Olivier Messiaen

(10 December 1908, Avignon - 27 April 1992, Clichy)


Olivier-Eugène-Prosper-Charles was a French composer, organist, teacher, and ornithologist, one of the major composers of the 20th century. As a composer he developed a highly personal style noted for its rhythmic complexity, rich tonal color, and unique harmonic language.

Olivier was born in a literary family, his father, Pierre Messiaen was a teacher of English who translated the plays of William Shakespeare into French, and his mother, Cécile Sauvage, was a poet. He grew up in Grenoble and Nantes, began composing at age seven, and taught himself to play the piano. At that time his interest in music included the works of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In 1918 the family moved to Nantes, here he continued his music lessons. One of his teachers, Jehan de Gibon, gave him a score of Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande which had a great impact on young Messiaen. The next year, his father gained a teaching post in Paris. At the age of 11, Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatory, where his teachers included the organist Marcel Dupré and the composer Paul Dukas.

At the Conservatory, he made excellent academic progress. At the age of 15 (1924), 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. During his later years at the conservatory he began an extensive private study of Eastern rhythm, birdsong, and microtonal music (which uses intervals smaller than a semitone). Messiaen gained first prize in organ playing and improvisation in 1929, and one year later, first prize in composition. In 1931 he was appointed organist at the Church of the Sainte-Trinité (Holy Trinity), Paris.

He made his public debut in 1931 with his orchestral suite Les offrandes oubliées (“Forgotten Offertories”). Although this work was well received, it wasn't until the performance of his Nativité du Seigneur (1938; The Birth of the Lord) that he secured a name for himself as a composer. In 1936, along with the composers André Jolivet, Daniel Lesur, and Yves Baudrier, he founded the group La Jeune France (”Young France”) with the purpose to promote new French music. From 1936 right up until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Messiaen taught at the Schola Cantorum and the École Normale de Musique.

Because he was a French soldier, he was taken prisoner and interned at Görlitz. In his time spent there he wrote Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941; Quartet for the End of Time). The quartet's unique instrumentation of piano, clarinet, violin, and cello was written for, and premiered by Messiaen and three fellow inmates while in detention; it became one of the great chamber works of the twentieth century. Messiaen was one of the first composers to apply serial techniques to parameters other than pitch (such as duration, register, and dynamics) in Mode de valeurs et d'intensités (1949) for solo piano.

Shortly after he was released from Görlitz in May 1941, he was appointed 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. He was described by his students as an outstanding teacher. Among his early students were the composers Pierre Boulez and Karel Goeyvaerts. Other pupils included Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1952, Alexander Goehr in 1956–57, Tristan Murail in 1967–72 and George Benjamin during the late 1970s. The Greek composer Iannis Xenakis was referred to him in 1951; Messiaen urged Xenakis to take advantage of his background in mathematics and architecture in his music.

Messiaen's music has been described as outside the western musical tradition, although growing out of that tradition and being influenced by it. Much of his output denies the western conventions of forward motion, development and diatonic harmonic resolution. This is partly due to the symmetries of his technique—for instance the modes of limited transposition do not admit the conventional cadences found in western classical music. Among the composers that exerted influence on Messiaen are Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Modest Mussorgsky. Among composers for the keyboard, Messiaen singled out Jean-Philippe Rameau, Domenico Scarlatti, Frédéric Chopin, Debussy and Isaac Albéniz. Messiaen was further influenced by Surrealism, as may be seen from the titles of some of the piano Préludes (Un reflet dans le vent..., "A reflection in the wind").

Much of Messiaen’s music was inspired by Roman Catholic theology, interpreted in a quasi-mystical manner, notably in Apparition de l’église éternelle for organ (1932; Apparition of the Eternal Church); Visions de l’amen for two pianos (1943); Trois Petites Liturgies de la présence divine for women’s chorus and orchestra (1944); Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus for piano (1944; Twenty Looks upon the Infant Jesus); Messe de la Pentecôte for organ (1950); and La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ for orchestra and choir (1969). Among his most important orchestral works is the Turangalîla-Symphonie (1948) in 10 movements—containing a prominent solo piano part and using percussion instruments in the manner of the Indonesian gamelan orchestra, along with an ondes martenot (an electronic instrument). Also notable is Chronochromie for 18 solo strings, wind, and percussion (1960). Le Réveil des oiseaux (1953; The Awakening of the Birds), Oiseaux exotiques (1956; Exotic Birds), and Catalogue d’oiseaux (1959; Catalog of Birds) incorporate meticulous transcriptions of birdsong. He composed an opera, St. François d’Assise, which premiered at the Paris Opera in 1983.

His large body of organ music, composed primarily during his tenure as organist at the Sainte Trinite Cathedral, is highly idiomatic, colorful in harmony and registration, and rhythmically ingenious. From 1950, his Messe de la Pentecote (Mass of the Pentecost) is a collection of improvisations that he shaped into a composition.

Here  you can find a list of compositions by Olivier Messiaen.