Print this page

Music Memories: Olivier Messiaen

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
French composer, Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen was born on December 10, 1908. The French composer wrote primarily keyboard and orchestral music, often focused on his two primary devotions—the mysteries of his Catholic faith, and birds.

Messiaen began teaching himself to play the piano as a young child before beginning formal lessons. He was so interested in music that he asked for opera scores as Christmas gifts and was particularly fond of music by the contemporary French composers of his day, especially Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. He entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of 11 and studied there for the next decade. From his history classes, Messiaen developed an interest in the unusual scales and rhythms of ancient Greek music; later in life, he would also study the music of India, Bali, and Japan, incorporating those sounds into his own music.

Messiaen’s instructors at the Conservatory included some of the most respected French composers of the era. He studied composition with Charles-Marie Widor and Paul Dukas. In 1927, he began to study organ with Marcel Dupré. Messiaen was already an accomplished pianist but had never played the organ before. He was a very quick study, and his first published work, 1928’s Le Banquet Céleste (The Celestial Banquet), was a work for organ. His public debut as a composer came in 1931 with the performance of the orchestral suite Les Offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings).

In 1932, Messiaen married the violinist and composer Claire Delbos. He composed a theme and variations for violin and piano as a wedding gift for her, and one of his most popular early works, the song cycle Poèmes pour Mi (Poems for Mi), was inspired by her (“Mi” was Messiaen’s pet name for his wife). Their marriage ended sadly. After an operation in the mid-1940s, Delbos began to lose her memory and was institutionalized until her death in 1959.

In the late 1930s, Messiaen wrote several large suites for organ, usually on religious themes, including L'Ascension (The Ascension), La Nativité du Seigneur (The Lord’s Nativity), and Les Corps glorieux (Glorious Bodies). He also began composing for the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928. The ondes Martenot is a keyboard instrument that sounds a bit like a theremin; it never found a regular home in the orchestra, but Messiaen used it frequently.

3 album covers by Messiaen

Messiaen was drafted into the French army during World War II. He could not serve in combat because of his poor eyesight, and instead served as a medical auxiliary. In 1940, he was captured at Verdun and sent to a German prison camp. There were three other professional musicians in the camp, and with the help of a German guard who obtained music paper for him, Messiaen composed a piece for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano. The Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) was premiered in the camp in January 1941, and it became one of Messiaen’s most popular works.

Messiaen was released from the prison camp in May 1941, and shortly thereafter, appointed a professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatory. He was also made a professor of composition in 1966 and held both posts until his retirement in 1978. His students included several important composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, among them Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Benjamin, and Iannis Xenakis.

Another student, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, would become Messiaen’s muse. His 1943 Visions de l'Amen (Visions of the Amen), for 2 pianos, was written for Messiaen and Loriod to play, and she was the pianist for most of his piano works from then on. She was a virtuoso, and Messiaen said of her, "I am able to allow myself the greatest eccentricities because to her anything is possible." Messiaen and Loriod were married in 1961.

The late 1940s were dominated by a trilogy of pieces inspired by the story of Tristan and Isolde, pieces on the theme of human love. Two of the pieces featured vocalists; the song cycle Harawi is named for a type of love song from the Andes, and Cinq rechants (Five songs) is written for a small unaccompanied chorus. In between the two came the massive Turangalîla-Symphonie, an 80-minute work for large orchestra with challenging solo parts for piano and ondes Martenot.

In 1952, Messiaen was asked to compose a test piece for the Conservatory’s flute students. Le Merle noir (The Blackbird) marked a new phase for Messiaen’s music. He had imitated birdsong in his music before, but from this point in this career, nearly every piece Messiaen wrote would include some reference to birdsong. The 1953 orchestral work Réveil des oiseaux (Awakening Birds) is almost entirely made up of birdsong transcriptions, and he would go on to write such piano pieces as Oiseaux exotiques (Exotic Birds), Catalogue d'oiseaux (Catalogue of the Birds), and Petites esquisses d'oiseaux (Little Sketches of Birds).

The last half of Messiaen’s career was dominated by larger works. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (And I Await the Resurrection of the Dead) was written as a remembrance of the fallen soldiers of two world wars. The enormous La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ) called for an orchestra as large as that used in the Turangalîla-Symphonie, plus seven instrumental soloists and a chorus of 100 singers.

In 1972, Messiaen was commissioned to write a work for the bicentennial of the United States. A visit to Bryce Canyon inspired Des Canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars), which called for a relatively small orchestra but lasts about 90 minutes. For the piece, Messiaen created a new percussion instrument. The geophone is a drum filled with hundreds of small metal pellets; swirling the drum creates a rumbling sound that Messiaen compared to the sound of shifting earth.

Largest of all was Messiaen’s only opera. He had been asked to write a piece for the Paris Opera as early as 1971 but was reluctant to accept the commission. He finally agreed in 1975 to write a piece, after being urged to do so by no less than French President Georges Pompidou. Saint François d'Assise (Saint Francis of Assisi), which Messiaen preferred to call “a spectacle” rather than an opera, premiered in 1983. The piece calls for a 110-piece orchestra, a challenge to fit into the orchestra pit of most opera houses, and a chorus of 150 singers.

Messiaen had frequent back surgery and was in severe pain in his final years, but managed to complete a final commission for the New York Philharmonic. It was another enormous orchestral work. Éclairs sur l'au-delà (variously translated as Lightning Over the Beyond or Illuminations of the Beyond) combines Messaien’s two musical obsessions; the theme of the piece is the afterlife and the heavenly city that awaits us there, and there are frequent birdsong passages, this time in imitation of birds Messiaen had heard during a visit to Australia.

After Messiaen’s death, his widow, Yvonne Loriod, discovered that he had been working on a quadruple concerto for her and three other important musicians in his life—cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, oboist Heinz Holliger, and flutist Catherine Cantin. The piece was close enough to completion that Loriod was able to finish it, and those four soloists premiered the piece in 1994.

More of Messiaen’s music is available for streaming at Hoopla and Freegal.