Thursday, 12 May 2016

Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum - Olivier Messiaen
After discussing the power of musical cues in previous blogs I came by chance across Olivier Messiaen’s score of Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum written in 1964. Reading through the score made me think about Messiaen’s use of references instead of the pitch and rhythm structures which had occupied me before. The cues are there from the start with the title which translates as “And I wait for the resurrection of the dead”.

In the introduction to the work Messiaen paraphrases passages from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica concerning the resurrection. As this blog is examining cues and their effect on listeners there is a necessity to understand some of the views regarding the concept of resurrection, particularly in societies like my own in which religious belief and reading is on the decline. I shall endeavour to make a very brief summary:

The raising of the dead plays a central role in Christian belief which states that Jesus died and rose from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection shows the possibility that some or all of us may be reborn in the future. Will both Christians and non-Christians will be resurrected? The conventional thought is that it is for all, but the type of resurrection may be different for believers and non-believers.

One may say with some assurance that Messiaen belonged to the believers, and it is from this angle that one should consider the first of these cues. The titles of the five sections are secondary cues to the title, here they are in French and English:

"Des profondeurs de l'abîme, je crie vers toi, Seigneur: Seigneur, écoute ma voix!"

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications!

"Le Christ, ressuscité des morts, ne meurt plus; la mort n'a plus sur lui d'empire."

Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.

"L'heure vient où les morts entendront la voix du Fils de Dieu..."

Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.

"Ils ressusciteront, glorieux, avec un nom nouveau -- dans le concert joyeux des étoiles et les acclamations des fils du ciel."

The following two translations are mine as the text is a combination of partial verses.

They rise, glorious, with a new name - in the joyous concert of stars and the ovations of the sons of heaven.

"Et j'entendis la voix d'une foule immense..."

And I heard the voice of an immense crowd

The fourth quotation deserves a little closer examination, if we take the passage as a whole we have God the architect speaking from a whirlwind:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone,

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted their joy.

For me this reference addresses the whole process of creation which is also reflected in the art and music of man. I am sure that the knowledge of this extended reference is intended.

It won’t have escaped the attention of most readers that the term voice recurs both as personal (hear my voice) and as represented by the voice of Christ.  The quality of the voice changes between pleading and joyous. Do these cues suggest that the music is to take on a (particular) vocal character? Connections have been made between the melodic material of Et Exspecto and plainsong and for those interested in learning more of the correlation of the two I would recommend the commentary by J.H. Rubin at

On a more immediate and less intellectual level there is a vocal character to the music despite the use of the augmented fourth and major 7ths and minor 9ths. In its intention it has similarities to the main melody of “Stone Litany” by Peter Maxwell Davies though the treatment is more homophonic in Messiaen’s hands. A second difference between the composers is that Messiaen permits himself repetition of phrases or parts of phrases while Maxwell Davies’s melody undergoes continual variation. Though two themes are marked as plainsong based there are a number of unmarked phrases which carry the same musical design and these appear throughout the work.

Returning to the use of the term voice it is evident that there is an extension of the human voice to the sounds and style of organ technique, and this is further adapted to the winds of the orchestra. The suggestion of organ tones is blended with a vast array of percussion (including 3.5 octaves of tuned cowbells). A short historical deviation from the main work offers some thoughts on the selection of timbres, Messiaen had received a commission to write a work for three trombones and three xylophones, in contemplating how to make use of the ensemble he came to associate the trombone with an apocalyptic sonority which took him into revisiting the text dealing with the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelations. The text of Revelations leads us from the trombone to the trumpets

And the seven angels had seven trumpets

And one can imagine that the connection with fanfares is made, so we have in the opening movement a 20th century fanfare with short phrases (often of 7 notes) in a ‘super-human’ (in the sense of extending the range and timbre of the) voice.

What of the percussion? In the blog on cues I referred to the use of previous music and its forms as a stimulus to both expectation and denial, while familiarity with a wider group of musicians and their style helps consolidate our acceptance of the sound world explored in the composition. The percussion orchestra is a development of the gamelan sounds experienced by Debussy and links Messiaen through to Boulez, they make a link with the East and proclaim the universality of the music. The percussion also brings in the qualities of sound, noise and the gradual movement to silence which provides the 20th century character to a music strongly related to the past.

Just in case these cues are insufficient to stimulate particular pictorial images while we listen Messiaen offers further notes to each of these quotations shown above, some reflect more recent scientific outlooks as understood by the composer, this is on the 4th section:

"Our time of scientific precision, at the time of the theories on the expansion of the universe one perceives that the Bible always told the truth, that the number of stars are really "innumerable”.

Some parts are more religious and poetic:

The …bells and cencererros, the Hallelujah chorus of trumpets with its halo of harmonics, symbolise one of the qualities of the “glorious body”.

And as the informed listener might expect reference is made to bird-song “its joy and gift of agility.”

For Messiaen bird song and human song is all part of the outpouring of praise for God as the following quotation indicates:

“Plainsong Alleluias, Greek and Hindu rhythms, permutations of note-values, birdsong of different countries all these accumulated materials are placed at the service of colour….The sound-colours in their turn are a symbol of the Celestial City and of Him who dwells there.”

Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum was initially commissioned to commemorate the war dead. If time permits the reader it may be of interest to compare Messiaen and Britten in their responses to similar commissions; for Messiaen, a devout Catholic, death is followed by everlasting life and this is to be celebrated. Britten makes his focus the pity of war and his cues both in text and word painting direct us to emphasise different considerations.

When following Et Exspecto with a score it is possible to focus on the details of pitch and rhythmic organisation and get embroiled in the kaleidoscopic changes of material. There are so many layers of linear formations subjected to ever varying rhythmic changes set within passages of percussive sounds and silence. Take a step away from the detail and we have music which flows, sometimes slowly or very slowly and sometimes with great rapidity. This is a characteristic of non-progressive harmony intensified by the absence of a regular pulse. The use of a constant beat does occur in Et Exspecto but it is retained for the final movement and appears in the percussion, the 6 gongs beating out semiquavers against the 3 tam-tams crotchets. Its restricted use provides the energy for a powerful conclusion. The melody in this section moves in steady crotchet and minims with the minims coming at the end of relatively short phrases, it is a modern view of organum, and very effective in its simplicity.

Moving further out again and the passages form very clearly defined sections of alternating textures, and in the fourth movement for example these take on a mirror formation. (ABACABACABA) Once we are at this macro level the music is simple and direct.

Are the cues for the audience alone, or are they a stimulus for the composer, or both? Could the work stand on its own without any other references? My view is that it could, but having been introduced to the cues it is impossible to forget that knowledge and now it is integrated into my understanding of the whole work and the man and his music.

The music may be heard at: