Olivier Eugene Prosper Charles Messiaen (1908-1992) was the son of Pierre Messiaen, a scholar of English literature, and of the poet Cecile Sauvage. Soon after his birth the family moved to Ambert (the birthplace of Chabrier) where his brother, Alain was born in 1913. Around the time of the outbreak of World War 1, Cecile Sauvage took her two sons to live with her brother in Grenoble where Olivier Messiaen spent his early childhood, began composing at the age of seven, and taught himself to play the piano. On his return from the war, Pierre Messiaen took the family to Nantes and in 1919 they all moved to Paris where Olivier entered the Conservatoire.
From very early on it was clear that Messiaen would be a composer who would stand alone in the history of music. Coming not from any particular ‘school’ or style but forming and creating his own totally individual musical voice. He achieved this by creating his own ‘modes of limited transposition’, taking rhythmic ideas from India (deci tala), ancient Greece and the orient and most importantly adapting the songs of birds from around the world. He was a man of many interests including painting, literature, and the orient where he took in not only the musical culture but theatre, literature and even the cuisine of foreign countries!
The single most important driving force in his musical creations was his devout Catholic faith. Early influences on Messiaen were Debussy and Gluck. In particular Debussys’ Pelleas et Mellasande and Prelude á l’apres-Midi d’un Faune the score of which was given to him by his first harmony teacher Jean Gallon. It was the timeless, floating quality that Messiaen admired in this music and it was while a small boy in Grenoble, Messiaen was ‘reading’ the score of Glucks’ Orfeo (the Air in F major) when he discovered he was actually ‘hearing’ these wonderful melodies in his head. This had such an emotional impact on him that from then on as a child he would ask not for toys as Christmas presents but musical scores!
On a non musical level Messiaen has said the one real influence on his life, even before he was born, was his mother the poetess Cecilé Sauvage whose book of verse L’ame en Bourgeon (The Soul in Bud) was for him. She spoke when expecting him, of a boy who would be an artist – she said ‘the anguish of arts’ mysteries will be dispersed and here is the Orion who sings in my being – with his blue birds and his golden butterflies – I suffer from an unknown distant music’. Messiaen believed this shaped his entire destiny.
He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eleven and stayed until his early twenties learning his ‘craft’ from eminent teachers including Georges Falkenberg, Jean Gallon, Noël Gallon ,professor Baggers, Paul Dukas, Maurice Emmanuel and Marcel Dupré. Messiaen excelled, becoming organist of La Sainte Trinité in Paris when he was 22 and remained there until his death. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Messiaens’ contribution to the organ repertoire is probably the greatest since Bach. The term ‘craft’ is purposeful here as Messiaen developed into a true craftsman in every respect with immensely detailed scores including string bowing, woodwind articulations, fingerings for keyboards and even sticking for percussion.
Undoubtedly it has been Messiaens’ devout Christian faith and Catholicism that has driven his compositional output through the years. There was no greater test of his faith than in June 1940 when he was captured by the Nazis and interned in prisoner of war camp Stalag 8A, Gorlitz, Poland. He recalls that at the time he and everybody in the camp were freezing, starving and miserable. The starvation was such that it heightened his ‘coloured’ dreams and this coupled with the experience of seeing the ‘aurora borealis’, coloured waves of clouds, led him to compose what is probably his most performed work: Quatour pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the end of Time). He befriended a German officer who smuggled him manuscript paper, pencil and eraser which enabled him to retreat to the priests block after morning duties and compose. The instrumentation was governed by the musician friends that were with Messiaen in the camp; violinist Jean Le Boulaire, cellist Etienne Pasquier, clarinetist Henri Akoka and with himself on a rather dilapidated piano premiered the work on January 15th 1941 in front of fellow prisoners.
” this music ‘is not ‘nice’ – it is certain. I am convinced that joy exists, convinced that the invisible exists more than the visible, joy is beyond sorrow, beauty is beyond horror”.
– Olivier Messiaen
He returned from captivity in March 1941 and became a teacher and lecturer at the Paris Conservatoire. He held classes in analysis, theory, aesthetics and rhythm but it wasn’t until 1966 that he was officially appointed Professor of Composition (although he had in effect been teaching composition for years). Perhaps the one thing that rubbed off on these students of compostion was Messiaens’ avoidance of regular metre, citing it as artificial relating to marches and more popular music. Messiaen supported his argument by pointing out that in nature things are not even or regular. For example the branches of a tree and the waves of the sea are not even patterns. However, what is true is ‘natural resonance’, and this true phenomenon is what his music is based on.
This period produced a great outpouring of music including the Trois Petite liturgies de la Presence Divine, the song cycle Harawi, Chant des deportes for choir and orchestra, Turangalila Symphonie, the mammoth piano cycles Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus and Visions de l’Amen for two pianos. These last two works and many more to follow were dedicated to Yvonne Loriod, a young and highly gifted pupil who turned up in Messiaens’ first class held at the Conservatoire in 1941.
‘all the students waited eagerly for this new teacher to arrive and finally he appeared with music case and badly swollen fingers, a result of his stay in the prisoner of war camp. He proceeded to the piano and produced the full score of Debussys’ Prelude á l’apres-Midi d’un Faune and began to play all the parts. The whole class was captivated and stunned and everyone immediately fell in love with him’.
– Yvonne Loriod, student at the Conservatoire, 1941
In the forties and fifties Messiaen was shunned on the one hand by the new ‘avant-garde’ as too sweet and sentimental and on the other hand by the more conventional musical public as too austere and discordant. However, one gem of a composition was to turn 20th century music on its head. This was Mode de valeurs et d’intensites, part of four studies in rhythm for piano. It took Schoenberg’s theory of serializing pitches a whole leap forward whereby Messiaen effectively serialized all musical parameters i.e. pitches, durations, dynamics and articulations. Thus each note has a character and identity all of its own which is maintained throughout the piece.
Messiaen himself never pursued the idea beyond that study but continued to turn to nature and his faith as the inspiration and starting points for his music continuing to use his own modes, complex rhythmic ideas and the songs of birds. Indeed it must be said that Messiaen did more to advance rhythmic forms and ideas than any other composer of the 20th century.
In 1975 Messiaen embarked on his most ambitious project of his life, the opera Saint Francois d’Assise, a work that would occupy him for the following eight years. Saint Francois represents his life work combining all his compositional techniques gathered over fifty or so years.
View website oliviermessiaen.org