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Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) is, along with Igor Stravinsky, certainly one of the most original phenomenons of 20th-century music. A musical genius, Messiaen was an astouding teacher and a highly spiritual thinker. He lived through the century in perpetual wonder at the riches of nature, ideas, and knowledge. Gathering for the first time the most beautiful shots on Messiaen, this portrait, directed by Olivier Mille, recreates this many-facetted and engaging artist and makes us feel the color of his music.Buy now ›
According to legend, when the young Alfred Tennyson learned that Lord Byron had died, he went off alone into the woods and carved “Byron is dead” on a stone.
One can imagine a number of musicians feeling the same impulse when they learned, in April 1992, that Olivier Messiaen had died at the age of 83. A world without Messiaen was obviously very different from a world with him—and why shouldn’t some small fragment of the nature he extolled and exalted have been altered to commemorate his passing?
For more than half a century, Messiaen really mattered—both within the world of music and, increasingly, to the general public as well. Messiaen inspired no little controversy during his time, but there was one point on which both his admirers and detractors could agree: there was nobody like him, and, once he was gone, nobody could take his place.
A mystic Catholic who sought inspiration from birdsong and claimed to see colors when he composed, Messiaen was a complex, original thinker who, from the beginning, went his own way. His music combined angular melodies, intricate rhythms, and dense formal schemata in a manner that was subjective, passionate, extravagantly colorful, and often swooningly Romantic.
Messiaen was probably best known for his Quatuor pour le fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time)—a 50-minute composition for piano, clarinet, violin, and cello that he wrote while a prisoner of war in 1941. He chose those four instruments because they were the only ones available to him in captivity; the piano was missing some notes, a fact Messiaen took into account while fashioning the score. The piece was first performed at Stalag VIII-A in Silesia, for what was genuinely a “captive audience” of 5,000 fellow prisoners; one can only imagine the effect it made on its first listeners.
Other important works include L’ascension (1933), a set of four “symphonic meditations”; Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (1944), a two-hour cycle for solo piano; and the Turangalîla-symphonie (1948), a massive creation for piano, large orchestra, and an electronic instrument called the ondes martenot. But there were many other lovely, smaller works as well, such as the Cinq rechants (1949) for chamber chorus—the third member, with the song cycle Harawi (1945) and the Turangalîla-symphonie, of a trilogy dealing with the idea of all-consuming love.
Like Bach, Messiaen thought all music should be written to the greater glory of God. “I have not written liturgical music but rather meditative music on the mysteries of faith,” he said in the early 1970s. “These works can be played in church, or in concert, or in the open air. I want to write music that is an act of faith, a music that is about everything without ceasing to be about God.”
Messiaen was born in Avignon on December 10, 1908. At the age of ten, he discovered the music of Debussy and resolved to become a composer. He entered the Paris Conservatory the following year, where he studied improvisation and organ with Marcel Dupré and composition with Paul Dukas. Immediately after finishing his studies, he became principal organist at La Trinité in Paris. Called up by the French army at the outbreak of World War II, he was taken prisoner by the Germans and spent two years as a POW. Upon his release in 1941, he returned to Paris and joined the faculty of the Conservatory.
There, Messiaen proved a tremendously influential teacher, numbering among his students such luminaries as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the young English composer George Benjamin. One of Messiaen’s principal technical innovations was a device he called “non-retrogradable rhythm”—that is, a sort of musical palindrome that was the same coming and going. He taught at the Paris Conservatory for many years, as well as in Budapest, in Darmstadt, and at the Tanglewood Music Center. His classes, like his personality, were unconventional and embraced not only the masterpieces of traditional Western music but also Greek meters, Hindu rhythms, and birdsong.
This rapturous, retiring, devout, and conservative Catholic was not a natural candidate for leadership in the postwar avant-garde. In an era that made a near-fetish of concision, Messiaen was never afraid to be expansive. One piano work, Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958), was 175 pages long and required almost three hours for performance. Saint François d’Assise, Messiaen’s only opera, lasts nearly six hours.
Moreover, he wrote about his music in what was, on occasion, literally “purple prose.” Like Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin before him, Messiaen felt that music had a strong visual aspect. “When I hear music, I hear colors,” he said, “not through my eyes but through my intellect. When I compose, I see the colors as I see the sounds.” He described one of his harmonic sequences as going “from blue striped with green to black spotted with red and gold, by way of diamond, emerald, purplish-blue, with a dominant pool of orange studded with milky white.” Once, while watching a ballet, he got a stomachache because the violet hue of the lighting clashed with his conception of the color of G major.
Messiaen was particularly drawn to the works of Mozart, Berlioz, and Debussy. He had respect, rather than affinity, for the music of Schoenberg and his disciples; he admired Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps and wrote a celebrated analysis of its rhythms; he acknowledged a tempered liking for Bartók; he thought Varèse important; and he considered Boulez the “greatest musician of his generation, and perhaps of his half-century.”
Reclusive by nature, Messiaen spent his summers in a small house in the Alps, where he could compose in solitude and listen to the morning cries of the birds. “I’m probably wrong to be this way,” he said in 1967. “As a Christian, I should interest myself in everything and love my neighbor. But I must say that my current neighbors’ principal preoccupations seem bizarre to me. Absurd, and completely different from my own state of mind.”
It may have been just this distancing—this sense of being in his time but not quite of it—that made Messiaen such a hero to successive generations. This, and the way he combined a specific, unmistakably personal voice with a multiplicity of musical meanings. Formalists studied his technical innovations; minimalists were fascinated by his idiosyncratic use of repetition; mystics carried his scores around like holy writ; neo-romantics embraced his effusion and panoramic scope; post-modernists applauded the incorporation of non-European elements into his work. And it is certainly possible that some aching young composer slipped off into the woods that day in April 1992, in search of an appropriate stone.