Olivier Messiaen as a pianist: A study of tempo and rhythm based on his recordings of "Visions de l'amen"

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.)


Music Performance

First Committee Member

Paul Posnak - Committee Chair


Olivier Messiaen is little known as a pianist, although piano was his favorite instrument. His works for piano exceed in scope and depth those written for organ. But he himself only recorded the Quatre Etudes de rythme and Visions de l'amen, perhaps because he wrote his piano music for Yvonne Loriod. Together Messiaen and Loriod performed Visions over 300 times in public and made at least four recordings. Messiaen composed for himself four contrasting solos in the nearly 50-minute piece. A capable pianist, Messiaen played everything when teaching analysis at the Paris Conservatory. Yet, a study of tempo and rhythm which Messiaen wrote and played in Visions reveals numerous discrepancies between the printed page and the recordings. These differences are consistent and apparently are due in part to limitations in notating tempo rubato.This study focuses on three areas: (1) tempo and tempo change, (2) markings that influence the rhythm: (breath marks and rests, tenutos, accents, fermatas, and added values), and (3) Messiaen's solos. Reasons for Messiaen's often extreme liberty with rhythm were sought in three ways: (1) by cataloguing the rhythmic devices and tempos written by Messiaen in Visions and seeking their function and meaning in the music; (2) by listening to the recordings of Messiaen and Loriod and comparing them to recordings made by other artists; and (3) by learning, rehearsing, and performing the work. Each tempo section for all recordings was timed and a portion of one solo was graphed to a hundredth of a second.The graphs revealed that other artists often misinterpreted the printed score. Three of the seven volumes in Messiaen's Traite de rythme, du couleur, et d'ornithologie were used in this research. Messiaen gave insight into Visions and many other works in these monumental volumes. Messiaen declared eight influences on his rhythm: sounds of nature, birdsong, animal life, plant life, the mineral world, dance, language and poetry, and sculpture. Visions contains all of these elements in rhythm. Guidelines for interpreting Visions are provided in this paper and include a rationale for their use based upon Messiaen's philosophy and his piano playing.


Music; Education, Music

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