I have a question about a particular chord in “Regard du Pere,” the first piece in the Vingt Regards Sur L'Enfant Jesus by Messiaen. I am using the 1947 Editions Durand and don’t know of any other source.

First some context. This piece is written using Messiaen’s second mode of limited transposition. If we label pitches C, C ♯, D, D ♯, … B as {0,1,2,3,…11} then the three transpositions consist of the pitch sets {0,1,3,4,6,7,9,10}, {1,2,4,5,7,8,10,11} and {2,3,5,6,8,9,11,0}. An analysis of the chords in the piece shows that with one exception they consist of pitches taken purely from one of these three pitch sets. For example, the opening chord is an F♯ major chord , {1,6,10}, and is taken from the first pitch set.

However, the next-to-last chord in the Durand edition consists of the pitches {0,1,3,5,9} and does not fit into any of the three pitch sets that are the three transpositions of this mode. Given that all of the other chords do, it is natural to wonder whether the Durand edition has an error or not. And, if it is not an error, why did Messiaen break his rule for constructing chords for this one chord? If it is an error my guess is that the chord should be constructed from the pitches {0,1,3,4,9} which fits into the first pitch set and has quite a nice sound to it, but hey, who am I to propose changes to Messiaen’s profound music?

p.s. Doe anyone know if there is some way to view the original score?

  • It doesn't seem to be an error; it's clearly played as D#-E#-A-B#-C#-D# in several recordings. – Your Uncle Bob Sep 14 '19 at 23:14
  • Thanks for checking. I agree with you. Of course it is possible that they are all performing from the same score and the score has an error compared to the original, but this also seems unlikely since I think there are performers of this piece that consulted with either Messiaen himself or with Yvonne Loriod. – jah Sep 15 '19 at 13:30
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    I'm surprised I haven't been able to find any mention of this out-of-place chord anywhere. I checked a few books and papers, but even the 500-page doctoral thesis about Vingt Regards by Francisco Javier Costa Ciscar from 2004 doesn't seem to mention it. The answer might be that, as Messiaen wasn't dogmatic about his modal and serial techniques, something related to synesthetic colours or resonant chords or a reference to Debussy made him decide to break the rule; maybe the later chapters of Technique de mon Langage Musical contain a clue, but I'm not sure you'll find a definitive answer. – Your Uncle Bob Sep 15 '19 at 14:25
  • I also checked several sources and Ph.D theses on Messiaen without finding any mention of this oddball chord either. I'll bug my piano teacher and see if she can suggest someone to ask about it. It may indeed remain a mystery. – jah Sep 15 '19 at 15:10

I don't think there's any reason to believe Messiaen didn't make exceptions to his own "rules". The penultimate chord has an E# that leads to the tonic F#, so that makes a lot of musical sense. It also makes sense with Messiaen that something weird might happen at the very end, a "transfiguration" eliciting the "charm of the impossible". :)

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I've no idea what edition the attached video is from (though it looks like French music engraving) but the next to last chord is a plain dominant 7th, like many earlier chords in the piece, so it doesn't seem to match your theoretical description that it doesn't fit how the piece was constructed according to your theory.

If you forget about pitch sets and just listen, the piece makes sense as common practice harmony. A final cadence of D7 F#6 doesn't need much "explaining" - D7 E7 F# is almost a 20th century cliché.

The chord is at about 4:57 in this video:

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    I don't think this really addresses the question. There is plenty of evidence, including his own writings, that Messiaen used modes of limited transposition. The fact that a particular chord sequence may have a more conventional interpretation doesn't change the fact that there is exactly one chord in this piece whose notes do not fit into one of the transpositions of his second mode of limited transposition. – jah Sep 14 '19 at 15:27

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