About this Recording
8.572472 - MESSIAEN, O.: Visions de l'Amen / DEBUSSY, C.: En blanc et noir (van Raat, Austbo)
English  French 

Claude Debussy (1862–1918): En blanc et noir (1915)
Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992): Visions de l’Amen (1943)


Both works on this recording, milestones in the repertoire for two pianos, were composed in wartime at crucial points in the composers’ lives.

Debussy passed the summer of 1915 at Pourville on the Normandy coast. He was struggling with his health and suffering from the horrors of the war and from the recent loss of his mother. He had already started to compose the three two-piano pieces En blanc et noir in Paris. The air at the seaside must have done him good, for not only did he complete the three pieces, but wrote his last masterpiece for the piano, the Twelve Etudes, and made a start on the ambitious project of six sonatas “for various instruments”, of which only three were to be finished.

The Western front was about a hundred kilometres away and the cannons were sometimes audible at Pourville. Debussy, therefore, could never quite escape the war and took on an increasingly chauvinistic attitude. Some of this is reflected in the music and in the titles of En blanc et noir. Claude de France, as he had started to call himself, quotes François Villon’s Ballade contre les ennemis de la France as a motto for the second piece. It starts off in a dark, gloomy atmosphere, opposed to the lightness and transparency of the simple tunes in the treble (symbolizing the purity of the French spirit?) to evolve into a real battle-scene where reminiscences of German chorales are heard in the midst of cavalry sounds and trumpet fanfares, the latter finally prevailing in a triumphant fortissimo, éclatant. It is as if Debussy predicts the victory over the Germans that he was never to experience.

If this second piece has long lines of tension and a dramatic build-up, the two others are much more pointilliste, volatile and mercurial, matching the style of the sonatas and the études. The very opening justifies the title of the cycle in its use of the opposite colours of the black and white piano keys, as does the third piece in its chromatic, capricious opening theme. If the dark shadow of war still can be felt in both pieces, it is attenuated by the dancing quality of the first and by the witty, albeit somewhat sarcastic, elegance of the third.

Messiaen, in another war, returned to Paris in 1941 from war imprisonment, where he had written the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Having taken on a job as harmony professor at the Conservatoire, he soon discovered the extraordinary pianistic talent of one of his students, Yvonne Loriod, who was only seventeen at the time. Messiaen, himself an accomplished pianist, soon decided to write a work for the two of them to perform together. It became a huge cycle and they performed it numerous times throughout the world in the years to follow. Loriod was later to become Messiaen’s second wife.

The work was revolutionary in many ways. The duration of nearly one hour, the use of the percussive as well as the melodic and harmonic potential of the piano, the religious connotations, shamelessly combining the divine with the erotic; all this provoked weighty discussions in French public life. The turmoil was going to last for years, well beyond the performance of Messiaen’s next monumental work for Yvonne Loriod, the two hour cycle Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus.

Although some characteristic traits of Messiaen’s style were already in place in the pre-war organ works and song cycles, it was the circumstances around Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps that, in a decisive way, triggered the ideas behind his mature musical language, that were further to be enhanced in Visions de l’Amen. Since the age of twenty Messiaen had explored the use of colours in music corresponding to his synesthetic colour hearing. This resulted in a system of modes (scales) with limited transposition, each with its own set of colours. The main cyclic theme of Visions, for instance, is written in the first transposition of his mode 2 with A as a tonal centre. This gives a bright blue colour with shadows of blue violet and reflections of gold and ruby—at least in Messiaen’s own, subjective perception.

Parallel to the exploration of harmonic–melodic colouring, Messiaen carried out bold renewals in the realm of musical time. As he often said, “rhythm is colouring of time”, and, correspondingly, the blue-violet theme played by the second piano in the opening as well as in the closing piece, is framed by a rhythmic pedal, played in the extreme registers by the first piano. In the first piece, the rhythm is a combination of five rhythmical palindromes, or non-retrogradable rhythms. In the seventh piece, it is a juxtaposition of three deci-tâlas; rhythms originating from the Indian tradition, used as a rhythmic theme by Messiaen in numerous works and here repeated ad infinitum in a stepwise tighter canon. The sounds are typically bell-like, inspired by the sounds of the Indonesian gamelan, discovered by Debussy already in 1889 and cherished by Messiaen. The effect of all this is a feeling of cosmic dimensions, rising from the darkness in No1 (the Creation) in an uncompromising crescendo, or thrown out in ecstatic joy in No 7 (the Consummation). The cosmos is certainly present in No 2 (the stars and the planets), starting with a wild dance of the planets in the second piano, which later is developed along with rhythmic pedals in the first piano. The agony and suffering of Jesus is depicted in No 3 by three elements: a discordant bell-sound representing God’s curse, a cry of pain, and a lament on four notes repeated in cross-rhythms. In No 4 two kinds of desire are expressed. One is the absolute calm, the ecstasy of Paradise; the other, the carnal passion, the thirst for love. Both themes are played by the second piano and then combined with various ornaments and rhythmic pedals in the first piano.

Bird-song, at that time, played an increasingly important rôle in Messiaen’s music. He transcribed this as heard in nature, adapting the intervals to the instruments. In No 5 they are preceded by the pure unison of the Angels and the Saints. Finally, No 6 expresses the harshness of the Judgement of the damned, before the joy of the last piece breaks out.

In this way, the Amen is presented in seven different aspects in its four possible meanings:

Amen, so be it! The creative act.
Amen, thou will shall happen. I accept, I submit.
Amen, the wish, the desire, let it be so.
Amen, it is, fixed once and for all, consumed in Paradise.

The rôle of the two pianos is clearly divided. Melodic and expressive elements are confined to the second piano (Messiaen’s part) whereas all that is percussion, brilliance and rhythmic development is heard in the first piano (Loriod’s part). The combination of the two elements; the harmonic-melodic colouring and the colouring of time, so essential to Messiaen’s mature style, is thus manifested and reflected in the perfectly logical and original way of using the instruments. Visions de l’Amen stands out as a monument in Messiaen’s work and in the music of the twentieth century.

Håkon Austbø

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