Olivier Messiaen

1908 1992

Olivier Messiaen

Composer • Organ


Olivier Messiaen was a French organist and composer who lived and worked through the 20th century. In his formative years, he found his voice in the language of the modes to which he remained loyal throughout his career, even after extending his style possibilities after World War II. As well as his Catholic faith, his main influences were the French organ tradition and the innovations of twentieth century composers such as Debussy and Stravinsky. Messiaen experienced synaesthesia – the perception of colours when he heard certain chords, an important asset to his writing. He also famously transcribed birdsong and used it in his music, particularly in his later years.

Olivier Messiaen was born in 1908 in Avignon, into a literary family. His mother, a poet, wrote a sequence of poems entitledL’ame en bourgeon (The Budding Soul) while she was pregnant with him, referring to her unborn son in the last chapter,Tandis que la terre tourne (As the Earth Turns). Messaien cites it as a prophecy for his eventual career in music, and this influenced him deeply throughout his life and career.

During World War I, the family went to live in Grenoble, where young Messiaen became intrigued with drama, putting on Shakespearean recitals with his brother in a home-made toy theatre. He taught himself to play piano and soon took on formal piano lessons. He was particularly interested in the latest piano music byDebussy and Ravel and it was in these years that he began to compose. In 1918, his father came home from the war and the family moved to Nantes and the following year to Paris.

At the age of 11, Messiaen became a pupil of the Paris Conservatoire. From the age of 15, he won various prizes in close succession, including an award in harmony, a first prize in piano accompaniment and first prize in fugue-writing. He studied composition with Charles-Marie Widor and Paul Dukas. One of his most brilliant student compositions was his Prelude for piano, which shows an early example of the modes of limited transposition that he was famous for using, as well as palindromic rhythms, which Messiaen called non-retrogradable rhythms.

He gave his public debut in 1931 with his orchestral work Les offrandes oubilées , the same year that he was appointed organist at la Trinité in Paris. His principal piece from this early period was his organ cycleLa Nativité du Seigneur (1935). His wedding present to his wife, the violinist Claire Delbos was the Theme and Variations for violin and piano. He also expressed the bliss of marital love inPoemes pour Mi for soprano with piano or orchestra. Mi was the pet name for his wife and in this cycle, which is self-expressive and lively, rejects the neo-classicism that was to be found in Paris at the time.  After the birth of their only child Pascal, he composed his song cycle in which all three members of their family are portrayed, entitledChants de terre et de ciel.

His principal aim in all of his compositions was to manifest the Christian doctrines in his music and one of his most important themes was the Christian family.

Messiaen founded a group called La Jeune France with composers André Jolivet, Daniel-Lesur and Yves Baudrier. Their mission was to reinstate passion and sensuality in music and were very much opposed to neo-classicism. They presented their works in concerts in Paris between 1936 and 1939. For the 1937 Paris Exhibition, Messiaen composedFête des belles eaux for six of the electronic instrument called theondes martenot.

Soon after the outbreak of World War II, Messiaen was called for military service. In 1940, he was captured and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp at Gorlitz, where he completed his most famous pieces, theQuatuor pour la fin de printemps (Quartet for the End of Time) specifically written for himself and some fellow inmates who played violin, cello and clarinet, with himself at the piano. It was his most sophisticated and ambitious work yet. In the eight movement work, he conveyed ‘the end of time’ by way of non-developing textures, ostinato, very slow music, impetuous interruptions and dances in irregular rhythms. For him, the end of time meant the end of orderly progressive time. The premiere took place in the prison camp, deep in winter, for a very large audience of prisoners of war.

After Messiaen’s release in 1941, he became a harmony teacher at the Paris Conservatoire in the now occupied Paris. Among his pupils were Pierre Boulez and Yvonne Loriod whom he later married after his wife died of a long illness.

Messiaen had long been fascinated by birdsong and composed a large-scale orchestral workRéveil des oiseaux consisting almost entirely of birdsong that can be heard in the Jura. From the early 1950s onwards, Messaien incorporated birdsong into all of his works. Other notable works includeCatalogue d’oiseaux (1958) andLa fauvette des jardins (1971). With his second wife, Yvonne Loriod, he travelled widely in order to attend concerts and record more exotic birdsong. These pursuits brought them to Japan and to Bryce Canyon in Utah.