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!!!HISTORIC RECORDINGS OF MESSIAEN BY MESSIAEN - Visions de l'Amen first recording by Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod in 1949 and Quatre Études de Rythme played by Messiaen himself in 1951!!!

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Malcolm Ball playing a new version of the Ondes Martenot - L'Ondea (L'onde de la nouvelle génération) assisted by Christine Ott.

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This page does not propose to be the definitive document on this most important figure in 20th century music, but rather a 'Messiaen umbrella' where those who are interested can access all manner of Messiaen resources and links. It also gives me the opportunity to reflect on a man whose' music has continued to touch and influence my musical life. There are many fine accounts and books on Messiaen now which are listed in this site together with my own audio and video resources.
It is hoped that this page is able to post events, concerts, news, links and articles that are contributed worldwide.

If you would like to contribute any Messiaen related articles, musicological studies,
reviews or have any questions concerning this site please e-mail me at maldrummer1@netscape.net

 

"My faith is the grand drama of my life. I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith. I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colours for those who see none". (Olivier Messiaen)

 

 

OLIVIER-EUGENE-PROSPER-CHARLES MESSIAEN (b. Dec. 10, 1908, Avignon, France.d. April 27, 1992, Clichy, near Paris), Messiaen was the son of Pierre Messiaen, a scholar of English literature, and of the poet Cecile Sauvage. He grew up in Grenoble and Nantes, began composing at the age of seven, and taught himself to play the piano.

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.

My first encounter with the music of Olivier Messiaen was as an impressionable fourteen year old who had just discovered Bach through Jacques Loussier and was listening somewhat idly to a Radio 3 organ recital which concluded with this amazing sound world that was completely new to me. The music uplifted me to the point where not only the hairs on the back of my neck stood up but every hair on my body stood to attention. The piece I was experiencing was Dieu Parmi Nous (God Among Us) from La Nativité Du Seigneur.

I immediately sped to my local record library with the intention of loaning all the discs by this obscure Frenchman. However, sadly and to my surprise there were but 3 or 4 discs available in this country of Messiaens' music. I was able to obtain the full version of La Nativite on an album by Allan Wicks at St Paul's Cathedral on the Alpha label, a copy of which I found years later in a second hand record shop. The other items that the library carried were a couple of French recordings featuring Yvonne Loriod on the Vega label - Canteyodjaya and Oiseaux Exotique. From then on there was no looking back for me, I was hooked and the music of Messiaen has sustained my musical life ever since.
My first live concert of Messiaens' music was miraculously at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in February 1968 where the English Bach Festival mounted a concert which included Couleurs de la Cité Céleste and Visions de l'Amen. I say miraculously because Visions de l'Amen was performed by Yvonne Loriod and Messiaen himself. It was a very humbling experience to be in the presence of a figure who was on a par with the genius of Mozart and indeed will live as long in musical history as any of the great masters.

I clearly remember the first time I experienced Turangalila Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Proms season in 1969 with the BBCSO under Charles Groves with John Ogden on piano and Jeanne Loriod Ondes Martenot and recall the sheer joy that at last British audiences were able to enjoy. It was also at the end of this performance when I was waiting outside the artists entrance eagerly hunting for autographs that I saw Jeanne Loriod single handedly load her Ondes Martenot into a Renault 5 and drive off into the night!
Possibly as a result of the success of this concert, the 76th season of Proms the following year actually opened with La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ with the BBCSO under Serge Baudo.

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) that he discovered he was '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 Burgeoning Soul) 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.

When he was eleven years old he visited Saint Chapelle and remembers being 'overwhelmed by the colours of the stained glass windows', understanding then that music is coloured explaining that 'you don't see all the colours and pictures at once - you're dazzled. When you hear chords they are complexes of sounds'. Messiaen, it turned out, is one of those people who had the ability to transcribe sounds into colours (synaesthesia) in their inner imagination and goes to great length describing these colours in his scores where appropriate.

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, piano, Jean Gallon, harmony, Noël Gallon counterpoint and fugue, professor Baggers, timpani & percussion, Paul Dukas composition & orchestration, Maurice Emmanuel history of music and Marcel Dupré organ and improvisation, of which 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.

Since the age of eighteen Messiaen had been collecting the songs of thousands of birds throughout France and the world. Early works showed an inkling of birdsong influence but after the war in the late 40s and 50s he began notating their songs in great detail and this became a vital musical source for him.

He would begin by selecting a bird, say a warbler where he would notate hundreds of different warblers and then creates a composite of the best elements of all the warblers notated thus ending up with an 'ideal' warbler. The song is usually combined with the birds habitat, surroundings and time of day. 'It's the process of transformation' that Messiaen enjoys and relates this to the paintings of Monet who is not interested in putting say a water lily directly on the water of a picture but representing one variation of the light on the water lilies. His researches were so intense that he became an authoritative ornithologist able to recognize almost any bird that he heard. Several works have been devoted entirely to birdsong namely Catalogue d'Oiseaux, Réveil des oiseaux, Oiseaux Exotique, Le merle noir, Petites esquisses d'oiseaux and almost all other works include substantial references to the songs of birds.

At the age of 19 the young Messiaen witnessed the death from consumption of his beloved mother. He moved to his paternal aunts in the countryside of the Aube region of France where, in Yvonne Loriod's words, 'the aunts took their nephew in to revive his taste for life and restore his health with good country air whilst he continued to compose'.

Messiaen married his first wife Claire Delbos in 1932 . An accomplished violinist and composer she sadly became physically and mentally ill and entered a psychiatric hospital (where she eventually died in 1959) leaving Messiaen a single parent bringing up their only son Pascal (born in 1937 and now a teacher of Russian) throughout the 30s and 40s. His song cycle Poemes pour Mi was dedicated to Claire Delbos, Mi being a 'pet' name for her. Both music and words were written by Messiaen and celebrates the joy and sanctity of marriage. Messiaen was to continue to write the texts for all his choral and vocal works including the Trois Petite liturgies de la Presence Divine which caused some negative if not hostile reactions from many critics at the first performance. He believes that this reaction was due to the fact that the work is full of passion but with a deep religious foundation and this took the critics by surprise and much of the criticisms were not directed at the music. In 1936, with the composers Andre Jolivet, Daniel Lesur, and Yves Baudrier, he founded the group La Jeune France ("Young France") to promote new French music. From 1934 to 1939 he taught piano sight reading at the École Normale de Musique and an organ improvisation course at the Schola Cantorium.

Undoubtedly it has been Messiaens' devout Christian faith and Catholicism that has driven his compositional output through the years and 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. These were; 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 thousands of fellow prisoners who although maybe never understood the new harmonies etc. it took them away from the routine mundane life in the camp. He says that his 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'.

He returned from captivity in March 1941 and became a teacher and lecturer at the Paris Conservatoire giving his first class on 7th May the same year. He held classes in analysis, theory, aesthetics and rhythm but it wasn't until 1966 that he was officially appointed Professor of Composition. Many famous 'names' passed through these classes including Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Alexander Goehr and later George Benjamin who Messiaen had a particular fondness and admiration of. Perhaps the one thing that rubbed off on all these composers is Messiaens' avoidance of regular metre citing it as artificial relating to marches and more popular music. Messiaen supports 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 Symphony, 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. She says of that first encounter that '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'.
Messiaen never imparted his own compositional techniques in his classes but rather steered students along their own paths.

Yvonne Loriod began studying the piano at the age of six and by the age of fourteen her repertoire included all the Mozart concertos, all the Beethoven sonatas, the Bach '48' as well as the standard classical and romantic works. Along with this pianistic prowess she also studied harmony, fugue, orchestration and composition enabling her to proof read Messiaens' scores and compile the vocal score for Saint Francois d'Assise. Her teachers were Lazare Levy, Marcel Ciampi, Simone Caussade, Joseph Calvet, C. Estyle as well as Messiaen and Milhaud.

Messiaen quickly saw in Yvonne Loriod somebody whose dazzling technique and phenomenal memory could interpret his music as he saw it and anything he wrote was possible to play through her. Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus, Visions de l'Amen, Catalogue d'Oiseaux, La Fauvette des Jardins, Petites esquisses d'oiseaux and most of the piano parts in his orchestral works are all dedicated to her.
In 1961 Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod were married.

Photos:J. Rancy

Messiaen has not always been in the favour of the musical establishment not least by the BBC who broadcast next to nothing on the then Third programme (later Radio 3) right up until the sixties by which time the composer was in his 60s. It was Felix Aprahamian who brought Messiaen to London in the late 30s to play La Nativite and has been a champion and formidable writer on Messiaen ever since.
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. Boulez in particular could not come to terms with and reacted against works like Turangalila with it's rich mix of tonal and atonal language saying that he prefers the ones that remain true to one style or the other. 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. For example, middle C will always appear as a dotted minim value, forte dynamic and have a tenuto articulation mark. Although this paved the way for the young generation of composers such as Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono etc. to explore previously uncharted territory, 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. Having said that, there are occasions when for instance he wanted to describe the horror and blackness of the night in the opening of "The Tawny Owl' from Catalogue d'Oiseaux where he uses a 'Mode de valeurs et d'intensites' in a poetical sense to portray this. 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. Scored for 22 woodwinds. 16 brass, 68 strings, 3 ondes Martenot and 5 keyboard percussions playing xylophone, xylorimba, marimba, glockenspiel & vibraphone. There are 6 percussionists playing tubular bells, claves, wind machine, snare drum, triangles,temple blocks, wood blocks, cymbals of various kinds, whip, maracas, reco-reco, glass chimes, shell chimes, wood chimes, tambourine, tôle (thunder sheet), gongs, tam tam, crotales tom toms and geophone (sand machine) together with 7 main solo characters and a choir of 150 it is certainly the largest forces Messiaen considered.
Among the best essays on this work are Paul Griffiths' account in The Messiaen Companion and Messiaens' own comments in an interview with Claude Samuel in Music and Color.

Soon after Messiaens' death I happened to be visiting Paris and felt the need to pay my respects at La Sainte Trinité, the church where Messiaen conceived so many of his great organ works. I was lucky enough to meet Father Yves de Boisrehen who for many years read the lessons etc. and said how he would be amazed when his words would suddenly 'come to life' for the congregation through the improvisations of Messiaen responding at the organ.
Some would say 'an impossible act to follow' but in 1993 Naji Hakim entered that revered organ loft at la Trinité as successor to Messiaen. An accomplished composer and improviser, Naji Hakim was the one person Messiaen felt comfortable in the knowledge that the great French tradition of organist - composer and improviser would continue at la Trinité.

At last it is a testament to the significance of Olivier Messiaen's work, if we needed it, that the British educational examination board 'London and East Anglian' have chosen Quatour pour la Fin du Temps as a GSCE set work for study. The maître's work is finally reaching our youth and thanks to todays' mass audio market they wont have to scratch around as I did, finding more recordings of the greatest French composer since Debussy.

Messiaen received many honours and prizes globally including:

1967 Member of the Institut de France
1969 Calouste Gulbenkian Prize
1971 Erasmus Award
1975 Ernest von Siemens Award
1975 Associate Member of the Royal Academy of Science, Literature and Art of Belgium
1975 Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society
1978 The White Cliffs in Utah were renamed Mount Messiaen
1983 Wolf Foundation of the Arts Prize (Jerusalem)
1985 Inamori Foundation Prize (Kyoto)
1989 Primio Internazionale Paolo VI 1988

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: Jacques Moetti

Christiane Eda-Pierre in the role of the Angel: Saint Francois d'Assise

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