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.