Composer Olivier Messiaen may be called, among other things, an assembler of interpolated meanings with respect to how he conceives of and composes music. The nature and diversity of the elements he ‘assembles’ is not even limited to musical devices but extends to the fields of linguistics, color, imitations of nature, symbolism,  movement, and poetry. This short study will concentrate on the latter two elements, movement and poetry, as seen specifically in Messiaen’s evoking of the triadic ancient Greek ode form. Two of his most famous pieces, Chronochromie and the first movement of Catalogue d’Oiseaux (among others where the triadic form is either expressly employed or vaguely implied) derive their musical forms from the triadic ode format. Knowing Messiaen’s vast “cultural, historical and stylistic promiscuity” (Hill 393) and his habit of imbuing his musical works with extramusical phenomena (not to mention his early education in Greek poetry), one would immediately suspect there to be a reason behind his allusion to these ancient poetic forms.  But then, knowing Messiaen’s propensity to obfuscate and veil his influences and devices to the point of imperceptibility, one wonders if the musical illustration of these poetic forms will be so subtle as to evade an understanding of the connection in the first place.

    There is much evidence that any investigation will show no connection between the two art forms short of dubious hyper-analytical connections drawn from specious observations. Hill alludes to Messiaen’s “somewhat wayward adaptation of the Greek originals” (412) and Messiaen’s own writings offer little help in understanding his method of adaptation, stating only  that his works utilize and illustrate the Greek forms and then moving on to some other topic (Samuel 76). In his Traité de rythme, couleur, et d’ornithology Messiaen writes on the content of Chronochromie’s strophe-antistrophe-epode form for 15 pages without suggesting a possible rhythmic connection that might have informed his use of the odes in the first place (Messiaen 84-100). Reasoning behind his selection of the odes is not even mentioned in Technique de mon langage musicale. If the poetic forms, when worn by Messiaen’s music, retain some essential reflection of their nature; its musical appearance could be as chimerical as any other of the techniques and references he had used in his work.

    Before exploring Messiaen’s use of Greek poetic forms, it is important to know what they originally were, so as to better recognize them within his musical fabric. The triadic form which Messiaen employs is that of the old Greek odes, specifically those of Pindar (Crotty, 24). Pindaric odes are those which take this strophe-antistrophe-epode shape, wherein the antistrophe uses exactly the same metrical scheme of the strophe, and the epode is similar, but different (ibid.). Because the specific meter of the ode would have varied due to many factors including the occasion for which it was written, we shall have to use this general formal definition of the Pindaric ode as our guide. Indeed, not only did the strophe-antistrophe pair enjoy a parallel relationship, but they became shadows of one another when one realizes that the odes involved movement during recitation, with the strophe danced to the left and the antistrophe to the right. The epode was recited (sung) standing still (Mullen, 90-91).

    Already the student of Messiaen’s music can start imagining correlations between the poetic form and his musical language: can the Greek long-short syllable patterns be reflected in the rhythms of tones or duration of sections in these ‘strophic’ musical excerpts? Can the movement of the triadic form indicate the positive/negative/static nature of the trois personages rhythmiques? Will the identical metrical structures of the strophe-antistrophe pair be mirrored somehow in the duration or formal construction of the musical movements? Surely the nature of Greek poetry allows so many possible connections to Messiaen’s philosophy of music, but it remains that the proof must lie not in knowledge of the composer’s predilections but in the musical output itself.

    The massive musical litany Catalogue d’Oiseaux (1956-58) and the imposing artistic statement Chronochromie (1959-60) both come from one of the climatic periods in Messiaen’s musical output when, according to Peter Hill, “he foreswore his box of tricks - his modes of limited transposition and deçî-tâlas - to set forth with only his acute musical ear, of which he was so proud, as guide” (392). It does not seem from this assessment that firm analytical ground could be found for anything, least of all his employment of ‘an ancient technique in modern dress’ (ibid.) such as the case at hand. Even Messiaen, when talking to Claude Samuel regarding Catalogue d’Oiseaux, states in the same breath his attempt to “depict exactly the...birdsong...” but also the fact that “people who really know the birds might not be able to recognize them in my music...unintentionally I may introduce something of my own manner of listening in reproducing the birdsong” (61). Considering he labeled the first movement of the Catalogue as a Greek poetic triad, and even gave programmatic mile markers along the way, it is very possible the poetic form could have suffered the same assimilative fate as the birdsong: having entered Messiaen through his curiosity but left through his creativity, there may be more evidence of the musician than the poet in this musical verse. The mere use of a such a rigidly programmatic, almost cinematic, compositional style would seem to preclude any place for the work within the structured walls of the Pindaric ode. But it is by his program that Messiaen manages to mirror the poetic form quite closely (an ingeniously).

    The movement, entitled Chocard des Alpes, follows the flight of one of these Alpine Choughs and its flock, and in the score Messiaen provides a narrative introduction in which one can already see his consideration for the unique characteristics of the triadic form:

    “Strophe: the alps of the dauphiné, l’Oisans. Rising toward the Maidje and its three glaciers. First couplet: near the chancel hut; the Lake of Puy-Vacher, marvellous mountain landscape, chasms and precipices. Uttering its cry the alpine chough, separated from its flock, flies over the precipice. The veiled flight, silent and majestic, of the golden eagle, borne on aerial currents. The raucous and ferocious croackings and groanings of the Raven, lord of the high mountain. Various cries of Choughs and their acrobatic flight (glides-swoops and loopings) above the chasms.

    Antistrophe: before Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans, the Clapier Saint-Christophe: the chaos of crumbling, Dante-esque rocks, piled up in disorder by the giants of the mountains. Second couplet: an alpine chough circles the landscape, flying as in the First couplet.

    Epode: Les Ecrins: the crique de Bonne-Pierre, with its immense rocks, aligned like phantom giants, or like the towers of a supernatural fortress.”

    We see the strophe opens over the grandiose and mysterious landscape of the Alps, and then in his couplets we have the lost Alpine Chough, flying over the chasms. We hear not only the chough’s cry but that of the raven (Grand Corbeau), and amid the cries of many choughs the strophe ends. The antistrophe opens on a slightly different landscape, in a way more intimate (or at least less general) than the backdrop for the strophe. The scene is much the same, but it is as if we are seeing a small magnified segment of the long-shot action of the strophe. The epode ushers in a new focus for our mental eyes and ears; instead of seeing our heroic bird fly amid the mysterious rock formations, we are transfixed by the rocks themselves. The titular bird is not even mentioned, thus creating not only a contrast, but by retaining the landscape and developing it almost into a character of this drama, Messiaen creates a contrast from a unity. The fact that the bird and the flock make their appearance in the scene-by-scene indications in the score but not in the narrative preface reflects how their presence in the second section is merely an echo of their role in the first.

    As each event unfolds, many indications are written into the score, making it easy to identify where each segment of the triadic poem begins and ends. Within the music, thanks to the parallel story line, we are witness to parallel, yet different, music; thus the music represents the similar-yet-different quality of the strophe-antistrophe relationship. A brief look at the musical sections of each poetic structure can reveal their similarities and differences (all metronome markings [M] are for the eighth note):

M=120: en montant vers le glacier de la Meidje

M=112 Chocard des Alpes [Alpine chough]
M=132 les Chocards
M=40 Cri du Chocard
M=52 ascension immobile et mystérieuse
M=132 and 144 Grand Corbeau [Raven]
M=160 and 112 les Chocards
M=72 and 92 [no title given]
M=160 vol des Chocards
M=40 Cri du Chocard
M=160 vol des Chocards

M=120 Chaus de blocs écroulés du clapier Saint Christophe
M=112 Chocard des Alpes [Alpine chough]
M=72 and 92 [no title given]
M=40 Cri du Chocard
M=52 ascension immobile et mystérieuse
M=132 and 144 Grand Corbeau [Raven]
M=160 and 112 les Chocards
M=132 and 112 les Chocards
M=160 vol des Chocards
M=40 Cri du Chocard
M=160 vol des Chocards

    In this format it is clear to see many things about the related structures of the two sections: the first moment at 120 introduces the landscape rather than the bird itself, the landscape which will become so important in the epode; at M=112 the Alpine Chough is introduced, and the sections end with the double vol des Chocards interrupted by the solitary Cri du Chocard. With a closer look we see that every section is repeated (at least by name if not by actually musical content), but the order is different. Indeed, the M=72 and 92 pairing which mysteriously has no programmatic title, which appeared at the end of the strophe makes its way to the beginning of the antistrophe. In addition, the musical content in the antistrophe’s M=72 section in particular is a quasi retrograde of its partner section in the strophe. This also relegates the M132 and 112 pairing to switch spots as well, and perhaps we think this unnamed M=72 and 92 section has something to do with the action, as its two locations in the piece appear closely together while the sound of the entire flock of choughs (M=132 and 112) appears at the beginning and the end, possibly to illustrate the flock’s initial unity disrupted by the lost bird, and its unity regained. This is one point Messiaen does not write words about, but perhaps the answer is in the music itself.

    The epode does what an epode should do, which is contrast with the strophe-antistrophe pair; it occurs with the title crique fantômatique de Bonne Pierre and it contains only this section, at only one tempo (M=120). This is different not only because up until this point we have not stayed in one tempo for more than twenty something measures, but also because during all the metrical modulations of the strophe-antistrophe, M=120 was never heard (Messiaen, 1-10). As Mullen imagines the audiences witnessing the dancing of the original Greek odes, “As one saw the dancers block out a special pattern in the space reserved for the epode, one would also experience a special emphasis on the words reserved for it” (91).

    If a musical epode ever displayed special musical emphasis, it is the aviary scene in Chronochromie. In this work Messiaen’s double strophe-antistrophe form is bookended by a musically coherent but poetically unrelated introduction and coda pair, but not before the appearance of the epode to close the central ode triad. All throughout Chronochromie the musical structure owes its coherence to serially interverted orders of rhythmic duration which dictate lengths of sections, phrases, timbral effects, and in the case of the strophes, entire movements. These interversions even make an appearance in the nearly irrelevant (mutually related but outside the scheme of the internal movements) introduction-coda pair, but in the epode not one of the 32 durational rows are to be found. The epode is dedicated to 18 solo strings chirping away at birdcalls, all within one steady tempo and an unchanging 4 / 8 meter (except for a silent 3/8 bar to close the movement). The result, in a work whose mathematical structures are audibly evident, is an aural effect of improvisation en masse creating an impenetrable texture unheard anywhere else in the piece.

    The strophes and antistrophes which precede it come in two pairs, the former of each having its entire length decided by the progression of the 32 durational interversions. As a result, the strophes, being in the same tempo as each other, have exactly the same temporal duration. Each contains 33 measures of 4 / 8 at M=92, with one silent 2 / 8 bar to end the movement. The music they contain is completely different, and the steady 4 / 8, while not quite as clouded as it is in the epode, is hardly perceptible due to the disparate musical lines acting upon one another simultaneously. Yet the listener perceives their connective fabric, which all the more sets up the contrast of the antistrophes.

    In the antistrophes, only fragments of a few of the 32 interverted rows are employed, which makes them nearly imperceptible to the ear and makes one wonder why Messiaen included them at all. What does distinguish the antistrophes is their nearly constant pulse in various (mostly mallet percussion) instruments. This quasi-monodic texture is contrasted with the strophe’s dense timbres and mixed rhythmic counterpoint. However, the antistrophes counterbalance this seemingly easy-to-follow texture by undergoing nearly constant changes to meter and tempo, a technique unseen in the strophes. The antistrophes are rarely in a time signature for more than one bar, and undergo numerous tempo changes. It is interesting to note that although the periods spent in each tempo differ (due to different meters and numbers of measures used), the progression of tempo changes in both antistrophes are identical:

(here "e" refers to an eighth note. Pv)
e=160,  e=144,  e=160,  e=144,  e=160,  x=120,  e=50,  x=168

    Unfortunately it seems the similarities between the antistrophes end there; an analysis of their duration based on tempo shows that within the 5 tempi (as expressed in quarter note M values as M=80, 72, 30, 25 and 42) antistrophe I’s measures totaled 23, 43, 14.75, 12.25, and 17.25 quarter note equivalents while antistrophe II reached 67.625, 99.75, 15.75, 14.5, and 32 quarter note equivalents respectively. This makes the ratio of the duration of the two antistrophes 1:1.799, contrasting with the identical periods of the strophes.

    Messiaen manages to solve the problem of creating this similar-opposite relationship between strophe and antistrophe by having the strophes, restricted in tempo and duration, act as a control while the antistrophes, following identical maps but taking different directions as it were, exhibit a more diversified musical possibility within the same rhythmic-durational system. Thus the strophes dutifully dance to the left, after which the antistrophes remove any ground gained by dancing back to the right, over the same tracks but with every motion turned to its inversion. The intangible coherence of the nebulous epode becomes the equivalent of the Greek chorus standing still to recite the concluding part of the poetic triad. The addition of this ‘organized chaos’  rounds out the Chronochromie’s rhythmic game; it too uses a rigid single tempo and meter like the strophes, but varies to the extreme in content and affect, as mentioned earlier. In this sense, by having the final word in a rhythmic riddle completely override the structural integrity which lent coherence to the preceding sections, this epode lives up to Gilbert Murray’s idea of it’s role from his Classical Tradition of Poetry: “[the epode] puts a crown on the pair, much as the central figure in the pediment puts a crown on the two sides” (Johnson 160).

    While the smaller-scale Chocard des Alpes allows Messiaen to weave a highly specific and detailed allusion to the Greek poetic triad, Chronochromie reflects those relationships best when the entire musical structure is taken into consideration rather than focusing on every local musical event which occurs therein. In the reversal of section sequence and the occasional retrograde of material in Chocard, Messiaen achieves the unique strophe-antistrophe relation, while in Chronochromie this duality is achieved by seeing contrasting functional and aesthetic  results arise from the same starting techniques. This mirrored parallelism coupled with the epodes’ reflection of stasis, either the physical stasis of the rocks depicted in Chocard or the perceived metrical stasis in Chronochromie, completes what is in the end a subtle and masterful musical rendering of the relations of rhythmic content and movement associated with each section of the Greek poetic triad. If it seems that Messiaen did not follow the rules closely enough, it should be remembered that no great artistic mind, including the poet Pindar, ever concerned himself more with following rules than bringing into being the art he wished to create. Messiaen was, after all, not writing poetry but music, and he was bound to let the characteristic nature and limitations of his own art guide his use of content, regardless of what extra musical source may have inspired him.

Works Cited


Crotty, Kevin. Song & Action: The Victory Odes of Pindar. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Johnson, Robert Sherlaw. Messiaen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Hill, Peter, ed. The Messiaen Companion. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1995.

Lattimore, Richmond (tr). The Odes of Pindar. Chicago: Universitry of Chicago Press, 1947.

Messiaen, Olivier. Catalogue d’Oiseaux pour piano. Paris: Leduc, 1960.

Messiaen, Olivier. Chronochromie pour grand orchestre. Paris: Leduc, 1963.

Messiaen, Olivier. Technique de mon langage musicale. Paris: Leduc, 1956.

Messiaen, Olivier. Traité de rythme, couleur, et d’ornithologie. Vol III, ChIIA: Analyse de <<Chronochromie>> pour orchestre. Paris: Leduc, 1949-1992.

Mullen, William. Chorieia: Pindar & Dance. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Samuel, Claude.  Conversations with Olivier Messiaen. tr. Felix Aprahamian. Stainer & Bell: London, 1976.

Willcock, M.M. Pindar Victory Odes, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.


Annis, William S. “Introduction to Greek Meter” January 2006, Google. 28 November 2006. <<        greek+meter&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=1&client=firefox-a>>

Golston, Chris and Riad, Thomas. “The phonology of Classical Greek meter” 14 December 1998, revised 27 July 1999, California State University Fresno & Stockholm University. 28 November 2006.                                     <<        s/GreekMeter.pdf+greek+meter&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=2&client=firefox-a>>

Andrew Shenton, ed. “Messiaen’s chronological works list” Boston University Messiaen Project. 25 November 2006.

“Ode”.  Poet’s Graves Glossary of Poetic Terms: <<>>

Other Media:

Messiaen, Olivier. Catalogue d’Oiseaux, Le Fauvette des Jardins pour piano. Yvonne Loriod. Erato, 1971-3.

Messiaen, Olivier. Chronochromie pour grand orchestre. Musique de Notre Temps. Manuel Rosenthal, cond. Disques Ades, 1988.

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