jours," in Albert Lavignac and Lionel de la Laurencie, ed., Encyclopédie de la musique et dictionnaire du conservatoire (Paris: Delagrave, 1913), pt. 1, vol. 1, 296-304. See also Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 10. Due to their use by Messiaen, I employ French transliterations for Śarńgadeva's rhythms throughout the following discussion.

33Samuel, Music and Color, 76.

34Ibid., 72.

35Ibid., 71.

36My examination is taken from the Traité de rythme, 2:124-31.

37Technique de mon langage, 1:6.

38In his analysis, Messiaen associated the variable cells with the Chosen One and the stationary cells with the Old Men (Traité de rythme, 2:125).

39In Example 13, C5 is the bacchius Greek meter (short-long-long).

40Messiaen equated the manipulation of three rhythmic cells to the specific actions of three characters in a play. See Traité de rythme, 2:112-13 and Samuel, Music and Color, 70-71.

41Larry Wayne Peterson, "Messiaen and Rhythm: Theory and Practice" (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1973), 198-99. For Boulez, see Polyphonie X and the Second Piano Sonata; Carter, Variations for Orchestra and the Double Concerto; Pousseur, Trois Chants sacrées; Stockhausen, Zeitmasse; and Webern, Piano Variations (third movement) and String Quartet (second movement). For additional references, see Jean Barraqué, "Rythme et Developpement," Polyphonie IX (1954): 63-73; Boulez, Notes of an Apprenticeship, 163; Elliott Carter, "The Time Dimension in Music," Music Journal (November 1965): 30; and David Drew, "Messiaen: A Provisional Study," The Score 14 (December 1955): 55.

42Boulez, Notes of an Apprenticeship, 61-64, 173.

43Barraqué, 53, 58, 62.

44Vincent d'Indy, Cours de composition musicale, 2 vols. (Paris: Durand and Company, 1912).

45Samuel, Music and Color, 69-70; Olivier Messiaen, Les 22 concertos pour piano de Mozart (Paris: Séguier-Archimbault-Birr, 1987), 119-120; Traité de rythme, 4:133-141.

46Messiaen believed that his rhythmic aesthetic owed much to the practices of Mozart, Debussy, and Stravinsky. See Samuel, Music and Color, 69-72.

47I am not suggesting that there are no compositional ramifications stemming from melodic accentuation; rather, I believe that the real value of this part of Messiaen's pedagogy lies with performance.

48Samuel, Music and Color, 69.

49I draw my material for the following discussion on melodic accentuation from D'Indy's Cours de composition musicale, 1:26-46 and Messiaen's Traité de rythme, 4:133-36.

50D'Indy stated that the terms light and heavy beats (temps léger, temps lourd) were not equivalent to weak and strong beats (temps faible, temps fort) found in solfége treatises (1:26).

51According to Messiaen (Traité, 4:135), one (muette) or several notes (désinence) rebound from a tonic accent and constitute a feminine ending.

52In making this assertion, d'Indy cited Hugo Riemann's statement that no melody begins on a heavy beat (1:35).

53Messiaen quoted d'Indy to support his argument that the older musician contradicted himself: "Si le groupe est féminin, la préparation de l'accent est faite par toute la fraction légère du groupe; en ce cas, les notes accessoires du début, ayant pour effet d'allonger cette fraction légère, contribuent au reinforcement de l'accent tonique" ("If the group is feminine, the preparation of the accent is made by the entire light portion of the group; in this case, the accessory notes at the beginning, having as their function to lengthen this light portion, contribute to the intensity of the tonic accent"). Implied by the italics of Messiaen's quotation is the idea that accessory notes constitute the anacrusis in a feminine group, since they do indeed prepare the tonic accent in a masculine group. Missing from this quote, however, are d'Indy's words that follow the phrase "ayant pour effet d'allonger cette fraction légère": "(ou anacrouse)." See d'Indy, 1:35; Traité de rythme, 4:136.

54Boivin, "Messiaen's Teaching at the Paris Conservatoire: A Humanist Legacy," 17.

55Boivin, La classe de Messiaen, 221-23.

56Samuel, Music and Color, 70.

18432 Last modified on October 17, 2018