Olivier Messiaen's Chronochromie

-- a program note --

    Olivier Messiaen was born on 10 December 1908 in Avingnon, France and died in Paris on 27 April 1992. He started composing Chronochromie (on commission by Heinrich Ströbel) in 1959, completing the score the next year. It received its world premiere on 16 October 1960 in Donaueschingen, Germany, the Südwest-funk Orchestra under the baton of Hans Rosbaud. It is scored for a ‘grand orchestre’ consisting of piccolo, three flutes, 2 oboes plus English horn, 2 clarinets, sopranino and bass clarinets, 3 bassoons, 3 trumpets plus piccolo trumpet, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba, strings and a percussion section consisting of glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, 25 tuned bells, 3 gongs, 2 cymbals, and tam-tam. It is interesting to note the absence of piano in the score to Chronochromie, as the instrument was a fixture in much of his other work.

    Olivier Messiaen was known throughout his long life as a composer, organist, educator, ornithologist, and theorist.  He influenced some of the most well-known (and asthetically opposed) composers of the 20th century, from Boulez to Bernstein, Knussen to Stockhausen, while creating a body of work altogether unique to himself. Messiaen’s music is permeated by his own artistic philosophies, religious convictions, and personal interests, disparate influences combining to produce an artistic whole which frequently defies definition by western musical standards. If Messiaen’s music seems ‘universal’, ‘timeless’, ‘elemental’ or ‘hypnotic’, it is due in large part to the extensive extramusical influences which he employed as compositional tools, many of which reach their apex in Chronochromie.

    Messiaen’s musical output can be divided (as can the works of Beethoven and Stravinsky) into three periods, of which it can be said that Chronochromie closes the second. Messiaen’s first period, lasting from his first explorations of composition through the war years including the creation of the Quatour pour la Fin du Temps (1941), establishes many of the compositional techniques which would later become the trademarks of his style, including the use of asymmetrical Greek and Hindu rhythms and temporal relationships, his self-titled ‘modes of limited transposition’ (scales which will, upon transposition to another note, soon yield the same collection of pitches), and the prevalence of rhythmic and melodic symmetry as an element of form and structure. The Quatour of the 1940’s also saw Messiaen’s first identified use of birdsong as a structural and melodic element, a technique which would pervade nearly all of his works from that point on (collected and showcased extensively in Le Merle Noir (1951), Oiseaux Exotiques (1956) and the massive Catalogue d’Oiseaux (1958).

    It was in the 1950’s that Messiaen started to write increasingly experimental music, responding to the artistic aesthetic of the age and criticisms by his students of some of his more traditional works. These years of his ‘second period’ saw the creation of such iconoclastic and enigmatic works as the Etudes de Rhythme for piano (1950), and the above mentioned birdsong works. The musical language of these works is distinct, utilizing juxtapositions of wildly contrasting blocks of material (Reveil des Oiseaux, 1953), a lack of development and reliance on serial techniques to shape form (Cantéyodjayâ, 1950) and the employment of birdsong as primary melodic material.

    All of this sets the stage for Chronochromie (1959-60), which can be seen as not only a culmination of Messiaen’s experimental techniques of the 1950’s but indeed their apotheosis (as seen by his third period, which begins almost directly after Chronochromie and is marked by a more sensual, almost romantic approach to creating atmospheres of sound and a lessening of importance on formal structure).

    The word Chronochromie  is of Messiaen’s own devising and comes from two Greek words Khronos (time) and Khrôma (color); thus the title can be interpreted, The Colors of Time, or Time-Color as a single concept. The work is divided into seven sections, which are separated by measured durations of silence (movements technically follow attaca, but due to these silences it may seem there is a break in between). The sections are labeled: Introduction, Strophe I, Antistrophe I, Strophe II, Antistrophe II, Epode, Coda, suggesting some influence of Messiaen’s earlier interest in Greek poetic forms and rhythms.

    As the title may suggest, Chronochromie is primarily about the coloring of time, or more accurately, of duration.  Messiaen manages to accomplish this by creating rhythmic ‘duration-rows’ (like the pitch tone-row, which uses a set of elements in a specific order with none repeated) using 32 durational values interverted in distinct orders. In the two Strophe movements, Messiaen overlaps 3 of these interverted rows, giving the resulting orders of durations to pitches or chords in distinct instrument groups (usually divisi strings or the gamelan-like percussion section). Because ultimately all 3 ‘rows’ contain the same total durational value, they all end at the same time, and this marks the end of the movement. Messiaen uses these rows sparingly in the other movements, but it is in the Strophes that we see the entire structure of the section defined by these rows or ordered duration.

    The resulting overlays of durations are delineated sonically by shifting timbres, changing harmonies in the strings, and the appearance of certain kinds of birdsongs (hence ‘coloring’ the ‘time’). That these durations may be made evident to the ear by these changing timbres and harmonies, especially when 3 orders are occurring at the same time, may have been an ambitious aim on the part of Messiaen (who did believe his audience would hear the rhythms thus highlighted), but the result is a kaleidoscope of changing tonal colors amid movements which are surprisingly, if somewhat enigmatically, logical in the their construction even if the underlying structures are not perceived consciously.

    Thus in Chronochomie Messiaen builds on his techniques of rhythmic duration exemplified in his earliest pieces, the serial ordering of elements as seen in his experimental works of the 1950’s, and the element of birdsong as a melodic or structural element which began in the 1940’s with the Quatour pour la Fin du Temps. This last element, that of birdsong, will be made most evident in the penultimate Epode section, which consists exclusively of varied birdsongs for 18 solo strings. This unique moment creates a texture at once as complex as the preceding Strophes and as open as free improvisation, cleansing the aural palate before the concluding Coda.

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