Falling Tritones

Messiaen once infamously argued that a falling tritone was a cadence. A lot of people tend to dismiss it as Old Man Olivier, but nothing else could explain his music better.

Indeed, in the world of modes of limited of transposition and non-retrogradable rhythms,  what could be more significant than a falling tritone? Messiaen’s language has no use for V-I. This is not a bombastic faith, not a simple faith. This is a faith of color, of depth. An authentic cadence in this universe would be like tagging “Shave and a haircut” on the end of the Goldberg Variations.

One of my favorite parts of the Advent season is how layered it is. On one level, it is an exercise in waiting: the long wait for the birth of the Messiah, which also mirrors our own waiting for his Second Coming. On another level, it allows us Protestants a little taste of Marian worship, a chance to look into the heart of Mary for questions and answers. And on a deeper level, it gives a slight nod to the Lenten season; one can’t think about Jesus coming to earth without remembering the reason that he came in the first place. These layers are what sets the Vingt Regards apart for “classical” religious music. I love singing along to “For Unto Us a Child is Born” as much as the next guy, but Messiaen truly understands the season, and in 2 hours, takes us through every possible feeling.

The Regards use 3 themes as their building blocks: the Theme of God, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, and the Theme in Chords. Messiaen uses these themes as almost Wagnerian leitmotifs, telling the story through combinations.

(The excerpts I will be playing in December mostly feature the Theme of the Star and the Cross.)







At first it seems strange that the Star and Cross share a theme, but Messiaen explains in the program note: “The Star and the Cross have the same theme because one opens and the other closes Jesus’ time on earth.” In the note to the raucous and disjointed “Regard de l’Etoile” he writes, “Shock of grace…The star shines naïvely, surmounted by the Cross.”

In this second movement (the Contemplation of the Star), Messiaen gives us a slow integration of the Star and the Cross. The movement starts with 3 distinct gestures: a rapid ascending chain of chords, followed by a chain of sevenths and ninths in the uppermost register of the piano, followed by three chords, almost like clock chimes. It is almost as if Messiaen is showing us the family of stars: a shooting star, then some of the twinkle twinkle little variety, and finally the hammering and installation of the star of the annunciation. Following this astrological journey,  he gives us our first taste of the Theme (shown above), introduced piano, four octaves apart. Tacked on the Theme is a 2 measure series of octaves and tritones, still four octaves apart, acting as almost a bridge between the colors of the stars and the shapes of the Theme.

After another trip through the night sky, we are given another chance at the Theme, this time stated forte in the left hand alone. This time the stars of the right hand answer pianissimo in-between the statements of the cross. The Cross has surmounted the Star; the powerful statement of the theme serves as a reminder of the season just a few short weeks down the road.


The bridge is restated, this time accompanied by twinkling seconds in the upper register, sending us through one last survey of the stars, all before a peaceful conclusion- an expansion on the connecting bridge- the joining of the Star and the Cross at last.

This past summer, while I was visiting my parents back at home, I was able to have a front row seat to a meteor shower. We are very lucky to have a home basically in the middle of nowhere, free from noise and light pollution. So, as I always do, I grabbed a blanket and watched.

Watching a meteor shower is a very strange event. You are basically waiting for something you might not even be able to see. There can be unnervingly long periods of time between stars. And on top of everything, you are often times dealing with less than ideal conditions- in my case coldness and wet grass. However, that first star makes it all worth it. It gives you a chance to appreciate the layers of the sky- the proud guardian of the moon, the soft twinkle of the constant stars, and the surges of light and energy of the meteors.

As I lied there in the middle of my yard, my mind couldn’t help but wander. After all, it can be 10 minutes between star sightings. The flashes of light echoed my scattered thoughts. Thoughts of worry, doubt, fear. Thoughts of questioning.

I tried several times to go back inside (the cold was getting to be too much to bear). I was in the middle of a movie, All About Eve, I’m fairly sure, but I couldn’t resist the stars. Something drew me to the fleeting objects. Perhaps it was the time-sensitive nature: these things don’t happen every night. Or perhaps I needed the reminder of something more in the world. Indeed, this was the capstone of a summer full of anxiety. I had become a very different person, but I still had no idea whom that person was. The exhilaration of the stars alternated with the pain inside my head- a mental tug-of-war for custody of my mental capacity. Falling tritones over strings of chords. A cross surmounting the star.

No resolution was achieved, only a defeated juxtaposition. This was not the world of Beethoven’s 9th, no triumphant D-major to be found. Pain and ecstasy are not always mutually exclusive.

Regard de l’etoile


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply