Jump to content

Sonata form according to Messiaen

Recommended Posts

Many classic forms were adapted in the 20th century. New ones were invented.

Messiaen's musical world is amazing. Check what intervals are the best for him to build a cadence!

Regarding the sonata, he says: "having written some absolutely regular sonata-allegros, we shall state that one thing in that form has become obsolete: the recapitulation. Then we shall try once more to keep what is most essential: the development. there are two in a sonata-allegro: the middle, modulating development; the terminal development, generally built over understood dominant and tonic pedals. We shall be able to write pieces made of this terminal development alone".

And he gives this example from les Enfants de Dieu (from la Nativité du Seigneur):

First element over a dominant pedal in B major and development195833155_Capturadepantalla2020-01-10alas10_04_28.thumb.png.3a6eb5162fd2ecb15706b7a3a11e1c8a.png

A great fortissimo cry upon a sort of schema with augmentation of the theme1245378818_Capturadepantalla2020-01-10alas10_06_03.thumb.png.c63ddf7737652a47358d0927dd9aa378.png

A tender phrase, forming the conclusion, established over a tonic pedal in B major.



You can hear this part here:


In his writings, he gives additional examples of this kind of technique and new "free forms proceeding from the development of the sonata-allegro".


Some thoughts about all this:

Having in mind that tonality in Messiaen cannot be understood in strictly classic ways, he uses a contemporary technique (as Debussy did) to establish tonal centers and a relationship between them: the pedal tone.

It's interesting how Messiaen is not interested at all in parts without development, ruling out at first glance the recapitulation ("obsolete") because it has no modulation nor development.

It's also interesting how he takes only a section (or better said, the concept of a section) of the sonata-allegro, to build up his own coherent form. In my opinion, this is related to the big idea in Messiaen of "progressive music": non retrogradable rhythms or added values, non transposable modes... All of them have to be with that idea on not allowing the music to fall in the repetition patterns where classic music had rely on.


This is just an example of what Messiaen did with forms. He talks about fugue, an other forms he was interested in, some of them fresh and new (Bird son), some old (plainchant).

Is this concept interesting for you?

For me, it is. It opens more possibilities of organising music material.

Edited by Luis Hernández
  • Thanks 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Messiaen was really obsessed with musical form, it's kind of his whole "thing." I think in general, from my experience adapting "Sonata form" ideas into my own (sonatas lol,) I think there's a lot of stuff you can use in broad strokes, just like he did. The fact he notes the recapitulation is obsolete is interesting, specially since I think it's actually important still but it's something that can be done in so many different ways. With enough variation (see Schoenberg's "similar repetition" concept) you wouldn't even realize it's the reprise even when it's using the same material.


That being said, I think Messiaen as well as other composers of his time (like Schoenberg at some points of his life) were really interested in trying to reconcile traditional forms (or the entire romantic aesthetic, specifically) with the freer style of harmony and material. In the end, personally, I don't think it made much difference since, as most of the aforementioned composers realized, it was kind of pointless as all you had was a theoretical guide to the form but you couldn't really discern it if you heard the music itself. In the end, the "structures" that ended up dominating most of the 20th century modernism were just as free and personal as the material it was used to structure.


I'm personally not much of a fan of Messiaen's music for most of the stuff I've heard, so I didn't get very far into his books where he explains his method. But that's neither here nor there lol.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

@SSC Totally agree with you on this. Many modern composers still develop forms that fit the material utilized in the composition itself. We 'roadmap' the points that we want to reach and we work through our material to get there. Much like the goal posts in the classical/romantic sonata form (where the goal posts were established harmonic destinations). I'd argue, at least from my own perspective, that the development section is pretty much obsolete. With development of thematic/motivic material, pitch classes, rows, etc. beginning within a few bars of the start of the piece.. it really doesn't make sense to have a full developmental section. 


Link to comment
Share on other sites

38 minutes ago, jawoodruff said:

it really doesn't make sense to have a full developmental section. 

I think that there's room to use the concepts, like I said before. If your material fits the old models, then sure that's not the issue, but if you're working with more modern stuff it can be an interesting to reexamine how those things can fit within more vague definitions of "development," or "reprise." Debussy's Sonatas, which he sadly didn't manage to finish, are a great example of how he dealt with the idea. Mind you, his forward thinking probably also inspired Messiaen a great deal, among other composers of the more neo-classical variety.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

12 minutes ago, jawoodruff said:

...bird songs?

Ughhahharghghghg yeah he went around in the woods with a recorder to get stuff on tape so he could transcribe it. Honestly I think those pieces are horribly boring and overly long, but that's the theme with Messiaen to me, he got it in his head the "next big thing" when it comes to form and kind of ran crazy with it, got bored, then found something else. That's in the end how he made "Mode of Durations and Intensities," it was just an experiment and it ended up being really important later down the line for other composers even he himself never used the method again.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Create New...