Piet van der Steen

Rhythm in Messiaen's organ works
Het ORGEL 95 (1999), nr. 5, 14-24 [summary]

In the music of the most important organ composer of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), rhythm plays a dominant role. Until about 1935, Messiaen was influenced by Debussy's way of composing, but in La Nativité du Seigneur (1935), he introduced new concepts, like 'valeur ajouté', rhythmic canons, irreversible rhythms, 'personnages rythmiques', 'pédale rythmique', Eastern and ancient Greek rhythms. Messiaen was inspired to do so by the book Samgîta-ratnâkara, written by Çârngadeva (India, 13th century) and by the metrical feet in ancient Greek poems. He explained his methods of composing in Technique de mon langage musical (1944). How Messiaen's way of applying Eastern and ancient rhythm concepts developed after that, can be heard in Livre d'orgue (1951), in which the rhythm has become the most important aspect of the composition. For example, Pièce en trio (part V) is based on six 'personnages rythmiques'. Part 1 of Messiaen's book Traité de Rythme, which was announced long before by the composer, was published in 1994. Messiaen writes about Greek meters and Hindu rhythms and analyses how these are applied in his works in the Traité. In the chapter called 'Time', the parallels between the lifetime of man and the emancipation of note values in a rhythm become visible. Messiaen was clearly influenced by the French philosopher Bergson in this respect.