Olivier Messiaen

The French composer and teacher Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), one of the most original composers and musical thinkers of his time, had a strong influence on many of the important composers of the following generation.

Olivier Messiaen was born in Avignon, France on December 10, 1908. His mother, Marie Sauvage, was a poet, and his father was a well-known translator of Shakespeare's plays into French. They encouraged their musically precocious son, who composed little pieces when he was only 7. The boy heard a performance of Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande when he was 10, and it made such a strong impression that he decided to become a composer. He entered the Paris Conservatory the next year and remained there for 11 years, studying theory, organ, piano, improvisation, history, esthetics of music, and composition. He was a brilliant student in all of these fields, and each played a part in his later activities.

In 1931 Messiaen became organist at the Church of the Trinity in Paris, a post he held for many years and where his brilliant organ improvisations attracted much attention. He served in the French army during World War II and spent 2 years as a prisoner of war. In 1942 he started teaching at the Paris Conservatory, and the theories he expounded in his classes in analysis and rhythm were highly stimulating to his students. They are described in his Technique of My Musical Language (1950). He also taught at Tanglewood in the United States and at the highly influential International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany.

Messiaen was an exceptional 20th-century French composer in that he was not influenced by the classicism of Igor Stravinsky, which was the predominant musical style. Messiaen believed that music was a highly expressive, romantic art. Instead of restricting the tonal resources of music, he tremendously expanded them. Drawing on his vast erudition, he found inspiration and new sounds in Japanese, Indian, and ancient Greek music as well as in the sounds of nature, particularly bird calls. This interest is shown in such pieces as Turangalila (1949), Catalogue des oiseaux (1959; Catalog of Birds), and Seven Hai-kai (1962). Another of the bases of Messiaen's music was his mystical Catholicism, evidenced in large-scale compositions such as Les Corps glorieux: Sept visions brèves de la vie des ressuscités (1939; Radiant Bodies: Seven Short Visions of the Life of the Resurrected) and Vingt regards sur l'enfant lesus (1944; Twenty Gazes on the Child Jesus).

It was not Messiaen's concept of programmatic music that influenced his pupils so much as his compositional techniques. For instance, he devised new scales and was one of the first to divorce rhythm from melody, usually thought to be inseparable. Messiaen conceived patterns of durations that could be manipulated and reversed in much the same way that Arnold Schoenberg manipulated tones in his twelve-tone works. Extending the idea, Messiaen saw the possibility of "serializing" dynamics (the degrees of loudness) and attacks (legato, portato, staccato), normally subservient to melody, to pursue patterns of their own. A piece for piano, Mode de valeur et d'intensité (1950; Modes of Duration and Loudness), consists of arrangements of 36 pitches, 24 durations, 7 attacks, and 7 degrees of loudness. This piece was a landmark of "totally controlled" composition, an important musical idea of the postwar period.

Messiaen composed another piece based on bird songs in 1972, titled La Fauvette des jardins (The Garden Warbler). In 1983 he saw his first opera, St. François d'Assise, produced at the Paris Opera. He died on April 27, 1992 in Paris. The New York Philharmonic later that year performed a posthumously published work, Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà (Illuminations of the Beyond).


Further Reading on Olivier Messiaen

Studies of Messiaen's life and work are in Arthur Cohn, Twentieth-century Music in Western Europe: The Compositions and the Recordings (1965), and David Ewen, The World of Twentieth-century Music (1968). For a discussion of Messiaen's place in French music see Paul Henry Lang and Nathan Broder, eds., Contemporary Music in Europe: A Comprehensive Survey (1966).