Olivier Messiaen (1908 - 1992) was a French composer, organist, and ornithologist. He entered the famous Paris conservatory being 11 years old, and his teachers were such influential personalities as Paul Dukas, Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupre. In 1931, Messiaen became an organist at the church of La Trinite in Paris where he worked until his death.
Messiaen's compositional style was very complex - he used Greek and Hindu rhythms, and specially designed modes of limited transposition. In addition, some of his other significant influences include his profound Catholic faith, music of exotic cultures (Japan, Indonesia, and Gamelan). He also had a curious ability to see his modes and harmonies in different colours which he also used in his works.
However, perhaps the most important influence on Messiaen's style was bird songs. He travelled widely, recorded, transcribed songs of birds of various regions of the Earth, and used them extensively in his compositions. Because of all these influences Messiaen's style is very unique, and it is almost impossible to mistake him with somebody else.
"Le Banquet Celeste" (Heavenly Feast) is one of his earliest compositions. In this incredible slow-tempo work, his truly original conception of time is apparent. Although the piece is only 2 pages long, it lasts about 7 minutes. This slow tempo is a symbol of the heavenly feast which lasts eternally.
In fact, it raises certain challenges to the performer which are quite different from fast compositions. Both performers and listeners have to employ all their mental powers, focus and treat this piece as real meditation. This way one can dive for 7 minutes into the depths of the limitless time. You can listen to the superb playing of Pierre Cochereau of this mysterious composition at the end of this article.
One of the most significant compositional technique that Messiaen uses in this piece is the Octatonic mode. This mode is built of succession of 8 notes which alternate in half steps and whole steps. For example, the Octatonic mode from the note C is formed from these 8 pitches: C D flat E flat E F sharp G A and B flat.
Messiaen composed "Le Banquet Celeste" using this mode almost exclusively. This mode provides many possibilities to built some very colorful chords: among others Major and Minor chords from C, E flat, F sharp, and A; Dominant seventh chords from C, E flat, F sharp, and A; fully diminished seventh chord from each note of the mode. All of these chords with some other additions are present in this composition.
In order to avoid tonal monotony in this piece, Messiaen transposes this mode every few measures. This means that the same mode with alternating half steps and whole steps can be built from not only from C, but also from C sharp, and D. The Octatonic mode can be transposed only twice.
Because of regular succession of half steps and whole steps, the transposition from E flat would inevitably sound the same as from C. Therefore, this mode belongs to modes of limited transposition that Messiaen either invented himself or borrowed from already known modes.
If you want to get Alphonse Leduc edition of Le Banquet celeste just click on this link.
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