Big Things Come in Small Pieces

By Stipp, Neil | The American Organist, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Big Things Come in Small Pieces


Stipp, Neil, The American Organist


AN ANALYSIS OF MESSIAEN'S "ETERNAL PURPOSES" ("DESSEINS ÉTERNELS")

Have you ever received a perfect gift that came in a small box or in an undignified envelope? Perhaps it was a bonus, an engagement ring, your first credit card, or a job acceptance. Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), who wrote music largely spiritual in nature, has given us a beautiful gift in a piece that is published on only one page. Under the title of his short work "Eternal Purposes" ("Desseins éternels"), Messiaen quotes Ephesians 1:5-6: "God, in His love, predestined us to be His adopted offspring, through Jesus Christ . . . according to the glory of His grace." The piece is only 27 measures (3 ? 3 ? 3, a reference to the Trinity). It is also the third piece of a collection of nine (3 ? 3) meditations for the organ, titled "The Birth of the Lord" [La Nativité du Seigneur), written in 1935. This work, as will be shown later, has basically three melodic themes.

Eternity is a long, long time. This is the reason why the tempo marking is "Extremely slow and tender." Most recordings of the work are about five minutes in duration. It is to be played that slowly in order to transport the performer and listener into a different sphere of existence - as if we are forced to live in slow-motion, living and moving at, let's say, one-quarter the normal pace, so as to appreciate more the gift of every detail in our lives. The slowness of the music is Messiaen's response to the awesomeness of the eternal Divine presence. Theologically, the melodic line in the right hand represents the eternal, the Divine. It is all-knowing. It knows where it has been, where it is now, and where it is going. The melody is pure, simple, and perfect. It is not concerned with the dissonance it may be creating with the harmony in the left hand, because it knows of its own perfection. The melody displays perfect self-confidence. It takes its time, and is in no hurry. The melodic line has actually been playing even before the piece begins, and will continue playing after the piece has ended. Messiaen simply gave us an audible, tiny glimpse of this eternal melody. The melody is all-embracing, all-powerful, and all-loving. Nothing is in a hurry with the Divine, in comparison with the hustle and bustle of humanity trying to get as much done in as little time as possible. Knowing that the length of time is eternity, there is no need for the Divine or those associated with His purposes to rush the process, but to enjoy every moment so we don't miss any beautiful subtlety or nuance. If we could only consistently live our lives to the fullest this way; there are daily so many things we miss by going too fast! Perhaps we would accomplish less in quantity, but what we might achieve would have more depth, meaning, and insight.

The right-hand melodic line is under one phrase marking for the entire 27 measures of the piece, an extreme rarity. This single phrase could signify that God always "is" - He is always involved and never takes a break. Because there are no repeated notes, the right hand, from the beginning, must never come off the keys until it is lifted after the final note. The dominant melody in the right hand floats above the soft complex harmonies in the left hand like a seagull gliding over the surface of the ocean. The left hand with the pedal consists of complex dissonant chords (usually containing five or six notes) at "pp" throughout the work, and could signify imperfect earthly humanity.

Other organ works of Messiaen displaying this kind of slow tempo are the "Prayer of Christ Ascending to His Father" and "Majesty of Christ Beseeching the Glory of His Father," both from L'Ascension. The latter is only 22 measures, but it has been recorded with a duration of more than six minutes, including the orchestra version.1 Although not done as often or as extreme, Richard Wagner (1813-83) could draw out a work to its maximum time limit. If anyone has experienced a complete Tristan and Isolde (four hours and 45 minutes, including the two intermissions - an extremely long opera considering a rather short story line), one is transported to a galaxy that makes each small detail and nuance more important because of its overall length. …

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