Messiaen, Olivier (1908–1992)

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French composer.

Olivier Eugéne Prosper Charles Messiaen was born on 10 December 1908 in Avignon. From 1919 to 1930 he studied at the Conservatoire in Paris and graduated with first prize for piano accompaniment, organ, improvisation, counterpoint, and musical composition. In 1931 Messiaen was appointed organist at La Trinité in Paris, a position he retained for decades. In 1936, along with Jean Yves Daniel-Lésur, Yves Baudrier, and AndréJolivet, Messiaen formed La Jeune France (Young France), a group of composers whose purpose was to reestablish humanism and sincerity in music (reacting to neoclassicism). He also composed poetry, and with a few exceptions, most of his vocal music for solo voice or chorus sets his own poetry, which strongly resembles the surrealist poetry of Paul É luard (pen name of Eugène Grindel, 1895–1952). Messiaen saw colors whenever he heard music, a condition called synesthesia or chromaphonia. In 1932 he married the violinist and composer Claire Delbos, who died in 1959. In 1962 he married the pianist Yvonne Loriod, a former student. He was a member of the French Institute, the Academy of Beaux Arts Bavière of Berlin, Santa Cecilia of Rome, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Messiaen began his career as a professor of music in 1936, teaching sight-reading at the École Normale de Musique and improvisation at the Schola Cantorum. In 1942 he became professor of harmony at the Conservatoire de Paris. In 1943 in the home of Guy-Bernard Delapierre he taught several students who would later become well-known: Serge Nigg, Maurice Le Roux, Pierre Boulez, and Yvonne Loriod. In 1947 a special class in music analysis was created for him at the Conservatoire. In 1966 he became professor of composition; his students included Pierre Henry (French), Karlheinz Stockhausen (German), Guy Reibel (Belgian), William Albright (American), Luigi Nono (Italian), and Iannis Xenakis (Greek/French). Authors of books, essays, and dissertations on Messiaen include former students: Harry Halbreich, Alain Périer, Larry Peterson, Pierrette Mari, and Michèle Reverdy. Composers attracted to his classes include Peter Maxwell Davies, Mikis Theodorakis, György Kurtág, and William Elden Bolcom.

After he was mobilized as a soldier in 1939, Messiaen was taken prisoner in 1940 and passed his captivity in Stalag VIIIA, at Görlitz in Silesia. While there, he composed the Quatuor pour la fin du temps for himself and three fellow prisoners: Henri Akoka, É tienne Pasquier, and Jean Le Boulaire. Messiaen commented later that when he was a prisoner his daily diet was water and one boiled egg per day and his dress in the bitter cold conditions consisted of a tattered green jacket and pants with wooden shoes. He said the lack of nourishment stimulated colored hallucinations. He saw halos and strange swirls of color.

His interesting and large variety of compositional techniques include his seven modes of limited transposition, his transcriptions of bird song for melodic material and his organization of parts into "three persons" (an idea taken from Shakespeare where one part remains static, and another progressively increases while a third progressively decreases in activity), communicable language (a technique of applying letters of the alphabet to particular pitches and rhythmic values), what he called his "Chord of Resonance" and "Chord of the Dominant," and totally serial music (in Mode de valeurs et d'intensité [1949] he created rows of pitches, rhythmic values, articulations, and dynamics). His totally serial technique, developed in 1948–1949, was the first attempt in Europe to serialize more than pitches.

His most significant contribution to music is found in his variety of rhythmic techniques. His vast array of rhythmic practices include "added values," rhythmic cells, fifteenth-century Hindu deci-tâlas (North Indian), Carnatic patterns (South Indian), Greek poetic feet, his interpretation of medieval ligatures and neumes, "rythmes non-retrogrades" (palindromic patterns), isorhythm, "interversion" and "permutation," "chromatic" rhythmic sequences, extremely slow tempi (Le banquet celeste, 1928, or O Sacrum Convivium, 1937). Early techniques appear in his treatise, Technique de mon language musical (1944; Technique of My Musical Language, 1971–1972). Messiaen's mammoth treatise on rhythm, on which he worked most of his life, is being published posthumously in a projected seven volumes as Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d'ornithologie (first volume published in 2004).

Messiaen often assigned titles that illustrate the mysteries of Christ or other aspects of Christian beliefs. In fact, his religious beliefs were central to his existence as a man and as a composer. His many commentaries about his beliefs, which appear as part of many of his published works as well as in several published interviews, reflect mysticism in the Roman Catholic tradition. Messiaen's spiritual and poetical outlook affected his choice of titles, his texts, and the form of his compositions. His vision of the world was governed by religious meditation, the sublimation of love, escape from the confines of time, and an intimate communion with nature. Messiaen's early concern for religion reflects the influence of his father, Pierre, who was a devout Catholic. In response to a reporter's question, Messiaen commented that his faith sustained him and that he was a Catholic composer. He stated that all of his works, whether religious or not, are documents of faith glorifying the mystery of Christ.

Messiaen's work is notable for his use of unusual numbers of movements: nine in La nativitédu Seigneur (1935), ten in Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946–1948), eighteen in Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984), and twenty in Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (1944). His longest work is an opera that lasts more than four hours (Saint-François d'Assise, 1975–1983). His first published work—Le banquet céleste—was composed when he was seventeen. His last two works are Éclairs sur l'au-delà (1988–1992) and Concert àquatre (1990–1991); the latter was discovered incomplete by Loriod after his death.

See alsoBoulez, Pierre; Catholicism; Modernism; Theodorakis, Mikis.


Primary Sources

Messiaen, Olivier. Technique de mon langage musical. Paris, Leduc, 1944. Also published as The Technique of My Musical Language. Translated by John Satterfield. Paris, 1956.

Secondary Sources

Buhn, Siglind, ed. Messiaen's Language of Mystical Love. New York, 1998.

Griffiths, Paul. Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time. London and Boston, 1985.

Hill, Peter, ed. The Messiaen Companion. London and Boston, 1995.

Johnson, Robert Sherlaw. Messiaen. Berkeley, Calif., 1975.

Morris, David. Olivier Messiaen: A Comparative Bibliography of Material in the English Language. Belfast, 1991.

Larry Peterson

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Messiaen, Olivier (1908–1992)

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