No 1: La colombe
No 2: Chant d'extase dans un paysage triste
No 3: Le nombre léger
No 4: Instants défunts
No 5: Les sons impalpables du rêve
No 6: Cloches d'angoisse et larmes d'adieu
No 7: Plainte calme
No 8: Un reflet dans le vent
‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ (‘Song of ecstasy in a sad landscape’) presents its initial theme four times, augmenting and then diminishing the number of parts. The bleak atmosphere of the outer sections (grey, mauve, Prussian blue) is contrasted with the ecstatic song in the middle (silvery, diamond-like). Here Messiaen inserts a canon, a device he uses no fewer than five times in the preludes, and with which he first experimented as a boy. The third prelude, ‘Le nombre léger’ (‘The light number’), reaches its brilliant ending by leading a canon at the unison to another resonant close, again centered around E major. It is a study in agility and lightness of touch. ‘Instants défunts’ (‘Defunct moments’) is marked ‘slow, moved, with a gentle and distant sonority’, and combines velvet grey with reflections of mauve and green. Few composers can achieve such a wonderful feeling of stillness as Messiaen does in the final bars. This is one of his unique traits, and comes from his desire to express the Eternal. Unlike traditional Western music, there is often no development in Messiaen’s music, but rather repetition and juxtaposition of blocks of music, achieving a static quality. Here time stands still and gives us ample chance for contemplation.
The next two preludes were Messiaen’s favourites in later life, although he regarded the whole set with affection and tenderness. The chord clusters that open ‘Les sons impalpables du rêve …’ (‘The impalpable sounds of the dream …’) foreshadow things to come in the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus and are already one hundred per cent Messiaen. These chords in mode 3 are combined with a chordal theme in the left hand using mode 2, the top voice of which is to have the timbre of a brass instrument. The middle section is taken over by a rather plaintive canon in contrary motion. It ends with another astonishing resonance preceded by a glissando, using the extremes of the keyboard. The sixth prelude, ‘Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu’ (‘Bells of anguish and tears of farewell’) is the longest of the set and the most challenging to decipher with its profusion of accidentals and chord clusters. We immediately think of Ravel’s ‘Le Gibet’ from Gaspard de la Nuit (one of Messiaen’s favourite pieces of music) with its tolling bell and smell of death, but whereas Ravel’s piece stays in sombre mood, Messiaen builds to a climax of great intensity. Suddenly the colour changes and we are bathed in light. These ‘tears of farewell’ centre around the key of B major which in Messiaen’s language denotes spiritual fulfilment. The final adieu of three single notes (B, E sharp, B) is immensely moving.
‘Plainte calme’ (‘Calm lamentation’) returns to the colours of the fourth prelude and is a simple, yearning song. By now we are ready for some virtuoso playing, and we get just that in the last prelude, ‘Un reflet dans le vent …’ (‘A reflection in the wind …’). Again we hear traces of Ravel in the stormy outer sections, most notably from some of the more chromatic passages in Scarbo. The melodic second theme is enveloped in what Messiaen calls ‘sinuous arpeggios’, suggesting the sound of the wind. In the middle we reach a triumphant and brilliant climax which is full of joy. After a recapitulation of the opening, the work ends with a dramatic flourish.
The Préludes were premiered in 1931 at the Société Nationale by the work’s dedicatee, Henriette Roget, a fellow student at the Conservatoire.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 1998