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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

3. Messiaen's ballet-music,
The Wind in the Willows


When Ninette de Valois approached Olivier Messiaen to compose the music for a ballet based on Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, the composer was at first hesitant. (See his interview with François Goléa in Der Reihe, 'Comment allez-vous, Olivier Messiaen?'.) Hitherto, ballet had never played an important role in his music; what's more, The Wind in the Willows was an essentially English book and his knowledge of the language was not good. (Older readers will remember the famous BBC Monitor interview with John Freeman, when Messiaen broke down when he learned that a pine marten was not a species of bird.)

However, on reading the book he was immediately struck by its rich possibilities: the almost religious fervour of the writing, its pantheistic overtones and, most of all, the rural subject-matter which offered ample opportunities to include bird song. He began work without ado and the result is one of his most endearing scores. The orchestra used is an unusual one, an ensemble dominated by three ondes martenots and a large battery of percussion, including chinese blocks, a wind machine and (witty touch here!) a cricket bat. The work is too long to describe in detail - the full version lasts for nearly five hours - so suffice it to pick out some of the highlights.

Tableau One, 'The Riverbank', opens with a Dawn Chorus during the course of which 59 different birds can be heard, including several species not normally found in England (or France, for that matter), such as the Australian Quail (chinese blocks and lujon), the Tufted Egret (solo marimba) and the Great Auk (antique cymbals). There are numerous echoes of the composer's earlier music. For example, Mole enters with a delightful solo dance accompanied by gamelan orchestra using the 2nd Mode of Limited Transposition and non-retrogradable rhythms. The Pas-de-Deux for Mole and Ratty which follows ingeniously adapts the composer's Mode de valeurs et d'intensitées, whilst the bacchanalian 'Dance of the Ferrets, Weasels and Stoats' (Triple Pas-de-Quatre) recalls the 'Joie du Sang des Étoiles' from the Turangalîla Symphony.

Comic relief comes with 'Toad's Adventures' which the composer scores for eight motorcar horns, all at different pitches. But perhaps the most memorable section is the Prelude to Tableau Three, 'The Wild Wood', where a sequence of three chromatic chords, heard in a nine-bar ostinato using every conceivable statistical combination, pulsates mesmerically, decrescendo-ing from pianissimo to nothing. Not only does bird song abound everywhere, but for the first and only time in his career Messiaen incorporates the sounds and calls of mammals, all of which he transcribed in the fields around Cookham Dene to give them authenticity. Mole's timid squeak is heard on celesta and glockenspiel; Ratty's squeal on E-flat clarinet and tom-tom; Badger's snoring on double bassoon and tuba; whilst the 'hero', Toad, is represented - yes, you've guessed it! - by the three ondes martenots. The entire work is a daring piece of invention and one that, sadly, Messiaen was not to essay again.


Copyright © Trevor Hold, December 9th 1999


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