Olivier Messiaen
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1908-12-10
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Olivier Messiaen

Biography

Messiaen was born in Avignon; his father taught English, his mother was a poet. During the First World War the family moved to Grenoble in the French Alps – a landscape to which Messiaen would constantly return throughout his life ...

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Biography

Messiaen was born in Avignon; his father taught English, his mother was a poet. During the First World War the family moved to Grenoble in the French Alps – a landscape to which Messiaen would constantly return throughout his life in order to compose. The other constant in his life was a deep Catholic faith, which he found early and which never left him.

In 1919 Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Marcel Dupré (organ and improvisation) and Paul Dukas (composition). There he discovered the key elements of his composing technique: Indian rhythmic cycles, and ‘modes of limited transposition’ (exotic scales constructed differently from the traditional Western major and minor ones). Le banquet céleste (1928) for organ, a set of piano Préludes (1928–9) and the orchestral Les offrandes oubliées (1930) already show the trademark features of Messiaen’s mature style: slow meditation in richly refracted chord-sequences (as an image of eternity); bounding dances of despair or joy; and irregular, objectively unfolding rhythmic sequences (another image of timelessness in musical time).

In 1931 Messiaen was appointed organist at the church of La Trinité in Paris, a post he held until his death. Major statements from this period were La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) and Les corps glorieux (1939) for organ, and the song-cycles Poèmes pour Mi (1936) and Chants de terre et de ciel (1938). When the Second World War broke out, Messiaen was called up as a medical orderly, captured, and sent to a prison camp in Germany. There he met up with a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist, for whom he wrote the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940–41). The premiere took place, in freezing conditions and with the composer playing a decrepit upright piano, before an audience of fellow-prisoners in Stalag VIIIA.

Repatriated to France, Messiaen taught at the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils included Yvonne Loriod, his future second wife. Her dazzling pianism helped to inspire the cascade of works that followed – among them Visions de l’Amen (1943) for two pianos, the solo piano cycle Vingt regards sur l’Enfant- Jésus (1944) and the Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946–8) for large orchestra, piano and ondes martenot. Stimulating contact with the European avant-garde engendered more piano and organ music (notably Livre d’orgue, 1951) and the orchestral Chronochromie (1959–60). And Messiaen’s love of birdsong – for him, a symbol of the resurrected soul in flight – flowered in the piano cycle Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–8).

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) for wind and percussion introduced a monumental, apocalyptic element that pointed towards Messiaen’s later works. These included huge, multi-faceted proclamations of his faith that drew together every aspect of his style: the choral and orchestral La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965–9); Des canyons aux étoiles … (1971–4) for piano, horn, xylorimba, glockenspiel and chamber orchestra; an immense opera-as-fresco, Saint Francis of Assisi (1975–83); and the orchestral cycle Éclairs sur l’Au-delà … (1988–92).

Profile © Malcolm Hayes

Olivier Messiaen Audio & Video


Olivier Messiaen Tracks

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Olivier Messiaen
Eight Preludes for piano: I. La colombe
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Eight Preludes for piano: I. La colombe
Olivier Messiaen
Transports de joie (from L' Ascension)
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Transports de joie (from L' Ascension)
Olivier Messiaen
3 Petites liturgies de la Presence Divine
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3 Petites liturgies de la Presence Divine
Olivier Messiaen
O Sacrum Convivium
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O Sacrum Convivium
Quatuor Olivier Messiaen
Abime des oiseaux (Quatuor pour la fin du Temps)
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Abime des oiseaux (Quatuor pour la fin du Temps)
Olivier Messiaen
La Merle Noir
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La Merle Noir
Olivier Messiaen
Turangalila-Symphonie
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Turangalila-Symphonie
Olivier Messiaen
Catalogue D'Oiseaux - La chouette hulotte (Tawny owl)
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Catalogue D'Oiseaux - La chouette hulotte (Tawny owl)
Olivier Messiaen
Premiere communion de la Vierge (Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus)
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Premiere communion de la Vierge (Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus)
Olivier Messiaen
Turangalîla Symphony
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Turangalîla Symphony
Olivier Messiaen
13. Le Courlis cendre (Catalogue d'oiseaux, Book 7)
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13. Le Courlis cendre (Catalogue d'oiseaux, Book 7)
Olivier Messiaen
4 Etudes de rhythme for piano
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4 Etudes de rhythme for piano
Olivier Messiaen
Quatuor pour la fin du temps for clarinet, piano, violin and cello
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Quatuor pour la fin du temps for clarinet, piano, violin and cello
Olivier Messiaen
Plusieurs Oiseaux Des Arbres de Vie
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Plusieurs Oiseaux Des Arbres de Vie
Olivier Messiaen
Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (orch. Christopher Dingle)
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Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (orch. Christopher Dingle)
Olivier Messiaen
Le désert (from Des canyons aux étoiles)
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Le désert (from Des canyons aux étoiles)

Le désert (from Des canyons aux étoiles)

Performer
Marja Bon (piano), Hans Dullaert (french horn), Ger de Zeeuw (xylorimba), Wim Vos (glockenspiel),
Den Haag Percussion Group, Asko Ensemble, Schoenberg Ensemble, Reinbert de Leeuw (conductor)
Olivier Messiaen
: La source de Vie (from Livre de Sainte Sacrement)
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: La source de Vie (from Livre de Sainte Sacrement)
Olivier Messiaen
Dieux parmi nous (La nativité du Seigneur)
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Dieux parmi nous (La nativité du Seigneur)
Olivier Messiaen
20 Regards sur l'enfant Jesus for piano
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20 Regards sur l'enfant Jesus for piano
Olivier Messiaen
Antienne de la Conversation Intérieure
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Antienne de la Conversation Intérieure

Antienne de la Conversation Intérieure

Performer
Yvonne Loriod (piano), Jeanne Loriod (onde Martenot), Maîtrise et orchestra de chamber de la R. T. F, Marcel Couraud (director)
Olivier Messiaen
O sacrum convivium
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O sacrum convivium
Olivier Messiaen
Le Banquet Céleste (Église de la Sainte-Trinité)
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Le Banquet Céleste (Église de la Sainte-Trinité)
Olivier Messiaen
Oraison, from Fete des belles eaux (orginally for six ondes martenots)
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Oraison, from Fete des belles eaux (orginally for six ondes martenots)
Olivier Messiaen
Monodie
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Monodie
Olivier Messiaen
Prelude
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Prelude
Add music you love and enjoy it
Playlists featuring Olivier Messiaen
Essential Classics: Guest Choices
Essential Classics: Guest Choices
BBC Proms 2015: Katie Derham Curates
BBC Proms 2015: Katie Derham Curates


Olivier Messiaen Biography

Messiaen was born in Avignon; his father taught English, his mother was a poet. During the First World War the family moved to Grenoble in the French Alps – a landscape to which Messiaen would constantly return throughout his life in order to compose. The other constant in his life was a deep Catholic faith, which he found early and which never left him.

In 1919 Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Marcel Dupré (organ and improvisation) and Paul Dukas (composition). There he discovered the key elements of his composing technique: Indian rhythmic cycles, and ‘modes of limited transposition’ (exotic scales constructed differently from the traditional Western major and minor ones). Le banquet céleste (1928) for organ, a set of piano Préludes (1928–9) and the orchestral Les offrandes oubliées (1930) already show the trademark features of Messiaen’s mature style: slow meditation in richly refracted chord-sequences (as an image of eternity); bounding dances of despair or joy; and irregular, objectively unfolding rhythmic sequences (another image of timelessness in musical time).

In 1931 Messiaen was appointed organist at the church of La Trinité in Paris, a post he held until his death. Major statements from this period were La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) and Les corps glorieux (1939) for organ, and the song-cycles Poèmes pour Mi (1936) and Chants de terre et de ciel (1938). When the Second World War broke out, Messiaen was called up as a medical orderly, captured, and sent to a prison camp in Germany. There he met up with a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist, for whom he wrote the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940–41). The premiere took place, in freezing conditions and with the composer playing a decrepit upright piano, before an audience of fellow-prisoners in Stalag VIIIA.

Repatriated to France, Messiaen taught at the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils included Yvonne Loriod, his future second wife. Her dazzling pianism helped to inspire the cascade of works that followed – among them Visions de l’Amen (1943) for two pianos, the solo piano cycle Vingt regards sur l’Enfant- Jésus (1944) and the Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946–8) for large orchestra, piano and ondes martenot. Stimulating contact with the European avant-garde engendered more piano and organ music (notably Livre d’orgue, 1951) and the orchestral Chronochromie (1959–60). And Messiaen’s love of birdsong – for him, a symbol of the resurrected soul in flight – flowered in the piano cycle Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–8).

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) for wind and percussion introduced a monumental, apocalyptic element that pointed towards Messiaen’s later works. These included huge, multi-faceted proclamations of his faith that drew together every aspect of his style: the choral and orchestral La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965–9); Des canyons aux étoiles … (1971–4) for piano, horn, xylorimba, glockenspiel and chamber orchestra; an immense opera-as-fresco, Saint Francis of Assisi (1975–83); and the orchestral cycle Éclairs sur l’Au-delà … (1988–92).

Profile © Malcolm Hayes

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