Avant-Garde Music or “Random Notes”? Part 1: Olivier Messiaen

La Colombe begins on a F natural, and proceeds with a tonal melody but an atonal harmony.


La Colombe begins on a F natural, and proceeds with a tonal melody but an atonal harmony.

Modern avant-garde music is characterized by a significant deviation from the musical norms we are accustomed to, focusing less on conventional form than expressing an emotion or idea in the purest way possible. So what makes slightly varied forms of the avant-garde received so differently?

We begin our investigation of avant-garde music with the French composer Olivier Messiaen, widely regarded as the precursor of contemporary classical music.

Messiaen’s compositions revolved around an unique scale he pioneered, the modes of limited transposition, that behave symmetrically. The usage of such scales, in both harmony and melody, required newer techniques than those developed for standard diatonic scales by Classical and Romantic composers centuries earlier, so for the unaccustomed ear – such compositions sound very different.

Yet public reception of Messiaen’s works vary greatly both by person and by work. Take his first piece, “Preludes pour Piano”. Under the comments of a Youtube score video some see his work as “fascinating” and “pure beauty”, while others describe it as “creepy” and “malevolent”. Here I pause to urge the reader to listen to the first piece, La colombe, of the Preludes.

As Messiaen says, his Preludes “are not a suite in the usual sense of the word, but are essentially a collection of successive states of mind and personal feelings.”

Messiaen’s unique synaesthesia allowed him to assign colors – and by extension, feelings – to each tone of the piano; these colors form a pillar of the direction a Messiaen piece evolves in, such as La colombe, which Messiaen assigns “orange with veins of violet”. The tempo itself is left to the interpreter, marked only as “slow, expressive, with a deep, enveloping sound.” By juxtaposing conventional tonality in the melodic line with Messiaen’s atonality (employing the second of his modes of limited transposition), Messiaen invokes the rest of the imagery of the dove.