Friday, 10 October 2008

Olivier Messiaen: Les Yeux dans les Roues

Et les jantes des quatre roues étaient remplies d'yeux tout autour. Car l'Espirit de l'être vivant était dans les roues.

Olivier Messiaen's work, particularly for the organ, is mostly of Catholic inspiration. The sentence above is from the book of Ezekiel, and inspired the work I'll talk about. It's "Les Yeux dans les Roues" (The Eyes on the Wheels), sixth piece from the "Livre d'Orgue". The Livre does not properly contain Messiaen's most idiomatic composing style for the orgue, since he writes mostly in a serial style, quite unlike his modes of limited transposition.

But back to the Eyes. Below is an artist's impression of Ezekiel's vision:

Fortunately, to appreciate the beauty of the work you don't have to care about Ezekiel's vision, or even be religious, but I thought I should contextualize.

The piece consists of a melody/theme in the pedal, accompanied by two fast-paced homorhythmic lines in the manuals. The pedal presents a sons-durées theme which is repeated six times, in different permutations. Initially it is presented in its natural form. Afterwards, it is presented alternatively picking notes from each end of the original form. Similar transformations are applied each time until the sixth, which is the retrograde of the first. The entire twelve-tone analysis (pitch only, not rhythm) of the pedal is shown below:

The two lines in the manuals are seemingly arranged in a serial fashion as well, albeit not as straightforwardly as the pedal. This fact, together with the Vif tempo annotation in the score, make this short work very hard to perform. That is visible in the score excerpt:

As with all of Messiaen's organ works, there are several recordings available. I tend to prefer Olivier Latry's, whose fast pace blends the manuals into an ethereal ghostly voice:

However, Willem Tanke's interpretation of undoubted quality comes in video as well. A great way of appreciating his art of doing nothing technique, achieving "an extraordinarily powerful musical expression with very small movements of the hands and feet":


  1. Thanks for your explanation.

    A few days ago I have talked about this piece in my blog (in Spanish) and today I have found your web site by chance. I am going to put a link to here, because I believe your analysis could be very interesting for people who want to discover the contemporary music.

  2. And here's another one who found your blog by chance. It's great to discover a good blog about contemporary music; there's not that many around. Do you study music?



  3. Thanks for stopping by and commenting (and for pointing me to Kagel in Amsterdam-booked my ticket straightaway :-)

  4. Thank you very much for this interpretation. I love Messiaen's music, and a thorough look at it like this only deepens one's understanding of his music. Good job!