22 Feb 2010

Characterizing Rhythm: Messiaen's Analysis of the Rhythmic Characters (personnages rythmiques) in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring

by Corry Shores
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[The following includes a selection (pp.143-151) from my M.Phil Thesis: The Rhythm of Sensation on the Surface of Sense: Communication in Deleuze as NonSensed and Intense. Defended and archived at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2008.]

Characterizing Rhythm:
Messiaen's Analysis of the Rhythmic Characters (personnages rythmiques) in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring

Painters may use a variety of techniques to shift our eyes around the painting and give us a sense of rhythm. According to Gilles Deleuze, the painter Francis Bacon accomplishes rhythms that are similar to what Messiaen calls personnages rythmiques. There are three types of these rhythmic characters, shared by both Messiaen and Bacon. [We discussed them at greater length at this entry.] The material we present here is technical. It is for those who want know precisely what Deleuze is referring-to when speaking of rhythmic characters.

Messiaen describes the characters in an interview with Claude Samuel.

Olivier Messiaen:
I don't know if Stravinsky himself has realised the great innovation in The Rite which I've called "the rhythmic characters". I'm very proud of this term, which seems really explicit to me.

Claude Samuel:
It is explicit but all the same it demands fuller explanation.

Olivier Messiaen:
Very well. I spoke a moment ago of Beethoven as the creator of "development by elimination". This development consists in taking a thematic fragment and gradually taking notes away from it until it becomes entirely concentrated in an extremely short moment. Now, this elimination and its opposite, amplification - which, in other words, cause a theme to die or revive by the subtraction or addition of a certain number of note-values, as if it were dealing with a living being - constitutes the birth of the rhythmic characters, with the difference that with Beethoven only a single character is active.

In this system of rhythmic characters you have, in principle, several characters present. Let's imagine a scene in a play between three characters: the first acts in a brutal manner by hitting the second; the second character suffers this act, since his actions are dominated by those of the first; lastly, the third character is present at the conflict but remains inactive. If we transpose this parable into the field of rhythm, we have three rhythmic groups: the first, whose note-values are always increasing, is the character who attacks; the second, whose note-values decrease, is the character who is attacked; and the third, whose note-values never change, is the character who remains immobile. (Messiaen & Samuel 36-37c)

We will examine these characters in more detail. To do so, we will make use of Stephen Malinowski’s amazing Music Animation Machine, along with our own diagrams which mimic his innovations.

Augmentation adds rhythmic values to the notes, that is, it makes their durations longer. Diminution does the opposite: it subtracts rhythmic values by decreasing the durations of notes (This and the following from Messiaen Traité de rythme).

In “classic” augmentation, for example, the rhythmic values of notes are added upon themselves:

We might graphically represent the extension this way:

Below we use the Music Animation Machine to animate the augmentation.

[Click on play button, even though no image shows until then]


And diminution of a ‘point’ reduces the rhythm by a third:


According to his student Pierre Boulez, we may credit Messiaen’s rhythmic discoveries to his studies on Stravinsky (Boulez 173). In his classes, Messiaen performed detailed analyses of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, discovering the above notions, as well as the rhythmic characters, which he came to employ in his own compositions. In his general descriptions of the characters, the personnages rythmiques, Messiaen has us imagine a scene in a play involving three characters: a) the first one brutalizes b) his victim, all while c) a spectator watches, but remains inactive. In Stravinsky’s rhythmic characters, the note values of the active figures become augmented, while those of the passive diminish; and, the inactive immobile one’s values remain the same throughout, and are often non-retrogradable, that is, they remain the same whether played forward or backward. The result is a sort of boxing match, with two contenders each taking his toll on the other, all before the observing audience.

Yet, Messiaen discovers a complexity in Stravinsky’s personnages rythmiques, which Deleuze finds as well in Bacon’s Figures: the roles of the figures change between active and passive frequently, almost like wrestlers interchanging positions of dominance as they struggle with one another.

We will first look at a part Messiaen’s analysis of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, “Glorification De l'Elue,” where he differentiates the personnages rythmiques and describes their combat. Generally speaking, what Messiaen discovers in this section is that there are 4 small unique repeating series of notes, which he considers the rhythmic characters, and he names them A, B, C, and D. Figures A and B increase and decrease in size as they repeat, which gives us the impression that they are battling each other, with one or the other taking the lead at certain times. All the while, D remains the same, and is thus the witness or attendant figure. Figure C changes only once, and does not seem to fit into any of the three roles.

In the diagram below, we can see the series of changes for each figure:

Messiaen reduces the more complex notation down to eighth note patterns so that the characters may be identified. To better recognize them in our listening, we will use box diagrams to represent the sonic qualities of figures. (The vertical axis displays pitch, and the horizontal, like before, is duration. Pitch will sometimes be reduced and approximated).

His first figure is character A, who varies between active and passive, and is played by the English horns along with the flute and piccolo, which begin the movement:

which Messiaen symbolically condenses to:

which has a value of 5 eighth notes. (He ignores the initial grace notes and counts silence with the previous note).

On the Music Animation Machine, it looks like:

It moves fast, but we can watch it animated.


This figure repeats again, remaining the same length.

The figure appearing after that second instance of A is the B character, played by the stringed instruments:

Which Messiaen reduces to:

We it animated here (ignore the very last instant):


The A pattern returns again repeating three times, first at the same rhythmic value as before, 5 eighth notes,

following with an augmentation to 7 notes:

Then it reduces to a value of 4 eighth notes, and is overlapped by C:

Let's listen to all three. Notice the first one is the original length; the second one is longer, and the third is shorter and cut-off by the figure that follows.


The next figure, C, overlapping A and played by the trombones, is always made up of triplets building with a strong crescendo (box rendition is simplification):


This is followed by character D, the immobile rhythm, played by the tympani:


Then C returns with an extra triplet (box diagram is simplified):


Then the immobile D returns,

followed by A again in its decreased 4 eighth-note form, overlapped by C in its own former shorter form,

followed again by the immobile D:

[The last instant of this clip begins the next B]


But when B returns, it has diminished from its previous 9 note value to 6:


Character A then returns to its original 5 eighth-note value, following with B returning to its 9 eighth-note value,

and the A occurs again twice both times still at a value of 5, but follows again increasing to its 7 value form, then ending this section of the movement with its 4 value form


We can hear a recording with the proper instruments in this clip below. It plays the entire section we have so far examined.


What Messiaen observes is a higher order of rhythm. Each rhythmic character is rhythmic in its own right. But the rhythm of each rhythm changes through the repetitions. Look again at the comparison chart.

The fluctuations of A have their own sort of rhythm. Messiaen sees A and B as changing active and passive roles, depending on which increases or decreases following the other, all while D remains constant, like an observer. In a sense, D is also like the frame of reference when all motion is considered relative. For, relative to the first two instances of C, for example, D becomes smaller. But because D was chosen as the point of rhythmic reference, all other characters will take on the active and passive, augmenting and diminishing roles.

We will see that in Bacon's paintings, we feel augmenting and diminishing (active and passive) forces from the different characters, all while one character will be the attendant observer. However, the role of attendant also shifts. This creates higher orders of rhythm in the painting.

Boulez, Pierre. Notes of an Apprenticeship. Transl. Herbert Weinstock. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.

Messiaen, Olivier. Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie (1949-1992), Tome II. Paris: Alphonse Leduc: 1995.

Messiaen, Olivier, and Claude Samuel. Conversations with Olivier Messiaen. Transl. Felix Aprahamian. London: Stainer & Bell, 1976.

Thank you Stephen Malinowski for creating and sharing your incredible Music Animation Machine.

Midi file from:

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