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America Heard Through Messiaen’s From The Canyons To The Stars

French composer Olivier Messiaen is famous for his love of nature, particularly birds and bird songs (see the video clip below to witness his passion for birdsong for yourself). His work From The Canyons To The Stars — which will be performed in Hill Auditorium this Sunday, January 29 by the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Tate — shows a much grander side of Messiaen’s wondrous admiration of the natural world. The piece was commissioned to commemorate America’s bicentennial, and Messiaen visited the United States, specifically Utah, to draw inspiration from that region’s uncommon landscapes.

Much like his Oiseaux Exotique (Exotic Birds), From the Canyons To The Stars pits a solo piano against a larger chamber ensemble complimented by an expansive percussion section. The music embodies Messiaen’s natural subjects with varying levels of transparency. There are woodwind lines that artfully reflect the bird calls Messiaen must have encountered on his travels, while wind machines and thunder sheets provide a more literal – yet, nonetheless artificial – connection to the vast landscapes featured on the composer’s journey through the American West.

To me, the piano soloist feels like a portrayal of Messiaen the traveler, at moments participating in the environment around it, but often observing at a distance and, more than once, meditating privately through extended candenzas. There are other soloists in the work, but, perhaps because Messiaen was a legendary pianist/organist, none succeed as well at illustrating the imagination of the journeying composer beholding, for the first time, the impossible beauty of locations like Bryce Canyon and Zion Park.

Throughout the work, listeners are treated to Messiaen’s impeccable sense of orchestration. He was a synesthete, which means he associated specific sounds with specific colors. Therefore, the harmonies and instrumentation of any moment in this work are most likely representations of the sounds that filled Messiaen’s heads when he took in the sandstone rock formations of western Utah. The eighth movement, in particular, is a voyage in the ensemble’s color, as static musical material progresses slowly through time, evolving ever so slightly through its instrumentation.

Any American history buff can see the symmetry in Messiaen’s participation in the nation’s bicentennial. After all, French support was crucial to our victory in the American Revolution. In the early 19th Century, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville traveled America and studied our society to produce Democracy In America, which remains a highly regarded analysis of American culture and politics. I believe Messiaen’s journey across the Atlantic is related to this tradition because many moments in From The Canyons To The Stars (the very beginning of the work, the string harmonies at the end of movement ten, etc.) sound like a distillation of the idyllic and populist music of earlier American composers such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives.

As From The Canyons To The Stars glistens into its final silence Sunday night, I imagine you will feel, as I do, that Messiaen’s music – through his distant, personal lens – captures something very true about the grandeur and vividness of the American spirit. Though Messiaen limited his ‘fieldwork’ to Utah’s national parks, his music possesses a richly varied texture such that each movement, almost every moment of the piece is an individual experience. This manifoldness reflects the diversity of dreams we champion as Americans, and is something to celebrate and savor Sunday when the Hamburg Symphony performs this astounding composition.

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