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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The modes of limited transpositions in Olivier Messiaen's music : transformational and tonal approaches Simpson-Litke, Rebecca


This thesis provides a detailed examination of the theoretical structures, compositional possibilities, and musical effects of the Modes of Limited Transpositions, as discovered by Olivier Messiaen and explored throughout his career, but primarily in his early works. In the introductory chapter, I discuss Messiaen’s unique perspective on these collections, including an investigation into the composer’s synaesthetic sound-colour perception and artistic preferences. Taking Messiaen’s own writings as my point of departure, I develop a more systematic method for generating and labeling these transpositionally symmetrical collections, situating each of them within a larger family of augmented-triad-based and/or tritone-based modes. In the main body of the thesis, I explore Messiaen’s use of these modes from three interrelated perspectives—modal, chromatic, and tonal—each requiring distinct analytical tools. In Chapter 1, entitled “A Modal Perspective,” I adapt concepts from transformational theory to create a modal transformational approach. In the analyses of this chapter, musical objects and transformations are considered not in reference to a mod-12 chromatic universe, but within purely modal contexts. (In the accompanying appendix to this chapter, I develop the concept of an abstract Tonnetz, highlighting some ways in which new objects, transformations, and spaces may accommodate a wider variety of analytical contexts.) In Chapter 2, entitled “A Chromatic Perspective,” I describe transformational relationships between modes of different types, and the standard twelve-tone universe is used as the backdrop against which objects and transformations are heard. I create geometric models of the augmented-triad-based and tritone-based families and demonstrate their analytical usefulness. In Chapter 3, entitled “A Tonal Perspective,” I examine ways in which Messiaen exploits the tonal resources of his modes in order to imitate traditional harmonic and melodic structures. I discuss the various ways in which focal centres are created, and how superimposed layers or juxtaposed blocks of music may be unified (or kept aurally distinct) via references to tonality. In the final Chapter 4, then, I show how all three perspectives work together in my analysis of a complete song, in which Messiaen beautifully depicts the sentiments of the text through the creation of a rich fabric of musical relationships.

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