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Learn about the French composer, Olivier Messiaen, and his works & life

Olivier Messiaen – The Compositeur who Amalgamated Exoticism and Nature 

An organist, ornithologist, and composer, Olivier Messiaen was born in Avignon, France on December 10, 1908. He wove divinity into his tunes through every musical sense devisable. Messiaen’s music is considered to be complex on a rhythmical base, as he utilized abstracts from his own improvisations and compositions both melodically and harmonically. He created music for both orchestra and chamber ensembles, experimenting further with new electronic instruments developed across the European music circuit.   

Composer Olivier Messiaen

Early life

He was born into a highly cultured family - the son of Pierre Messiaen, a literary scholar and Cécile Sauvage, a poet. During World War 1, he learned to play the piano all by himself and started composing at 7, before entering the Paris Conservatoire at 11. He started learning under the tutelage of Marcel Dupré, Charles-Marie Widor, Maurice Emmanuel, and Paul Dukas.  

He was greatly interested in the recent French composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. His father returned from the war in 1918 and moved the family to Nantes. One of his teachers, Jehan de Gibon, gifted him a score of Pelléas et Mélisande. Messiaen later described this Debussy opera as a “thunderbolt" and “the most decisive influence on him.”   

“Stained glass is light captured by man.” – Olivier Messiaen

Music 

In 1930, he married Claire Delbos, a composer and violinist. His nuptials inspired him to create the song cycle Poèmes pour Mi (1936), celebrating domestic happiness. The marriage ended in a tragedy when Claire lost her memory towards the end of the second world war, spending the remainder of her life in mental institutions.  

In 1931, he was appointed as an organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris, a post he held until he passed away. He also taught at “Schola Cantorum de Paris” during this decade. He taught many eminent composers, namely Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Alexander Goehr, George Benjamin, and Yvonne Loriod who later became his 2nd wife.

In 1936, he created La jeune France ("Young France") with Yves Baudrier, Daniel-Lesur, and André Jolivet. They implicitly criticized the predominant frivolity of contemporary French music, posing as champions of “living music,” which provided more impetus on generosity, sincerity and artistic values.  

After France fell in 1940, he became a war prisoner. It was during this time when he composed Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the end of time") for the 4 instruments available— clarinet, cello, violin, and piano. He performed this piece with fellow prisoners for the prison guards and inmates. In 1941, he was appointed the professor of composition and harmony upon his release and in 1966 at the Paris Conservatoire. 

The Conscientious Ornithologist

He taught for 2 weeks in Budapest in 1947 and at Tanglewood in 1949. In this period, he began experimenting with “musique concrete,” or music for the recorded sounds. In 1952, he composed “Le merle noir” for piano and flute. The flute piece was entirely composed on the song of a blackbird. His orchestra “Réveil des oiseaux” (1953) took his fame to new heights, consisting entirely of birdsongs heard between noon and midnight in the Jura. Messiaen started incorporating birdsongs into all his compositions – including Catalogue d'oiseaux (1958) and La fauvette des jardins (1971).

He traveled widely, regularly drawing inspiration from the diverse range of Japanese music. He perceived colors from musical chords, which further influenced his compositions. He also experimented with the parametric of "total serialism" for a short time, a field where he was widely considered as an innovator. He slowly started studying the birdsongs, eastern rhythm and microtonal music extensively. His exploration of the relationship between music and time makes his work distinctive.  

His Best Works

St Francis of Assisi (Opera)

Messiaen’s magnum opus resembles classics of older times and requires a choir of 150 and an orchestra of 120 for execution. In spite of its daunting scale, the music has a striking impact with all its color, glory and exuberance. 

The Quartet for the End of Time 

He composed this piece in 1941 during his incarceration in a Nazi prison camp. It conjures the essence of celestial solace and spiritual freedom of the war. The intensity is captivating, captured almost to perfection.  

The Turangalîla Symphony 

Turangalîla exudes an uninhibited euphoria in all its 10 movements. It stays true to Stravinsky quip about the piece- “all you need is enough manuscript paper to write Turangalîla.” Esa-Pekka Salonen's part with Philharmonia is simply exhilarating. 

Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum 

The Cleveland Orchestra and Pierre Boulez collaborate to create this immense sonic ritual. The music oozes as inherent toughness combined with a searing powerful tone. 

Oiseaux Exotiques 

This was first performed by Messiaen's second wife, Yvonne Loriod, combining with Messiaen's version of a piano concerto. It is accredited as one of the first pieces that delves into the universe of birdsongs through his output. 

Vingt regards sur l'enfant–Jésus 

In this piece, Messiaen’s 2-hour cycle of pianistic spirituality was recorded by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. It offers the most searching interpretation of the piece to date. 

Organ works 

Olivier Latry guides us through Messiaen's complete work for his favorite instrument, the one that he loved and played the most – organ. It’s the ideal guide to visualize what constitutes of Messiaen's most sensual and strangest music.

Chronochromie 

Here, the composer offers his vision of nature from the most uncompromising viewpoint. Performed by the Clevelanders and Pierre Boulez, it paints a vivid description of rocks and waterfalls combined with the untamed outburst of birdsongs.  

La Transfiguration 

Penned in 1969, it portrays music on a gigantic scale, summing up everything the composer has achieved up to that point. Myung-Whun Chung conducted it with his French cavalry of musicians. 

Eclairs sur l'au-delà 

Considered as his last visionary score, Simon Rattle supervises the Berliner Philharmonike in creating a transcendent performance. 

Honors 

In 1959, he was nominated as an “Officier of the Légion d'honneur” and was officially appointed a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1966. In 1967 he was elected for the Institut de France and in 1968, the Académie des beaux-arts. In 1971 he won the Erasmus Prize and in 1975, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize and Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal. He was awarded Denmark’s highest musical honor, the Sonning Award in 1977 and 1980, the Croix de Commander of the Belgian Order of the Crown. 

After much reluctance, he started working on Saint-François d'Assise in 1975. This intensive composition occupied him until 1983, which he later described as a spectacle. He finally retired in 1978 and was shortly anointed to the highest rank of the Légion d'honneur. 

He experienced considerable pain towards the end of his life, going through repeated surgery on his back. He still managed to commission “Éclairs sur l'au-delà” for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He finally passed away on April 27, 1992, in Paris. 

The Theologist 

A composer who manifested a deep loyalty towards nature, Catholicism and exoticism, he was much more than an organist and teacher. He expanded the domains of classical music, introducing the world of music to the sounds of nature. His affluence towards rhythm, color, and harmony added to his fame, as he developed his own unique style of blending them into the most serene orchestrations. He later introduced a "communicable language" – a musical alphabet for encoding sentences. He first deployed this technique in “Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité,” where the alphabets included motifs and the sentences included sections from the compositions of St. Thomas Aquinas.

No other musician of the 20th century had explored the realms of spirituality with such unflinching directness than him. It seems a miracle that his works led to experiences of such radiant complexes, albeit originating from an apparently naïve religious faith. The paradox is how thrillingly sensual his music is, depicted by the wild splendor of the Turangalîla Symphony to the exoticism of La Transfiguration. Messiaen's crown jewels are his radiant birdsongs, which belong as much to the nature as to him. Austerity combined with melody, his personal style depicts a rich tonal vibe, unique complexity and harmonic dialect.

 


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