Olivier Messiaen

Nigel Simeone

in Music

ISBN: 9780199757824
Published online June 2011 | | DOI:
Olivier Messiaen

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Olivier Messiaen (b. 1908–d. 1992) was one of the true originals of 20th-century music: a composer whose innovative exploration of sonority, rhythm, and harmony was profoundly influenced by his religious faith and his love of nature. Critics welcomed his new works in the 1930s, such as Les offrandes oubliées for orchestra, La Nativité du Seigneur for organ, and Poèmes pour Mi, a song cycle celebrating love and marriage dedicated to his first wife, Claire Delbos. In 1931 he was also appointed organist of the church of La Trinité, and worked there for six decades. During his captivity as a prisoner-of-war in 1940–1941, Messiaen composed the Quartet for the End of Time, and on his return to France he took up a post teaching harmony at the Paris Conservatoire. One of the students in his first class was Yvonne Loriod, later to become his second wife. Over the next few years he produced Visions de l’Amen for two pianos, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus for solo piano, and Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine for piano, ondes Martenot, percussion, strings, and women’s voices. The commentaries that accompanied these works aroused some critical hostility, and the press became embroiled in “Le cas Messiaen” (“The Messiaen Affair”) in which critics disputed the value of Messiaen’s highly systematized musical language. In 1945 he began work on a trilogy inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde: the song-cycle Harawi, Cinq Rechants for twelve unaccompanied voices, and Turangalîla-Symphonie. At least part of the motivation for turning to the Tristan myth was the declining health of his wife, Claire. After the ten-movement extravaganza of Turangalîla, Messiaen embarked at the end of the 1940s on a period of experimentation, producing the Quatre études de rythme for piano and Messe de la Pentecôte for organ. He had been fascinated by nature since childhood, but his systematic study of birdsong began in the 1950s. After the rather literalistic Réveil des oiseaux for piano and orchestra, two masterpieces followed: Oiseaux exotiques for piano and large ensemble, and Catalogue d’oiseaux for solo piano. The 1960s saw a return to music inspired by Messiaen’s faith: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum for brass, woodwind and percussion, and the oratorio La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ. At the start of the 1970s he composed Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte-Trinité for organ and followed this with Des canyons aux étoiles . . . for piano and chamber orchestra, inspired by the landscapes and birds of Arizona and Utah, finished in 1974. The next nine years were devoted almost entirely to his vast opera Saint François d’Assise, first performed in 1983. Messiaen voiced doubts about his ability to compose anything after this, but produced another major organ work (Livre du Saint Sacrement), a brilliant set of piano miniatures (Petites esquisses d’oiseaux), and his valedictory orchestral work: Éclairs sur l’Au-Delàº.º.º.—a vision of Paradise enhanced by the songs of Australian lyrebirds. Messiaen’s reputation has continued to grow since his death in 1992, and his music still has the capacity to excite controversy and fierce partisanship.

Article.  7705 words. 

Subjects: Music ; Applied Music ; Ethnomusicology ; Music Theory and Analysis ; Musicology and Music History ; Music Education and Pedagogy

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