I was listening to the sixth movement of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus – the movement in question being called Par Lui tout a été fait (‘everything was made through Him’) – and I thought about how much it reminded me of the last movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata. Both are fugues that play very loosely with the rules and conventions that would typically define good fugue-writing; at the same time, they both display a sort of contrapuntal virtuosity by having very long, complicated subjects but still bringing them back in inversion, retrograde or both. Moreover, the virtuosity is not only compositional in nature but translates into pianistic virtuosity: There are so many layers that to play everything accurately in a way that works requires a baffling amount of skill on the part of the performer. Both pieces also have a bit in the middle where the piece seems to slow down and become calmer, before almost immediately speeding back up again and becoming even more intense, leading to a triumphant climax of one of the main themes.
And it’s this climax that illustrates the difference between the two composers. Beethoven only really climaxes at the very end of the movement, using the main motif that starts the subject of the fugue, now played in parallel octaves and expanded upon. Messiaen however places his climax earlier and reintroduces the ‘theme de Dieu’, God’s theme, from the first movement. This theme almost conquers the movement, being the main material for its last few minutes despite being absent during the entire first half of the piece. It’s no coincidence that this theme is God. After the chaos of the creation of everything, the Lord now uses his dominating power to bring order to his kingdom, which translates in the music to a final section which is just an endless stream of straight 16th notes consisting of nothing but the chords of God’s theme, endlessly repeated in both hands, one echoing the other an octave lower and a 16th later. This section is marked ‘La creation chante le theme de Dieu’: the creation chanting God’s theme. The chaos is to be ordered and humanity (being an essential part of the creation) is to be unified from the outside, by and through God and having faith in this God.
In contrast, in the Hammerklavier fugue the climax is delayed to the end, and it’s brought about by a single voice at first, playing the motif of descending sixteenths and one leap up that comprised much of the main subject. Other voices, hearing this call, echo it and amplify it, leading to a victorious cadence. While Beethoven’s score is not as explicit about the metaphorical aspects of the work as Messiaen’s, with a little imagination it’s not hard to see this as an image of humanity coming together and uniting, not around any force from outside but instead around their own fundamental qualities, recognising that these own essential qualities are what makes them great, and building further to strengthen and expand on it. While Messiaen’s perspective is obviously informed by Catholicism, Beethoven’s seems to be profoundly humanistic. Whichever one leads to ‘better’ music, well, that’s completely up to your taste.