The Renaissance of Medieval Music
Not too often you see "dissonance," "High music," "J. S. Bach," and "Olivier Messiaen" all as tags for the same piece.I always have struggled figuring out where pieces like this (sorry for the vague "like this") are leading. I just listened to parts of Berg's violin concerto the other day and had the same difficulty.
Well, I'd like to think this isn't comparable to Berg, at least insofar as Berg is definitively in the school of Schoenberg. In listening closely to La Transfiguration (of which this chorale is only a part), I've discovered that Messiaen uses his dissonance very carefully, which was surprising to me, since I'd considered all dissonance to be just harsh and angular and hard to listen to. This one reminds me of Howard Shore (on coffee), actually, and I think he's trying to create a lofty, mountainous effect. So much for subjective whatnot. I do think this piece has definite direction. It leads to the final chord of every phrase, which is either an E major chord or an Fsharp minor 7. It creates a whole lot of tension as you're anticipating the arrival at what both you (impersonal) and Messiaen seem to consider a beautiful chord. And the piece as a whole leads to 3:08. Messiaen didn't meant this to be a secular, stage-oriented piece—he meant it more along the lines of Bach's chorales from the Passions or Cantatas. So it wasn't simply an exercise in art for art's sake. He was trying to represent an objective reality. I think he did it well.
I see your point now, especially now that I've listened to it more. You're also quite right that comparing Messiaen to Berg is a bit unfair, and the consistent resolution of the tension here supports that. 3:08 is a good zenith, but somewhat like Barber's Adagio, there is a quiet, steady recession afterward. Have I just made another imperfect comparison? Well, the minor 7th (is that what it is?) at 3:31 is intriguing. Sort of a wistful, satisfied resignation of sorts. There, you see? I'm reducing lofty, inexpressible majesty to the sordid pen.
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