21 Jan 2022

MESSIAEN: “Interstellar Call” from Des canyons aux étoiles

by Michael Clive

Performance time: 5 minutes

Commissioned in 1971 by the American philanthropist and arts patron Alice Tully to celebrate the bicentenary of the Declaration of Independence, Dans canyons aux étoiles… is a suite of twelve orchestral movements arranged in three groupings of five, two and five. Appel interstellaire (“interstellar call”) is the fourth movement; when all twelve are performed together, the movements are operatic in scope, spanning more than an hour and a half. Composed in 1971, it is the earliest of the suite’s twelve movements, and was originally created to memorialize Messiaen’s friend Jean-Pierre Guézec, a French composer who died that year at age 36. The sounds of the horn haunt us in this movement with a call that is somehow intimate yet infinitely distant.

Like Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, Messiaen’s Dans canyons aux étoiles is intimately connected to a particular place in the American Southwest — in this case, the state of Utah. Messiaen took inspiration from the landscape and the birds of the Beehive State while composing this suite, and was particularly moved by visiting Bryce Canyon National Park. In these movements, Messiaen’s musical reflections on Utahn grandeur — the meanings he discerned “written in stars,” the colors and forms he saw in the desert — describe his experiences of Bryce as a divine creation.

Olivier Messiaen