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Le Désenchantement du monde (Tristan Murail)

“The labour of the analytical mind which produces science is the organ in human culture which tames the physical environment. Science is the extension of civilisation’s technological core [...]. Metaphysical questions and beliefs are technologically barren and are therefore neither part of the analytical effort nor an element of science. As an organ of culture they are an extension of the mythical core”.

Leszek Kołakowski: The Presence of Myth,

translated by Adam Czerniawski, University of Chicago Press 1989, p. 1.


In his major writings from the first decades of the 20th century, German sociologist Max Weber addressed the issue of rationalisation. That social attitude is discussed in a very broad historical context, with Weber emphasising the key moments of the past centuries that greatly contributed to the evolution of rationalisation, and the surrounding circumstances that encouraged the development of this trend, such as Protestantism and Capitalism. Weber also offers an in-depth analysis of different spheres of social life, such as politics, economy, or everyday life, in which the rationalising process is well present. Interestingly, it can also be observed in religious life. The development of this social attitude was linked to the aspect of modernity, as well as science and empirical cognition of the world. On the other extreme lies the ancient world, in which even natural phenomena were explained through myth. Rationalism triggered a gradual detachment from the metaphysical and magical; Weber terms this phenomenon the “disenchantment of the world” (Entzauberung der Welt).

Le désenchantement du monde, a symphonic concerto for piano and orchestra by Tristan Murail, was composed following a commission from the Musica Viva festival and the Bavarian Radio, as well as the New York Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw

Orchestra and Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. In basic outline, the concerto form is subdivided into five movements. The outer movements are rather traditional in function: they is a (rather short) introduction and conclusion. There is also a strict similarity between them: the final section is a sort of mirror image (though not very strict) of the initial section, ending the work with the same piano chord that opened it. The strongly emphasised arch-like formal structure is mirrored again in the inner shape of the middle movements, especially the second and fourth. Despite their rather different build, consisting of shorter additive episodes, the movements maintain coherence by returning in their final bars to the initial material. The second movement is based on vivid rhythm, notably a quaver triplet, while the fourth movement is based on a shimmering wide-band texture, internally densified with polyrhythmic structures (divisi in the strings). Both the second and fourth movement lead to clear-cut climaxes that serve as dividers for the macroform. These sections are also characterised by high energy, stemming from their incessant inner variability, including the interruption of narrative figures with flourishes in the piano and orchestra. The extensive central third movement brings a moment of tranquillity, based on reminiscences of previous movements.

The return of recognisable structures becomes an important form-generating device of the concerto, adding to its constructive cohesion and logic. While the form’s development and dynamic is performed chiefly in the middle movements, the first movement, definitely less varied and internally complex, plays a key role for the cohesion of the entire work’s sound material. This is where the harmonic ideas are exposed in the work’s characteristic texture: the orchestra sustains the different components of chords, introduced by the piano, on pedal notes. Apart from references in the concerto’s last movement, the idea of recurrent material is present in other sections too: in the second movement, it is strictly transposed, while in the third, the main harmonic structure is introduced in the harp. The chord that opens the work is important, too, being often developed and transposed. The intervallic structure of the concerto follows the rules of spectral music.

In 1980, during the Summer Courses of New Music in Darmstadt, Tristan Murail presented the pivotal issues of harmony and timbre in spectral music (both elements being unified in his concept; see Tristan Murail, The Revolution of Complex Sounds, translated by Joshua Cody, “Contemporary Music Review” 24 (2005) 2–3). Murail indicated a number of phenomena playing a crucial role in that compositional technique: hiss, harmonic and non-harmonic spectra, multiphonic sounds, vertical complexes as combinations of the previous categories, up to the creation of new timbral and harmonic complexes from incomplete spectra or through a change of register of the fundamentals. Spectralism is based on a thorough analysis of all physical properties of sound, derived from experiments with electroacoustic music. In spectral compositions (which are usually acoustic), we can very often observe phenomena that are parallel to music composed with the use of electronics. The above-mentioned categories are present in many works composed in the 1970s and 1980s, not only in Murail’s but also in those of another leading exponent of the genre, Gérard Grisey. In the piano concerto Le désenchantement du monde, there are elements of spectralism, but not in the degree and condensation we know from the composer’s previous efforts; for example, hiss and multiphonic effects play a much more modest role. In his commentaries following the first performance of the work, Tristan Murail emphasised that Le désenchantement is not composed according to the strict rules of spectralism. Listening to the work itself, as well as citing other writings by the composers, another important aspect emerges: the historical context. Murail points to issues of writing for the piano after a period of intensive exploration of its possibilities in the musical literature of the 20th century, especially the harmonic experiments of Henry Cowell (clusters), the further extension of the sonoristic spectrum by John Cage (prepared piano), or the piano output of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail’s teacher. Listening to Le désenchantement, there is a clear rooting in tradition, especially the French piano music of the 20th century. Murail does not follow the vitalist–sonoristic path of development of piano music initiated by Bartók and then taken over by American composers, nor does he adhere to the serial–structuralist complexities represented e.g. by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. His concerto resonates with reminiscences of the heritage of two great French composers: the above-mentioned Olivier Messiaen, as testified e.g. by the glittering textures obtained by high-register arabesques in the piano and glockenspiel, and Claude Debussy. References to the master of Impressionism are not unfounded: it was Debussy who revolutionised the elements of the musical work, putting unprecedented emphasis on sound colour, integrating for the first time harmony and colour in an indissoluble unity – a premise that became fundamental to spectralism, as emphasised by Murail himself in many writings. It would be overadventurous to go as far as calling Debussy the precursor of spectralism; nevertheless, it is worth noting the predilection of this composer to the major ninth chord, which became widely used in many spectral works as well because of the characteristics of the harmonic series.

Le désenchantement du monde, therefore, follows a musical tradition of over a century. And it is that context that seems vital for Murail’s work, more so than the purely compositional issues that might have been more relevant in earlier spectral works.

So magic is over. Time to disenchant the world.

Artur Zagajewski