Messiaen in Japan

 

Messiaen Ozawa 1962

Messiaen with Yvonne Loriod and Seiji Ozawa, July 1962.

The exotic soundscapes of the Mystic East have long attracted composers, particularly in France (Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy).

Messiaen may be more commonly associated with Indian music (e.g. Turangalîla), but his fascination with Japanese culture goes back to his honeymoon there with his wife Yvonne Loriod in summer 1962. [1]

While the young Seiji Ozawa led rehearsals for a performance of Turangalîla, Messiaen, besides sightseeing and birdwatching, bought books and recordings of gagaku (cf. Laurence Picken, with whom he shared a love of birdsong), and attended an evening of koto zither, as well as performances of bunraku, kabuki—and Noh drama (see under Some posts on Japanese culture):

I delighted in the music, the steps, the slowness of the movements, and the extraordinary cries of the tsuzumi.

Noh 2

Noh drums, 1992. My photo.

After admiring Mount Fuji and Nara, they visited Hiroshima, guided by the Belgian Catholic priest Fr Ernest Goossens. The fifth movement of Sept haïkaï was inspired by a boat trip to the Miyajima shrine; his notes evoke many images that recur throughout his music:

The sea: salty smell, of seaweed and of water, and the scent of a grove of pines. Large red torii [gateways] in the sea. Marvellous red Shinto temple, maze of rooms, corridors, columns of red wood. Dark interior of the temple where the divinity is hidden (principle room), and the other temple (which one cannot see) with the invisible true God, behind the red torii, in the sea and the sky. Monstrous stone lions defend the temple—stone lanterns on the path beside the sea—the mountains velvety with pines. Sunset above the temple. From a distance one can see the torii against the evening clouds, orange, red, pink, violet. At night one can just make out the torii in the darkness—a full moon, gold and silver, with a hazy red halo, veiled by a thin strip of completely black cloud.

Torii

The result was Sept haïkaï (for piano, wind, brass, percussion including cowbells, and eight lonely violins!), premiered in 1963, with Yvonne Loriod on piano and Pierre Boulez conducting.

  • Introduction
  • Le parc de Nara et les lanternes de pierre
  • Yamanaka cadenza
  • Gagaku (from 7.36; for an earlier orchestral adaptation by Hidemaro Konoye, see here)
  • Miyajima et le torii dans le mer 
  • Les oiseaux de Karuizawa
  • Coda

The vignettes are purely instrumental—it is only the title that alludes to haiku. But I’ve composed a couple for the occasion:

Besides world music
Olivier Messiaen
Enjoyed his birdsong

Meanwhile in Cambridge,

Wise Laurence Picken
Finding gagaku too slow
Relished birdsong too

See also Toru Takemitsu.

 


[1] See e.g. Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen (2005). Apart from the voluminous scholarly literature on Messaien (Paul Griffiths, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, and so on), good overviews of his ouevre are Richard Taruskin, The danger of music, pp.289–99, and Alex Ross, The rest is noise, pp.485–96 (see The right kind of spirituality?).

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