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Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen (December 10, 1908 – April 27, 1992) composed like any true French façonner would; vividly experimental, impressionistic and independent. And although somewhat caught in the middle of a turbulent era where classical music was gradually losing its force, Messiaen is still one of the 20th century’s most important composers - in terms of influence. A student of the illustrious French composer Paul Dukas, Messiaen was at a forefront of musical importance, which is what makes his music both rhythmically intriguing, and melod ...read more

Olivier Messiaen (December 10, 1908 – April 27, 1992) composed like any true French façonner would; vividly experimental, impressionistic and independent. And although somewhat caught in the middle of a turbulent era where classical music was gradually losing its force, Messiaen is still one of the 20th century’s most important composers - in terms of influence. A student of the illustrious French composer Paul Dukas, Messiaen was at a forefront of musical importance, which is what makes his music both rhythmically intriguing, and melodically and harmonically engaging. His own writings on music from a technical standpoint, including his ‘Modes of Limited Transposition’, an account of the musical modes common to his music, place him in a high rank of educational importance. Additionally, his intent to represent the birdsong, nature itself, as well as his own religious beliefs distinguishes the music of Messiaen from all other composers during the same era.

Unlike others, Messiaen was born to a family with little musical formalities. His father, Pierre Messiaen a teacher of English and translator, and his mother Cécile Sauvage, a poet of whom was of most importance to his childhood, gave the young boy plenty of spirit to attain to within their understandings of poetic language. Their offerings included many insights into the human spirit, which for the young Messiaen served as a counterpoint for his musical interest to fledge from.

At the age of 6, war soon became of prevalence to his family, as Pierre was to serve France during outbreak of World War I in 1914. The family including Messiaen’s two younger brothers and mother, spent much time in the safe and mountainous region of Grenoble. It was here he began to compose music under his own learning for the pianoforte, and also enabled him to gain formative tuition. After the War had finally ended, and his family reconciled with the news that Pierre was to be posted in Paris in a teaching position, Messiaen applied for a position in the prominent Paris Conservatoire at only 11 years old.

Despite being relatively young, the prodigy showed immense talent and understanding for music in general while at the Conservatoire. He was honored with many prestigious awards towards his developments, and went into expanding his renowned style under the keen eye of both Dukas, and Maurice Emmanuel. Emmanuel sparked a potent love affair within Messiaen for Ancient Greek rhythms colourful musical modes. He was to continue this obsession throughout his career, but initially such interest is displayed within some of his first published compositions, namely his “Préludes” for piano from 1928-1929. Within this set of work, it is clearly evident that Messiaen had an awareness of complex rhythm and exotic melodic forms that many composers dared approach or their lack of musical prettiness. Messiaen however transformed some of these terraform some of these rough landscapes into masterful beauties, reminiscent of the music from [L]Igor Stravinsky[/L], Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy – all of whom were of high influence to the music and mind of Messiaen himself.

During the 30s, he developed a fascination with the organ, and went on to compose much music for its varied temperaments. It is also here he met violinist Claire Delbos, who soon became his first wife (she would later die in 1959 due to a long-term battle with illness). The romance sparked an interest in the violin as Messiaen felt obliged to compose music for the instrument for his wife to play. Between the organ, the violin and the piano, works from this period reflect the situations Messiaen came to face before tensions in Europe amassed into World War II in 1939. His “Thème et variations” for piano and violin, and “La Nativité du Seigneur” ("The Lord's nativity") for organ showcase his emotional reflectivity well.As War spilled into France in 1939, he was recruited not as a soldier, but as a field medical auxiliary. His poor eyesight meant his requirement was limited – he was eventually captured along with many of his French and British counterparts in Verdun, northeastern France, and sent to the Stalag VIII-A prisoner of war camp. In a unique twist of events, though, he relished the opportunity to be around potential musicians and composed his most celebrated piece of music in the confines of the cold and dank surroundings, the “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” ("Quartet for the End of Time"); with the entitlement serving as a symbol for his own usage of time in music. The piece, originally written as a trio for the cellist, clarinetist, and violinist he encountered, soon added a place for a piano part and was first performed at the camp with impressed onlookers.

Released in May 1941, Messiaen was quickly appointed a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. He soon came into contact with some of his first students, all of whom would eventuate as fine composers themselves. Between 1946 and the 70s, he composed and discovered serialism, the birdsong of the blackbird and his second wife Yvonne Loriod, also a student of his. Following on from the instruction of Dukas “to listen to the birds”, Messiaen took this quite literally. To successfully transcribe the birds, he traveled and wide from Utah to Japan, always seeking out more and more exotic birds to showcase. Many of his pieces, including some from before this period, utilize radical and unusual techniques to accurately represent the creature such as “Catalogue d'oiseaux” (1958), and “La fauvette des jardins” (1971) both attesting to the bird for their matter of substance. While it of course sounds fairly novel and jocular in content, Messiaen's birdsongs are both technically engaging and joyful listening as they are experiments with little hypothesis but a clear direction in terms of musical significance.

He retired from the Conservatoire in 1978, and was appointed to its highest rank of Grand-Croix, of the Légion d'honneur. Although his later life was tainted with illness, his music and career were widely celebrated, and he continued to work on independently composing music until his final death in 1991 with many of his pieces retaining some sort of significance and grandeur. After such a successful life, it is clear that Messiaen’s usage of tonal colours, experimentation, and determinacy for accomplishment gave rise to a unique style that is high in the ranks of recognizable music. It is also without doubt the his continuity for the French impressionism offers more natural lifelike-ness and a less class driven side to classical music that makes it suitable toward anyone’s listening palette.

Jake C. Taylor « hide

Similar Bands: Paul Dukas, Claude Debussy, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Alfred Schnittke

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1964

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1948

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1944

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4.5
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4
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