Olivier Messiaen



Born: December 10, 1908; France   Died: April 27, 1992; France   Period: 20th Century
Olivier Messiaen was a French composer, organist, teacher, and ornithologist whose music is distinguished by his deep devotion to Catholicism, exoticism, and nature. At the age of 11 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying organ and improvisation with Marcel Dupré and composition with Paul Dukas. In 1930, he became the principal organist at La Trinité Cathedral in Paris, a post he held for more than 40 years. His distinguished teaching Read more career is marked by appointments in Darmstadt (1950-1953), his famous courses in harmony and analysis at the Paris Conservatoire beginning in 1947, and his appointment as professor of composition there in 1966. His impressive list of students includes Boulez, Stockhausen, and his second wife, keyboardist Yvonne Loriod, among many others.

In synthesizing an individual style, Messiaen discovered in the music of Debussy the properties of "exotic" modes such as the whole-tone and diminished scales, calling them "modes of limited transposition." The inherent symetricalities of these modes enabled Messiaen to create progressions and melodies free of the tonic-dominant polarity of traditional tonal music, while remaining independent of the twelve-tone system as well. Messiaen was gifted with a strong sense of "synaesthesia" or hearing in colors. He often described his music in terms of "color progressions," also equating key signatures and collections (sets) of pitches with specific colors. At an early age, Messiaen developed a strong interest in rhythm, particularly fostered by Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. His rhythmic investigations ranged from Gregorian chant, to ancient Greek poetic meters, to Indian raga, to gamelan music. He soon left regular metric divisions behind, although repetition remained an integral part of his rhythmic vocabulary. All of these elements are explained in great detail in his 1944 publication, Technique de mon langage musical (Technique of my musical language).

In 1940, while a prisoner of war of the Germans, Messiaen composed Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). The quartet's unique instrumentation of piano, clarinet, violin, and cello was written for, and premiered by Messiaen and three fellow inmates while in detention; it became one of the great chamber works of the twentieth century. Messiaen was one of the first composers to apply serial techniques to parameters other than pitch (such as duration, register, and dynamics) in Mode de valeurs et d'intensités (1949) for solo piano. His interest in plain chant and rhythm led him to the ancient Greeks and Hindus, where he discovered processes such as nonretrogradable, additive, and subtractive rhythms. The Turangalila-symphonie of 1948 is the most synthetic of his early works. It features rich orchestration, imaginative use of tonal colors, Hindu rhythms, and a formal scheme that unfolds in large, block-like structures. Also of note here is one of the earliest uses of the Ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument capable of producing eerie glissandi, as well as monophonic melodies. Messiaen had a deep love of birdsong, and spent much time in the wild making extensive transcriptions, many of which would surface in his works, most notably in an arresting orchestral passage in Chronochromie (1960) and the monumental Catalogue d'oiseaux (Catalog of the Birds) (1958) for solo piano. His large body of organ music, composed primarily during his tenure as organist at the Sainte Trinite Cathedral, is highly idiomatic, colorful in harmony and registration, and rhythmically ingenious. From 1950, his Messe de la Pentecote (Mass of the Pentecost) is a collection of improvisations that he shaped into a composition. His only opera, St. Francis d'Assise, was completed in 1983. Read less
Browse 1-6 of 6 Available Recordings
  • 1.
    Erato - 50 CD Collection
    Label: Erato   Catalog: 46441 Release Date: 11/19/2013   Number of Discs: 50
    Composer:  Tomaso Albinoni,  Giuseppe Tartini,  Georg Philipp Telemann,  Giuseppe Torelli  ... 
    Performer:  Maurice André,  Pierre Pierlot,  Paul Hongne,  Jacques Chambon  ... 
    Conductor:  Sir Neville Marriner,  Jean-François Paillard,  Frigyes Sándor,  Kent Nagano  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ens.,  Paillard Chamber Orchestra,  Vienna Soloists  ... 
    CD: $230.49
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  • 2.
    Olivier Messiaen 1908-2008
    Label: Warner Classics   Catalog: 17466 Release Date: 11/24/2008   Number of Discs: 14
    Composer:  Olivier Messiaen
    Performer:  Marie-Madeleine Petit,  Michèle Command,  Rolf Hind,  Cynthia Millar  ... 
    Conductor:  Terry Edwards,  Simon Rattle,  Antal Doráti,  Serge Baudo  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta Voices,  London Sinfonietta Chorus,  London Sinfonietta  ... 
    CD: $95.99
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  • 3.
    Composers In Person - Widor, Messiaen, Dupré, Vierne
    Label: Warner Classics   Catalog: 55037 Release Date: 07/09/2007   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Charles-Marie Widor,  Olivier Messiaen,  Marcel Dupré,  Louis Vierne
    Performer:  Charles-Marie Widor,  Olivier Messiaen,  Marcel Dupré,  Louis Vierne
    ArkivCD $16.99
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  • 4.
    Messiaen Edition
    Label: Warner Classics   Catalog: 62162 Release Date: 04/18/2006   Number of Discs: 18
    Composer:  Olivier Messiaen
    Performer:  Jeanne Loriod,  Yvonne Loriod,  Dominique Kim,  Pierre-Laurent Aimard  ... 
    Conductor:  Marcel Couraud,  Kent Nagano,  Marius Constant,  Pierre Boulez
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  ORTF Chamber Orchestra,  ORTF Women's Chorus,  ORTF Chorus  ... 
    CD: $100.49
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  • 5.
    Messiaen: Trois Petits Liturgies, Etc / Courand
    Label: Erato   Catalog: 92007 Release Date: 01/30/1999   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Olivier Messiaen
    Performer:  Jeanne Loriod,  Yvonne Loriod,  Olivier Messiaen
    Conductor:  Marcel Couraud
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  ORTF Chamber Orchestra,  ORTF Chorus
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  • 6.
    Messiaen par lui-même
    Label: Warner Classics   Catalog: 67400 Release Date: 05/12/1992   Number of Discs: 4
    Composer:  Olivier Messiaen
    Performer:  Olivier Messiaen
    CD: $27.49
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