The Advantages of Saintly Naïvété

Like clockwork, every November of an odd-numbered year I end up teaching Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. And we get to the gorgeous fifth movement “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus” (which I helpfully translate for the students as “Lounging through enernity with Jesus,” using the Spanish “Hay-zeus” pronunciation), and I wonder once again why so many commentators have taken Messiaen to task for using the so-called “added sixth” chord, E-G#-B-C#. Here’s Paul Griffiths on the subject:

There is a discontinuity of taste as well as period…. [T]here comes a little tune of banal perkiness in the “Intermède,” and in the two “Louanges” music that many of Messiaen’s stoutist adherents have found regrettable or else passed over in silence. For not only do the added-sixth and diminished-seventh chords appear at crucial moments and in profusion, but the atmophere is that of the sentimental piety exuding from such similarly scored movements in the French repertory as the “Méditation” from Thais….

This is not to say that Messiaen consciously wrote vulgar music for his two adagios. On the contrary, he has maintained with some fierceness that they are not vulgar at all…. However, a musical sensibility that can form such an opinion is awesome indeed: it takes a sublime, even saintly naïvité to accept materials from Massenet and Glenn Miller, then use them to praise Christ as if they had never been employed for any baser purpose. But this is Messiaen’s way, and though the two “Louanges” offer the greatest stumbling block to the sophisticated, in so doing they only exemplify in extreme fashion a refusal of discrimination typical of Messiaen’s art.

I’m glad to think that Griffiths will think that my musical sensibility is awesome, for I don’t understand what’s wrong with the added-sixth chords at all (nor even the diminished chords, which in the fifth movement are only triads, not sevenths, and which only occur in one transitional measure). Messiaen uses the chord, here and also in the Turangalila Symphony of a few years later, as an ecstatic, sensuous resolution chord, and I find it sublimely perfect for that purpose. Of course there was a period in the swing era in which the added-sixth chord was a standard closing for evergreens and showtunes. So what? What about that invalidates it for use in any other context? The way I see it, the 19th century from Chopin on routinely substituted the third scale degree for the second in a dominant seventh – that is, in the key of C, using G-F-B-E (reading upward) instead of G-F-B-D. To use the sixth scale degree in the tonic triad strikes me as the logical equivalent. Why is such a substitution justified in the dominant (assuming one holds no brief against Chopin), and not in the tonic? It sounds lovely; when I hear it in swing era jazz it reminds me of swing era jazz, and when I hear it in Messiaen, it sounds quite different in context, and reminds me of Messiaen. Yet Griffiths is hardly the only writer to take fierce exception to it.

I have never been able to fathom this mentality that attaches some specific element of music to a certain time and style and thinks it should be buried with that time and style. It seems like a type of insensitivity, an inability to hear sounds in their momentary context. Isn’t it obvious that it’s not what materials you use that counts, it’s what you do with them? In high school I had a composition teacher who wouldn’t allow me to use the chromatic scale because it had 19th-century connotations. I’m happy to report that I have made profitable use of the chromatic scale many times since. I’ve defended a lot of my favorite Downtown music that uses synthesizer from people who say that music with synthesizer reminds them of ‘80s rock, as though that were the most heinous grievance with which a piece of music could be charged.

So, doesn’t the harpsichord sound like 1770’s chamber music? Doesn’t the oboe sound like French Romanticism? How can a timbre, or a harmony, or even a rhythm, so take on the imprint of one era that no one can ever be allowed to use it again? Since Harry Partch used the 11th harmonic, should I abstain? Stravinsky used the octatonic scale, should I leave it alone? And yet, Webern became intimately associated with the major seventh, and for decades afterward, hundreds of composers seemed willing enough to remind the listener of Webern. This guilt-by-association of harmonies and timbres always seems awfully selective, as though the real point is to impress the listener with what company you keep: Webern gooooood, Glenn Miller baaaaaaad. I guess I’m just happy that I’m not sophisticated in Griffiths’s definition, because that much less music is a stumbling block to me.

I’ve also never understood why some people find certain passages in Mahler’s music “vulgar.” Maybe I’m just not very refined.

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Comments

  1. says

    I simply don’t understand the function of music critics. Unless they are composers themselves, I simply don’t see that they have any basis for their self-serving “expertise.”
    I have a degree in jazz comp, and a degree in trad comp: I use a lot of “jazzy” materials in a trad comp context, and they create a completely different effect there. They do not remind me that they are jazz harmonies at all. But, I’m certain I’m a Philistine to any “edumacated” serious music critic. Thank God.

  2. says

    What, you never heard the bit that 12-tone music can only express nihilism?
    Anyone who wants to find fault with either of the Louange mvts needs to loosen up a little.

  3. Chris says

    First of all, my fervent seconding of Hucbald – I myself have grown sick and tired of “critics”, who are nothing more than glorified dilletantes and blowhards.
    As for Messiaen, my thanks to Kyle for bringing back memories of my teenaged infatuation with added sixth chords and the like (which caused an occassional raised eyebrow from my composition teacher). My favorite was Messiaen’s variant of the Chopin chord, sort of a 4-2 version, e.g. F-G-B-E – it still raises a tingle.

  4. says

    How convenient for Hucbald and Chris that there’s a critic, albeit one who’s also a composer, that has a blog for them to rage against the existence of critics.

  5. says

    Kyle, is PG actually being disapproving of the added sixth chords? Or is he anticipating that “sophisticates” (Pierre Boulez types) will have trouble with the chords, and telling them, in a roundabout way, to get over it? I think it might be the latter.
    Your point about the fundamental intellectual nonsense of saying that certain musical gestures are “imprinted” with one time and place of use is well taken. Anyone who uses the phrase “sounds like movie music” needs to be bopped over the head. Do people look at Eisenstein movies and say, “hey, that just looks like MTV”? Most of these “just sounds like” comments are at the same doltish level. In any case, if you devalued any style that has ever appeared on a movie soundtrack, you’d have absolutely nothing left.

  6. Richard says

    I,too, get tired iof folks who “strain out gnats”. When I was younger , I thought his “Trois Petites Liturgies de
    la Presence Divine” was just trite. I don’t think so any longer. It’s part of a 20th century french aesthetic, that I come to appreciate more in Messian, and in compoaers like Milhaud and Poulenc.

  7. Eric Bruskin says

    I don’t think this is about music critics as a group. There are good ones and bad ones, and good ones that have bad moments.

    Griffiths in this instance is being a modernist hard-ass, which drives me nuts. I love hardcore modernist music AND added sixth chords. Messiaen was the same way, of course, having birthed the hardest of the hard core, total serialism.

    But there are these musical Calvinists out there who resist pleasure unless it comes with a stiff dose of highmindedness. I suspect the Calvinists would have hated the thought of sensual religious ecstacy, which is (again) of course what Messiaen was all about.

    I hate it when people get doctrinaire about their enthusiasms. Paul, I’ll take the pleasure you get in the hard stuff, but you can keep your sniffles.

  8. says

    I think PG is trying to do what Alex says he may be trying to do, but doing it in a way that rightly annoys Kyle and other commenters. Naive? Messiaen? One could as easily call Shakespeare naive on the same grounds.

  9. Chris says

    Marc – open your local newspaper and try reading the music reviews. As a composer who knows what he’s talking about, who also happens to be a critic, KG is in an extremely small minority. I live in LA, where Alan Rich is based. I no longer read him because I am sick and tired of his self-important, uninformed pronouncements of his petty personal likes and dislikes (how often do I need to be told he doesn’t like the Sibelius violin concerto?), unprofessional and offensive ad hominem attacks on living composers, and shoddy reporting. Now, that’s one of the more respected critics in the country.
    I’ll say it again: the average critic is the sort of loudmouth blowhard dilletante one might hear holding forth in a record store, who manages to get published. As a professional musician, their writing is about as valuable to me as a hole in the head. I would love nothing more than a return to the days when critics were musicians as a rule, rather than the exception.

  10. Richard Feit says

    “The refusal of discrimination” is the key message here, I think. I’ve always gone through a sort of delicious embarrassment when I enter Messiaen’s sound world. It’s just the very blatant, very open, almost non-discriminatory glee with which he uses and juxtaposes harmonic material. Messiaen’s music seems to fertilize the same emotional ground that is happily occupied by several iconoclasts of the naïve. So many times when experiencing Messiaen I’ve felt as though I were listening to the illegitimate musical progeny of Edgar Varèse and Aaron Copland. Naïveté is almost beside the point.

  11. says

    Being a reader and listener gives me license to complain about critics, composers *and* performers…
    Seriously, for newspaper-based criticism in the Bay Area, I’ve had the privilege of reading over time three different critics — Allan Ulrich, Joshua Kosman, and “Mr. X.” Ulrich’s musical taste overlapped mine and I learned to trust his judgement. Kosman isn’t a good barometer for what I like but is thoughtful and I look forward to reading his reviews. The unnamed critic was neither useful, nor interesting.

  12. says

    As long as a critic focuses on perception rather than reception (what you heard and felt rather than the event staus or audience response) reviews and notices can be very useful to the entire concert music community of interest.
    When criticism turn s into agenda pushing, especially if an agenda is denied, then the criticism becomes potentially harmful to the art. I believe this is the primary result of the style wars, which have, thankfully, abated for the most part.

  13. Phocus Simian says

    Bud Herseth the famous trumpeter told me that critics are whores who feed on the accomplishments of players.
    That sums it up pretty well I think.