Personalities | Olivier Messiaen | Modern Era | Classical

(O-lev-ya’ Mes-se-an’) 1908–92
French composer

Messiaen’s music is unmistakably personal, drawn from a wide range of interests rather than influences. A church organist from his twenties, he was aware of the ‘church modes’ (scales used in Western music before the development of the key system) and investigated other modes, including rhythmic ones. He studied Asian and ancient Greek music and was an insatiable collector of birdsong.

Central to his work was his Roman Catholic faith, but secular and personal concerns also surfaced in the ecstatic love songs – Poèmes pour Mi (1936) and others – addressed to his first wife and then, after she was struck down by a disease which robbed her of her faculties, a series of works inspired by his love for an outstandingly gifted pupil, the pianist Yvonne Loriod (1924–2010). Central to these, and Messiaen’s most widely performed work, is the huge Turangalîla-Symphonie, a rapturous love-song and hymn to joy in 10 movements. Inspired by Loriod’s virtuosity, he wrote for her the evening-long cycles of piano pieces Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus (‘Twenty Gazes at the Child Jesus’, 1944) and Catalogue d’oiseaux (‘Catalogue of Birds’, 1946–48), as well as Visions de l’Amen (‘Visions of the Amen’, for two pianos, 1943) and an important series of multi-movement works for his own instrument, the organ. These include La nativité du Seigneur (‘The Nativity of the Lord’, 1935), Messe de la Pentecôte (‘Pentecost Mass’, 1945–50), Livre d’orgue (‘Organ Book’, 1951) and Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte-Trinité (‘Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity’, 1969). In the 1960s, the imagery of his music became grander, and a series of late works act as a final confession of faith as well as a conspectus of the areas his work had explored: an oratorio, La transfiguration de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (‘The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ’, 1969), an orchestral cycle, Des canyons aux étoiles... (‘From the Canyons to the Stars’, 1974), and an opera, Saint-François d’Assise (‘St Francis of Assisi’, 1983). His learning and non-doctrinaire openness to new musical ideas made him an inspiring teacher. His pupils included Pierre Boulez (b. 1925), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2010), Iannis Xenakis (b. 1922), Alexander Goehr (b. 1932) and George Benjamin (b. 1960).

Recommended Recording:
Turangalîla-symphonie, Jeanne & Yvonne Loriod, Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille, Myung-Whun Chung (Deutsche Grammophon)

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