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Couleurs de la cité céleste

Couleurs de la cité céleste

At the point when Messiaen was writing Couleurs de la cité céleste, colour began to assume parity with birdsong and rhythm, and indeed he came increasingly to use it to articulate those two entities. It is interesting too to note that, since L’ascension thirty years earlier, Messiaen had not written any specifically religious work for orchestra alone. In 1963 he composed Couleurs de la cité céleste, breaking this silence and returning to L’ascension’s concern with the life beyond – it was to be a central theme in the music of his final thirty years.

The composer’s preface states his stance clearly enough: ‘the form of this work depends entirely on colours’. He goes on to say that the melodic and rhythmic ideas and the colour/sound combinations evolve in the manner of colours, and that these transformations can be compared with characters acting on several superimposed stages, and unfolding several different stories simultaneously. The musical ideas are mostly short and distinguished sharply from each other by rhythm, tempo and orchestration, but to some extend we have to invent our own logic to explain their interaction. Perhaps no two such explanations will be the same. After all, it seems fair to assume that the colours of the celestial city have not been ‘achieved’ through any structured work programme – they just are.

© Roger Nichols

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