It was at this point that Messiaen, through becoming a pupil of his pupils, became again their teacher. Speaking generally of his students, he once observed that 'their questions compelled me to undertake studies I might not have dreamed of, had it not been for them':1 uppermost in his mind, surely, must have been his relationship with Boulez in the late 1940s and early 1950s. However, his leap from the Cinq rechants ( 1949) to the Mode de valeurs et d'intensitás for piano ( 1949-50) might indicate some other catalyst, given that Boulez's most recent work at the time was the Livre pour quatuor. Then again, the dateline of the Mode de valeurs, ' Darmstadt 1949', is momentous only in the light of Darmstadt's later history: that year, when Messiaen was teaching there, the courses were still dominated by Leibowitz, who had brought some of his pupils -- though not Boulez, who was already opposing himself to what he considered 'academic' in Leibowitz's brand of serialism. Perhaps the Mode de valeurs was a Boulezian historical necessity. Or perhaps it was tripped by a new card dealt into the pack of French music in the spring of 1949: Cage.
Cage spent several months in Paris before returning to New York, and played his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano ( 1946-8) both for Messiaen's class on 7 June2 and at a soiráe when Boulez delivered a slightly circumspect introduction.3 Boulez's reference here to 'duration, amplitude, frequency, and timbre -- in other words, the four characteristics of a sound' echoes a statement of sound's quaternary nature in Cage's recent essay 'Forerunners of Modern Music',4 and suggests that the definition of those four parameters, which provided the organizational basis for total serialism, came from Cage. The setting-up of compositional algorithms, another essential feature of total serialism, also has clearer origins in Cage's principle of rhythmic proportioning than in Boulez's turmoil of motivic extrapolations. All that was needed was to add the twelve-note principle to these Cageian elements -- the four parameters, automatic operation -- and the Mode de valeurs would be the almost inevitable result.
Messiaen's preface to the Mode de valeurs describes how the piece is composed as a three-part counterpoint, each part using a different set of twelve chromatic pitches and twelve 'chromatic durations'. These, following the principle of rhythmic arithmetic in the Turangalâla symphony, are on scales from a demisemiquaver____________________