Dissertation Index

Author: Luchese, Diane

Title: Olivier Messiaen's Slow Music: Glimpses of Eternity in Time

Institution: Northwestern University

Begun: September 1996

Completed: May 1998


Messiaen frequently indicated his intention to express the sacred mysteries of the Catholic faith through his music. This study, based on an examination of twenty-five different slow compositions of a similar aesthetic, points out some of the characteristics of Messiaen's slow music that seem to contribute to its distinctive, yet elusive, sound quality. Although this music has been described by others as "static," such a description neglects the music's many progressive elements. These compositions seem to manifest a paradox; the music gives an impression of changelessness while it also allows its listeners to experience progressive change. It appears that this tension between stillness and forward motion is the result of the composer's attempt to express the unchangeableness of eternity through a means that also reflects the Western notion of linear time.

Chapter I points out how scholars have described the sound quality of Messiaen's music and suggests a new description of the sound quality as paradoxical. Chapter II shows how the music evokes a transcendental atmosphere through means such as harmonic and instrumental color, unchanging elements, avoidance of conflict, neutralized dissonances, and often relatively stable levels of tension. Chapter III shows how the music reflects a linear conception of time, experienced as varying degrees of thematic and tonal closure that give rise to expectations of the attainment of musical goals. Chapter IV points out musical characteristics that divert our attention from progressive change to other aspects, further contributing to the illusion of changelessness. These characteristics include extreme slowness, deceleration, thematic expansion, and coloristic harmonies.

The final chapter contains the analyses of four compositions, illustrating the interaction of the characteristics discussed in earlier chapters, showing how they combine to create the music' paradoxical effect.

Keywords: Messiaen, stasis, color, eternity,time, slowness, musical atmosphere


I. Introduction
II. A Reflection of Eternity
III. A Reflection of Time
IV. Diverting Attention From Progressive Change
V. Analyses:

"Desseins eternels" of La Nativite
"Je dors, mais mon coeur veille" of Vingt Regards
"Les ressuscites et le chant d'etoile Aldebaran" of Des canyons
"Adoro te" of Livre du Saint Sacrement

VI. Conclusion


Diane Luchese
2529 Jackson Ave., Apt. 2W
Evanston, IL 60201
(847) 492-9949

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