Olivier Messiaen - Biography


Olivier Messiaen probably the most significant composer of the last half of the 20th Century was born on December 10th 1908 in Avignon France and died in Clichy, Hauts de la Seine on April 27th 1992. Messiean’s father was a translator of English Literature his mother a poet. He was educated in a very unique but thorough way by his distinguished parents including a musical education by eight. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at eleven where he studied with the great organist Marcel Dupre and famous composer Paul Dukas. He was close to his mystically inclined mother who died when he was 19. Her death caused Messiaen to have a spiritual crisis that required him to move to the country for a few months to recover. The streak of mysticism he absorbed from his mother was to remain with him always along with a deep Catholic faith. He graduated from the Conservatoire with honors and was to become the organist of St Trinitie Church in Paris in 1931 upon Dupre’s recommendation; this was a position he was to hold for sixty years. By this time he started to notate the sounds of birds to integrate into his works, which was to become a dominant characteristic of his music through his career. He married musician Claire Delbos in 1932 and they would have a son Pascal in 1937, shortly after his wife developed a severe mental illness that led to a lifetime commitment in an institution. His early works the vocal Poems Pour Me and a set of Variations for Violin and Piano were inspired by his wife.


In 1936 along with three other young composes including Jolivet he established Le Jeune France a group to promote French Music. By this he had already wriiten a signifigant amount of his singularly distinguished Organ Music including The Nativity of our Lord, Les Corps Glorieux and The Ascension for which he also prepared an orchestral version. With the outbreak of the Second World War Messiaen was drafted into the French Army where he was soon to be taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans in Poland. It was there that he was to compose and perform his most famous work the Quartet for the End of Time. He was soon released after the French surrender and soon was to become teacher of harmony at the Paris Conservatory upon his release where his pupils were to include Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis and his future wife Yvonne Loriod. In 1943 he wrote for 4 hand piano piece Visions de L’Amen for himself and Loriod to be followed by the monumental piano cycle Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus (Twenty gazes on the Child Jesus). In 1945 he composed Trois Petite Liturgies de la Presence Divine and the song cycle Harawi. These works brought him to the attention of the great conductor of the Boston Symphony Serge Koussevitzky who commissioned a symphony from him which would be become the huge and ecstatic Turangalia-Symphonie that was to be premiered by the young Leonard Bernstein in Boston in 1949. The 10 movement work is a meditation on love and was to make extensive use of the electronic instrument the Ondes Martinot which he was to use extensively though out his career. There is no middle ground with this work it is so over the top that you either love it or repelled by it (I love it). During this time he first visited the USA, while teaching he stated notating the songs of North American birds and develop a fascination with the American Southwest particularly Bryce Canyon in Utah. His well known Flute piece Le Merle Noir (1952) is based on birdsong. The documentation of bird song was to culminate in the gigantic piano cycle Catalog D’Oiseaux for piano in 1958. Messiean’s first wife died in 1959 which permitted Messiaen who as we noted was a devout Catholic to marry Loriod. His fame now permitted to travel the world where he was able to record the sounds of birds from different continents. During his trip to Japan he became fascinated with Noh theater which inspired the instrumental piece7 Haikai.


Messiaen had a complicated relationship with the post war Avant Garde both Boulez and Stockhausen were his students SO he was well connected but his religious mysticism and the romantic sweetness of some of his pieces were off putting, particularly to the rationalistic Boulez. Boulez though championed much of the music of Messiaen at the Domaine and Donaueschingen music festivals. Works written for these festivals include Reviel Des Oiseaux, Chronochromie and Couleurs de la Cite Celeste. He also received a commission to write a work that commemorated the French dead of the Second World War, Et Exspecto Ressurectionem Mortuorem (1965).


During the late sixties Messiaen was preoccupied with the composition of the monumental La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christe for chorus and large orchestra as a meditation on the Resurrection of Christ. By this time Messiaen became a full professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire and received a multitude of international honors. His next major work was a commission for the American Bicentennial the resultant work was the twelve movement orchestral work Des canyons aux Etoiles (Canyons of the Stars) that is descriptive of the beauty of Bryce Canyon Utah and of course the bird calls of the region. The next eight years was spent composing his magnum opus for the Paris Opera the four hour plus Sainte – Francois D’Assisi. The work requires huge forces including 3 Ondes Martinet’s had a triumphant premiere in Paris conducted by Seji Ozawa and the title role sung by Jose Van Dam. It was generally assumed that this was to be Messiean’s last major work but in his last ten years he wrote for organ ;Livre du Sacrament, for piano; Small Sketches of Birds, for orchestra; La Ville D’En- Haut (City on High),Un Sourire (A Smile) and Eclairs sur l’au-dela (Illuminations on the Beyond). Messiaen died on April 27th 1992 at 83 he was working on a Concerto for 4 Instruments that was to be completed by his wife and the English composer George Benjamin a former pupil.


Messiaen was enormously productive and while not deliberately producing a special musical system or method he made major innovations in harmony and particularly tonal color. His use of percussion and electronic instruments makes him a pioneer of the Avant Garde. Also in the overwhelming grandeur of his large works he was a kindred spirit to Berlioz. He was a devout decent man who loved and wished to musically describe the aural sensations of the world. He has been fortunate in the artists who have recorded his work his wife the pianist Yvonne Loriod, his sister and law Jeanne Loriod the Ondes Martinet player, pianists Peter Serkin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Messiean’s own recordings of his organ music along with those of Jennifer Bate and Olivier Latry and the conductors Ozawa, Boulez, Salonen, Rattlle and Chung.

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