Olivier Eugène Prosper Charles Messiaen (December 10, 1908 – April 27, 1992) was a French composer, organist, teacher, and ornithologist, one of the major composers of the 20th century. Messiaen was born on December 10, 1908, in Avignon, France, into a literary family, the elder of two sons of Cécile Sauvage, a poet, and Pierre Messiaen, a teacher of English who translated the plays of William Shakespeare into French. Soon after his birth the family moved to Ambert, the birthplace of Chabrier, where his brother Alain was born in 1913. At the outbreak of World War I, Pierre Messiaen enlisted and Cécile took their two boys to live with her brother in Grenoble. There Messiaen became fascinated with drama, reciting Shakespeare to his brother with the help of a home-made toy theatre with translucent backdrops made from old cellophane wrappers. At this time he also adopted the Roman Catholic faith. Having already taught himself to play the piano, he still took piano lessons. His interest included the recent music of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and he asked for opera vocal scores for Christmas presents. Around this time he began to compose. In 1918 his father returned from the war and the family moved to Nantes. Olivier continued music lessons, and one of his teachers, Jehan de Gibon, gave him a score of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. The following year Pierre Messiaen gained a teaching post in Paris. Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1919, aged 11.
At the Conservatoire, where his teachers included Georges Falkenberg for piano, Noël Gallon for counterpoint and fugue, and professor Baggers for timpani and percussion, Messiaen made excellent academic progress. In 1924, aged 15, he was awarded second prize in harmony, having been taught in that subject by professor Jean Gallon. In 1925 he won first prize in piano accompaniment, and in 1926 he gained first prize in fugue. After studying with Maurice Emmanuel, he was awarded second prize for the history of music in 1928. Emmanuel engendered an interest in ancient Greek rhythms and exotic modes. After showing improvisation skills on the piano Messiaen studied organ with Marcel Dupré. Messiaen, having never seen an organ console, sat quietly for an hour while Dupré explained and demonstrated the instrument, and then came back a week later to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fantasia in C minor to an impressive standard. Messiaen gained first prize in organ playing and improvisation in 1929. After a year studying composition with Charles-Marie Widor, in autumn 1927 he entered the class of the newly appointed Paul Dukas. Messiaen’s mother died of tuberculosis shortly before the class began. Despite his grief, he resumed his studies, and in 1930 Messiaen won first prize in composition. While a student he composed his first published works—his eight Préludes for piano. The earlier Le banquet céleste was published subsequently. These exhibit Messiaen’s use of modes and palindromic rhythms. His public début came in 1931 with his orchestral suite Les offrandes oubliées. That year he first heard a gamelan group, sparking his interest in the use of tuned percussion.
From 1929, Messiaen regularly deputised at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité, Paris, for the organist Charles Quef, who was ill at the time. The post became vacant in 1931 when Quef died, and Dupré, Charles Tournemire and Widor among others supported Messiaen’s candidacy. His formal application included a letter of recommendation from Widor. The appointment was confirmed in 1931, and he remained the organist at the church for more than sixty years. He also assumed a post at the Schola Cantorum de Paris in the early 1930s. He married the violinist and composer Claire Delbos, daughter of a Sorbonne professor, in 1932. Their marriage inspired him to both compose works for her to play, such as Thème et variations for violin and piano in the year they were married, and to write pieces to celebrate their domestic happiness, including the song cycle Poèmes pour Mi in 1936, which he orchestrated in 1937. Mi was Messiaen’s affectionate nickname for his wife. In 1937 their son Pascal was born. The marriage turned to tragedy when Claire lost her memory after an operation and spent the rest of her life in mental institutions. From 1934 to 1939 he taught piano sight reading at the École Normale de Musique and an organ improvisation course at the Schola Cantorium.
In 1936, along with André Jolivet, Daniel-Lesur, and Yves Baudrier, Messiaen formed the group La jeune France (“Young France”). In response to a commission for a piece to accompany light-and water-shows on the Seine during the Paris Exposition, in 1937 Messiaen demonstrated his interest in using the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument, by composing Fêtes des belles eaux for an ensemble of six. He included a part for the instrument in several of his subsequent compositions. During this period he composed several multi-movement organ works. He arranged his orchestral suite L’ascension (“The Ascension”) for organ, replacing the orchestral version’s third movement with an entirely new movement, Transports de joie d’une âme devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne (“Ecstasies of a soul before the glory of Christ, which is its own glory”). He also wrote the extensive cycles La Nativité du Seigneur (“The Nativity of the Lord”) and Les corps glorieux (“The glorious bodies”).
At the outbreak of World War II, Messiaen was drafted into the French army. Due to poor eyesight, he was enlisted as a medical auxiliary rather than an active combatant. He was captured at Verdun, taken to Görlitz in May 1940, and was imprisoned at Stalag VIII-A. He met a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist among his fellow prisoners. He wrote a trio for them, which he gradually incorporated into his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”). The Quartet was first performed in January 1941 to an audience of prisoners and prison guards, with the composer playing a poorly maintained upright piano in freezing conditions. Shortly after his release from Görlitz in May 1941, Messiaen was appointed a professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, where he taught until his retirement in 1978. He compiled his Technique de mon langage musical (“Technique of my musical language”) published in 1944, in which he quotes many examples from his music, particularly the Quartet. Among his early students were the composers Pierre Boulez and Karel Goeyvaerts. Other pupils included Iannis Xenakis in 1951, Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1952, Alexander Goehr in 1956–57, Tristan Murail in 1967–72, and George Benjamin during the late 1970s.
In 1943, Messiaen wrote Visions de l’Amen (“Visions of the Amen”) for two pianos for Yvonne Loriod and himself to perform. Shortly thereafter he composed the enormous solo piano cycle Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (“Twenty gazes on the child Jesus”) for her. Again for Loriod, he wrote Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine (“Three small liturgies of the Divine Presence”) for female chorus and orchestra which includes a difficult solo piano part. Two years after Visions de l’Amen, Messiaen composed the song cycle Harawi, the first of three works inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde. The second of these works about human as opposed to divine love was the result of a commission from Serge Koussevitsky. This was the ten-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie. It is not a conventional symphony, but rather an extended meditation on the joy of human union and love. The third piece inspired by the Tristan myth was Cinq rechants for twelve unaccompanied singers, described by Messiaen as influenced by the alba of the troubadours. Messiaen visited the United States in 1949, where his music was conducted by Koussevitsky and Leopold Stokowski. His Turangalîla-Symphonie was first performed in the US in 1949, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
Messiaen taught an analysis class at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1947 he taught and performed with his wife for two weeks in Budapest. In 1949 he taught at Tanglewood. Beginning in summer 1949 he taught in the new music summer school classes at Darmstadt. He experimented with ways of making scales of other elements, including duration, articulation and dynamics, analogous to the chromatic pitch scale. The results of these innovations was the “Mode de valeurs et d’intensités” for piano (from the Quatre études de rythme). During this period he also experimented with musique concrète, music for recorded sounds. When in 1952 Messiaen was asked to provide a test piece for flautists wishing to enter the Paris Conservatoire, he composed the piece Le merle noir for flute and piano. While he had long been fascinated by birdsong, and birds had made appearances in several of his earlier works, for example La Nativité, Quatuor and Vingt regards), the flute piece was based entirely on the song of the blackbird. He took this development to a new level with his 1953 orchestral work Réveil des oiseaux—its material consists almost entirely of the birdsong one might hear between midnight and noon in the Jura. From this period onwards, Messiaen incorporated birdsong into all of his compositions, for example the collection of thirteen pieces for piano Catalogue d’oiseaux completed in 1958, and La fauvette des jardins of 1971
Messiaen’s first wife died in 1959 after a long illness, and in 1961 he married Loriod. He began to travel widely, to attend musical events, and to seek out and transcribe the songs of more exotic birds in the wild. Loriod frequently assisted her husband’s detailed studies of birdsong while walking with him, by making tape recordings for later reference. In 1962 he visited Japan, where Gagaku music and Noh theatre inspired the orchestral “Japanese sketches”, Sept haïkaï, which contain stylised imitations of traditional Japanese instruments. Pierre Boulez programmed first performances of Messiaen’s music at his Domaine musical concerts and the Donaueschingen festival ,included Réveil des oiseaux, Chronochromie, commissioned for the 1960 festival, and Couleurs de la cité céleste. Another work of this period, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, was commissioned as a commemoration of the dead of the two World Wars and was performed first semi-privately in the Sainte-Chapelle, then publicly in Chartres Cathedral with Charles de Gaulle in the audience. His reputation as a composer continued to grow and in 1959, he was nominated as an Officier of the Légion d’honneur. In 1966 he was officially appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, although he had in effect been teaching composition for years. Further honours included election to the Institut de France in 1967 and the Académie des beaux-arts in 1968, the Erasmus Prize in 1971, the award of the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 1975, the Sonning Award (Denmark’s highest musical honour) in 1977, the Wolf Prize in Arts in 1982, and the presentation of the Croix de Commander of the Belgian Order of the Crown in 1980.
Messiaen’s next work was the enormous La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ. The composition occupied him from 1965 to 1969 and the musicians employed include a 100-voice ten-part choir, seven solo instruments and large orchestra. Its fourteen movements are a meditation on the story of Christ’s Transfiguration. Shortly after its completion, Messiaen received a commission from Alice Tully for a work to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial. He arranged a visit to the US in spring 1972, and was inspired by Bryce Canyon in Utah, where he observed the canyon’s distinctive colors and birdsong. The twelve-movement orchestral piece Des canyons aux étoiles was the result, first performed in 1974 in New York. In 1971, he had been asked to compose a piece for the Paris Opéra. While reluctant to undertake such a major project, he was persuaded in 1975 to accept the commission and began work on his Saint-François d’Assise. The composition was intensive as he also wrote his own libretto and occupied him from 1975 to 1979; the orchestration was carried out from 1979 until 1983. It was first performed in 1983. In the summer of 1978, Messiaen retired from teaching at the Conservatoire. In 1984 he published a major collection of organ pieces, Livre du Saint Sacrement; other works include birdsong pieces for solo piano, and works for piano with orchestra. He was promoted to the highest rank of the Légion d’honneur, the Grand-Croix, in 1987. Although in considerable pain near the end of his life requiring repeated surgery on his back, he was able to fulfil a commission from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Éclairs sur l’au-delà, which was premièred six months after his death which occurred in Clichy, near Paris, on April 27, 1992.
My collection includes the following works by Olivier Messiaen:
Turangalila Symphonie (1948).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources