Messiaen’s Le tombeau resplendissant (The Resplendent Tomb)

Notes by TŌN timpanist Keith Hammer III

Youth’s Departure, or Maternal Mourning
Grief. Rage. Despair. Sadness. These are the driving emotions that plagued the mind of Olivier Messiaen when composing Le Tombeau Resplendissant. He composed this symphonic poem in 1923, three years after completing his work Offrandes oubliées. In his preface to the work, he described his emotional state regarding him departing his youthful days, saying “My youth is dead: I am its executioner.” One could say that in this work he is purely mourning the loss of his youth, but he had also witnessed the death of his mother from consumption only four years prior. It is quite possible that his grief over his mother’s passing in such a horrid manner still lived on in him when composing this work.

The Resplendent Tomb
This work is in a four part form, in a fast-slow-fast-slow progression. In both of the fast portions, we witness the lashings of his rage and fury at his youth leaving him. The use of flourishes in the winds and strings are emblematic of his anger surging through his psyche, with the timpani and grand caisse strikes at the end of the sections displaying the finality of youth’s exit. In the second and fourth sections, Messiaen dispenses with the lashings and replaces them with more melancholic melodies, showing a temporary appeasement of his anger in the first slow part, then in the second slow part a glimmer of hope that he has accepted the death of his youth.

Grappling with Grief
In the first slow section the oboe, clarinet, and flute introduce and pass along a new theme. Though lyrical and melancholic, it is wrought with dissonance. Combined with the undulating harmony and high-register tremolo in the strings, we see the efforts of Messiaen to finally begin to accept his fate, all while his anger and fear loom not too far away, ready to strike again. In the final section, the timbre changes as Messiaen uses only strings. He also uses harmonics in the strings to create a very airy atmosphere, one in which the raging emotions from the third section disappear and give way to the violas and cellos reciting a melody in unison. Still maintaining a dissonant characteristic compared to the one in the first slow section, this melody differs in atmosphere. The harmonics and stable, E-major harmony can be seen as Messiaen finally moving on through the mourning process, releasing his anger and fear, accepting that his youth was bound to depart at some point.