Olivier Messiaen

From New World Encyclopedia

Olivier Messiaen (mɛsjɑ̃ or /mɛsjɛ̃/; December 10, 1908 – April 27, 1992) was an influential French composer, organist, and ornithologist whose unique compositions incorporated his personal philosophy on world history, religion, nature, science, math, and the ethnic origins of man. He experimented with pitch and rhythm to produce chamber, single instrumental, and orchestral works which were living testimonies of a composer who always communicated with his heart and mind. He lived in Grenoble in the French Alps during World War I, and returned there during his summers and, in his retirement, to compose. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11, and numbered Marcel Dupré, Maurice Emmanuel, and Paul Dukas among his teachers. He was appointed organist at the church of La Trinité in Paris in 1931, a post he held until his death. Many of his compositions depict what he termed "the marvelous aspects of the faith," drawing on his unshakable Roman Catholicism. His desire was to bring world peace through his music.

Several of Messiaen's early works are especially notable in that they express his feelings regarding marriage and parenthood, topics that are not often associated with modern music of the early twentieth century. After marrying violinist and composer Claire Delbos, he composed his song-cycle, Poemes pour mi, expressing the spiritual importance of marrage. After the birth of his first son he composed another song-cycle, Chants de terra at de ciel, which deals with the subject of parenthood.

For Messiaen, the proper understanding and responsibility regarding free will was of great importance. He asserted that freedom has "nothing to do with fantasy, disorder, revolt, or indifference. It is a constructive freedom, which is arrived at through self-control, respect for others, a sense of wonder of that which is created, meditation on the mystery and the search for Truth. This wonderful freedom is like a foretaste of the freedom of Heaven."

In 1940 Messiaen was captured as a prisoner of war, and while incarcerated he composed his Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the end of time") for the four instruments available. The piece was first performed by Messiaen and fellow prisoners to an audience of inmates and prison guards. Messiaen was appointed professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatory in 1941 and professor of composition in 1966. In his classes there and abroad he taught many distinguished pupils, including Pierre Boulez, Yvonne Loriod (who later became Messiaen's second wife), Karlheinz Stockhausen, and George Benjamin.

Messiaen's music is rhythmically complex (he was interested in rhythms from ancient Greek and from Hindu sources), and is harmonically and melodically based on modes of limited transposition. Messiaen experienced a mild form of synaesthesia manifested as a perception of colors when he heard certain harmonies, particularly harmonies built from his modes, and he used combinations of these colors in his compositions. For a short period Messiaen experimented with "total serialism," in which field he is often cited as an innovator. His style absorbed many exotic musical influences such as Indonesian gamelan (tuned percussion often features prominently), and he also championed the ondes Martenot, an electronic musical instrument, of which his sister-in-law Jeanne Loriod was a leading exponent.

Messiaen was fascinated by birdsong; he considered birds to be the greatest musicians, and regarded himself as much an ornithologist as a composer. He notated birdsongs worldwide, and incorporated birdsong transcriptions into a majority of his music. He travelled widely, and wrote works inspired by such diverse influences as Japanese music, the landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, and the life of St. Francis of Assisi. His final work, "Eclairs sur l'au delà" ("Illuminations of the beyond"), which depicts many of his ideas about the experience of the afterlife, was first performed after his death.


Youth and studies

Olivier Eugène Prosper Charles Messiaen was born in Avignon into a literary family. He was the elder of two sons of Cécile Sauvage, a poet, and Pierre Messiaen, a teacher of English who translated the plays of William Shakespeare into French. Messiaen's mother published a sequence of poems, "L'âme en bourgeon" ("The Burgeoning Soul"), the last chapter of "Tandis que la terre tourne" ("As the World Turns"), which address her unborn son. Messiaen later said this sequence of poems influenced him deeply, and it was cited by him as prophetic of his future artistic career. (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 15)

On the outbreak of World War I in 1914 Pierre Messiaen became a soldier, and his mother took Olivier and his brother to live with her brother in Grenoble. Here Messiaen became fascinated with drama, reciting Shakespeare to his brother with the help of a homemade toy theater with translucent backdrops made from old cellophane wrappers. (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 41) At this time he also adopted the Roman Catholic faith. Later, Messiaen felt most at home in the Alps of the Dauphiné, where he had a house built south of Grenoble, and composed most of his music there. (Hill 1995, 300–301)

He began piano lessons after having already taught himself to play. His interest embraced the recent music of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and he asked for opera vocal scores for Christmas presents. (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 109) During this period he started to compose.

In 1918 his father returned from the war, and the family moved to Nantes. He continued music lessons; one of his teachers, Jehan de Gibon, gave him a score of Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which Messiaen described as "a thunderbolt" and "probably the most decisive influence on me." (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 110) The following year Pierre Messiaen gained a teaching post in Paris, and the family moved there. Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1919 at age 11.

At the Conservatoire Messiaen made excellent academic progress, many times finding himself at the top of the class. In 1924, at the age of 15, he was awarded second prize in harmony, in 1926 he gained first prize in counterpoint and fugue, and in 1927 he won first prize in piano accompaniment. In 1928, after studying with Maurice Emmanuel, he was awarded first prize in history of music. Emmanuel's example engendered in Messiaen an interest in ancient Greek rhythms and exotic modes. After showing improvisation skills on the piano, Messiaen began to study the organ with Marcel Dupré, and from him he inherited the tradition of great French organists (Dupré had studied with Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne; Vierne in turn was a pupil of César Franck). Messiaen gained first prize in organ playing and improvisation in 1929. His composition teacher was Paul Dukas who instilled in Messiaen a mastery of orchestration, and in 1930 Messiaen won first prize in composition.

While he was a student he composed his first published compositions, his nine Préludes for piano (the earlier Le banquet céleste was published subsequently). These already exhibit Messiaen's use of his preferred modes of limited transposition and palindromic rhythms (Messiaen called these non-retrogradable rhythms which means that these rhythms are identical when performed forwards or backwards). His public debut came in 1931 with his orchestral suite Les offrandes oubliées. Also in that year he first heard a gamelan group, which sparked his interest in the use of tuned percussion.

In 1931 Messiaen was appointed organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris, a post he was to hold for more than 60 years.

La Jeune France, and Messiaen's war

In 1932, Messiaen married the violinist and fellow composer Claire Delbos. Their marriage inspired him to compose works for her to play (Thème et variations for violin and piano in the year they were married), and pieces to celebrate their domestic happiness (including the song cycle Poèmes pour Mi in 1936, which Messiaen orchestrated in 1937). Mi was Messiaen's affectionate nickname for his wife. In 1937 their son Pascal was born. Messiaen's marriage turned to tragedy when his wife lost her memory after an operation, spending the rest of her life in mental institutions. (Yvonne Loriod, in Hill 1995, 294)

In 1936, Messiaen, André Jolivet, Daniel-Lesur, and Yves Baudrier formed the group La Jeune France ("Young France"). Their manifesto implicitly attacked the frivolity predominant in contemporary Parisian music, rejecting Jean Cocteau's manifesto Le coq et l'arlequin of 1918 in favor of a "living music, having the impetus of sincerity, generosity and artistic conscientiousness."[1] Messiaen's career soon departed from this public phase, however, as his compositions at this time were not for public commissions or conventional concerts.

In 1937 Messiaen demonstrated his interest in using the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument, by composing the unpublished Fêtes des belles eaux for an ensemble of six, and he included a part for the instrument in many of his subsequent compositions.

During this period Messiaen composed organ cycles, for himself to play. He arranged his orchestral suite L'Ascension for organ, replacing the orchestral version's third movement with an entirely new movement, one of Messiaen's most popular, Transports de joie d'une âme devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne ("Ecstacies of a soul before the glory of Christ, which is its own glory," usually just known as Transports de joie). He also wrote the extensive cycles La Nativité du Seigneur and Les corps glorieux. The final toccata of La Nativité, Dieu parmi nous ("God among Us") has become another favorite recital piece, often played separately.

At the outbreak of World War II Messiaen was called up into the French army, as a medical auxiliary rather than an active combatant due to his poor eyesight. (Griffiths 1985, 139) In May 1940 he was captured at Verdun, and was taken to Görlitz where he was imprisoned at prison camp Stalag VIIIA. He soon encountered a violinist, a cellist, and a clarinettist among his fellow prisoners. Initially he wrote a trio for them, but gradually incorporated this trio into his Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the End of Time"). This was first performed in the camp to an audience of prisoners and prison guards, the composer playing a poorly maintained upright piano, in freezing conditions in January 1941. Thus the enforced introspection and reflection of camp life bore fruit in one of twentieth-century European classical music's acknowledged masterpieces. The "end of time" of the title is not purely an allusion to the Apocalypse, the work's ostensible subject, but also refers to the way in which Messiaen, through rhythm and harmony, used time in a way completely different from the music of his contemporaries.

Tristan, and serialism

Shortly after his release from Görlitz in May 1941, Messiaen was appointed a professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, where he taught until his retirement in 1978. He also devoted some time to compiling his Technique de mon langage musical ("Technique of my musical language") published in 1944, in which he quotes many examples from his music, particularly the Quartet.

Among Messiaen's early students at the Conservatoire were composer Pierre Boulez and pianist Yvonne Loriod. Other pupils later included Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1952. The Greek, Iannis Xenakis, was briefly referred to him in 1951; Messiaen provided encouragement and exhorted Xenakis to take advantage of his background in mathematics and architecture, and use them in his music. Although Messiaen was only in his mid-thirties, his students of that period later reported that he was already an outstanding teacher, encouraging them to find their own voice rather than imposing his own ideas. (Pierre Boulez in Hill 1995, 266ff)

In 1943 Messiaen wrote Visions de l'Amen ("Visions of the Amen") for two pianos for Loriod and himself to perform, and shortly afterwards composed the enormous solo piano cycle Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus ("Twenty gazes on the child Jesus") for her. He also wrote Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine ("Three small liturgies of the Divine Presence") for female chorus and orchestra which includes a difficult solo piano part, again for Loriod. Messiaen thus continued to bring liturgical subjects into the piano recital and the concert hall.

In 1945 Messiaen composed the first of three works on the theme of human (as opposed to divine) love, particularly inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde. This was the song cycle Harawi. The second of the Tristan works was the result of a commission from Serge Koussevitsky for a piece (Messiaen stated that the commission did not specificy the length of the work or the size of the orchestra); this was the ten-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie. This is not a conventional symphony, but rather an extended meditation on the joy of human love and union. It lacks the sexual guilt inherent in, say, Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, because Messiaen's attitude was that sexual love is a divine gift. (Griffiths 1985, 139) The third piece inspired by the Tristan myth was Cinq rechants for twelve unaccompanied singers, which Messiaen said was influenced by the alba of the troubadours. (Griffiths 1985, 142)

Messiaen visited the United States in 1947, as his music was conducted there by Koussevitsky and Leopold Stokowski that year. His Turangalîla-Symphonie was first performed there in 1949, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. During this period, as well as teaching an analysis class at the Paris Conservatoire, he also taught in Budapest in 1947, Tanglewood in 1949, and in the summers of 1949 and 1950 he taught classes at Darmstadt. After teaching analysis of serial scores such as Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire for many years he became interested in using serialism himself, taking the concept further than previous composers by introducing serialism of timbres, intensities, and durations. The results of these experiments were pieces such as Modes de valeurs et d'intensités for piano which have been described as the first works of total serialism. During this period he also experimented with musique concrète, music for recorded sounds.

Birdsong, and the 1960s

In 1951 Messiaen was asked to provide a test piece for flautists wishing to enter the Paris Conservatoire, so he composed the piece Le merle noir for flute and piano. Although Messiaen had long been fascinated by birdsong, and birds had made appearances in several of his earlier works (for example La Nativité, Quatuor, and Vingt regards), the flute piece is based entirely on the song of the blackbird. This development was taken to a new level with the orchestral work Réveil des oiseaux in 1953; the work is composed almost entirely of birdsong, taking as its material the birds one might hear between midnight and noon in the Jura mountains. From this period onwards Messiaen incorporated birdsong into all of his compositions, and indeed he composed several works for which birds provide the title and subject matter (for example, the collection of thirteen pieces for piano, Catalogue d'oiseaux, completed in 1958, and La fauvette des jardins of 1971), although these works are sophisticated tone poems evoking place and atmosphere rather than simply transcriptions of birdsong. Paul Griffiths points out that Messiaen was a more conscientious ornithologist than any previous composer, and a more musical observer of birdsong than any previous ornithologist. (Griffiths 1985, 168)

In 1959 Messiaen's first wife died following her long illness, and in 1961 he married Yvonne Loriod. He began to travel widely, both to attend musical events, and to seek out and transcribe the songs of more exotic birds. In 1962 his travels took him to Japan, and he was inspired by Japanese Gagaku music and Noh theater to compose the orchestral "Japanese Sketches," Sept haïkaï, which contains stylized imitations of traditional Japanese instruments.

Messiaen's music was at this time championed by, among others, Pierre Boulez, who programmed first performances at his Domaine musical concerts, and the Donaueschingen festival. Works performed here included Réveil des oiseaux, Chronochromie (commissioned for the 1960 festival), and Couleurs de la cité céleste. The latter piece was the result of a commission for a composition for three trombones and three xylophones; Messiaen added to this more brass, wind, percussion, and piano, and specified a xylophone, xylorimba, and marimba rather than three xylophones. Another work of this period, Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorem, was commissioned as a commemoration of the dead of the two World Wars, and was first performed semi-privately in the Sainte-Chapelle, and then publicly in Chartres Cathedral with Charles de Gaulle in the audience.

His reputation as a composer continued to grow, and in 1966 he was officially appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire (although he had in effect been teaching composition for years), and in 1967 he was elected to the Institut de France. In 1971, Messiaen was awarded the Erasmus Prize.

Transfiguration, canyons, St. Francis, and the beyond

Messiaen's next work was the enormous La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ. This composition occupied Messiaen from 1965 to 1969 and the forces employed include a 100-voice ten-part choir, seven solo instruments and a large orchestra. Its fourteen movements are a meditation on the story of Christ's Transfiguration.

Shortly afterwards Messiaen received a commission from an American, Alice Tully, for a work to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States Declaration of Independence. He arranged a visit to the USA in spring of 1972, and was inspired by Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, which he visited, notating birdsong and colors there. (Griffiths 1985, 225) The ten-movement orchestral piece Des Canyons aux étoiles… was the result, which was first performed in 1974 in New York.

Then, in 1975, Messiaen was asked for a piece for the Paris Opéra. Initially reluctant to undertake such a major project, Messiaen was finally persuaded to accept the commission and began work on his Saint-François d'Assise. Composition of this work was an intensive task (he also wrote his own libretto), occupying him from 1975–79, and then, having retired from teaching in 1978, the orchestration was carried out from 1979 until 1983.[2] The work (which Messiaen preferred to call a "spectacle" rather than an opera) was first performed in 1983.

It was thought by some commentators at the time of its first production that Messiaen's opera would be his valediction, but he continued composing, bringing out a major collection of organ pieces, Livre du Saint Sacrement, in 1984, as well as further bird pieces for solo piano and pieces for piano with orchestra. In 1988 tributes for Messiaen's 80th birthday around the globe included a performance in London of St. François, and the publication of a collection of 17 CDs of Messiaen's music by Erato including recordings by Loriod and a disc of the composer in conversation with Claude Samuel.

Messiaen's last composition resulted from a commission from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; although he was in considerable pain near the end of his life (requiring repeated surgery on his back [Yvonne Loriod, in Hill 1995, 302]) he was able to complete Eclairs sur l'au delà, which was performed six months after the composer died. Messiaen had also been composing a concerto for four musicians to whom he felt particularly grateful, namely Loriod, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the oboist Heinz Holliger, and the flautist Catherine Cantin. This was substantially complete when Messiaen died in April of 1992, and the final movement's orchestration was undertaken by Yvonne Loriod with advice from George Benjamin.


Almost no music by Messiaen could be mistaken for the work of any other western classical composer. His music has been described as outside the western musical tradition, although growing out of that tradition and influenced by it. (Griffiths 1985, 15) There is much in Messiaen's output that denies the western conventions of forward motion, development, and diatonic harmonic resolution. This is partly due to the symmetries of his technique—for instance, the modes of limited transposition do not admit the conventional cadences found in western classical music.

Messiaen's youthful love for the fairy-tale element in Shakespeare prefigured his later expressions of what he called "the marvellous aspects of the [Roman Catholic] Faith"—among which may be numbered Christ's Nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Transfiguration, the Apocalypse, and the hereafter. Messiaen was not interested in depicting aspects of theology such as sin (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 213); rather he concentrated on the theology of joy, divine love, and human redemption.

Although Messiaen continually evolved new composition techniques, he integrated them into his musical style; for instance, his final work still retains the use of modes of limited transposition. For many commentators this continual development of Messiaen's musical language made every major work from the Quatuor onwards a conscious summation of all that Messiaen had composed prior to that time. However, very few of these major works contain no new technical ideas; simple examples include the introduction of communicable language in Meditations, the invention of a new percussion instrument (the geophone) for Des canyons aux etoiles…, and the freedom from any synchronization with the main pulse of individual parts in certain birdsong episodes of St. François d'Assise.

As well as new techniques which Messiaen discovered for himself, among the exotic music that Messiaen absorbed into his technique were Hindu rhythms (he encountered Śārṅgadeva's list of 120 rhythmic units, the deçî-tâlas [Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 77]), Balinese and Javanese Gamelan, birdsong, and Japanese music.

Messiaen was instrumental in the academic exploration of his techniques (he published two treatises, the later one in five volumes which was substantially complete when he died), and was himself a master of music analysis. He considered the development and study of techniques to be a means to intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional development. In this connection, Messiaen maintained that a musical composition must be measured against three separate criteria: To be successful it must be interesting, beautiful to listen to, and it must touch the listener. (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 47)

Messiaen wrote a large body of music for the piano. Although a skilled pianist himself, he was undoubtedly assisted by Yvonne Loriod's formidable piano technique and ability to convey complex rhythms and rhythmic combinations; in his piano writing from Visions de l'Amen onwards he had her in mind. Messiaen said, "I am able to allow myself the greatest eccentricities because to her anything is possible." (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 114)

Western artistic influences

Developments in modern French music were a major influence on Messiaen, particularly the music of Claude Debussy and his use of the whole tone scale (which Messiaen called Mode 1 in his modes of limited transposition). Although Messiaen did not use the whole tone scale in his compositions (because, he said, after Debussy and Dukas there was "nothing to add" [Messiaen, Technique de mon langage musical]) he did use similarly symmetric modes.

Messiaen also had a great admiration for the music of Igor Stravinsky, particularly his use of rhythm in earlier works such as The Rite of Spring, and also his use of color. He was influenced by the orchestral brilliance of Heitor Villa-Lobos, who lived in Paris in the 1920s and gave acclaimed concerts there. Among composers for the keyboard Messiaen singled out Jean-Philippe Rameau, Domenico Scarlatti, Frédéric Chopin, Debussy, and Isaac Albéniz. (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 114) He also loved the music of Modest Mussorgsky, and Messiaen incorporated varied modifications of what he called the "M-shaped" melodic motif from Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov, into his music (Messiaen, Technique de mon langage musical), although Messiaen characteristically modified the final interval in this motif from a perfect fourth to a tritone.

Messiaen was also influenced by Surrealism, as may be seen from the titles of some of the piano Préludes (Un reflet dans le vent…, "A reflection in the wind") and in some of the imagery of his poetry (he published poems as prefaces to certain works, for example Les offrandes oubliées).


Color lies at the heart of Messiaen's music. Messiaen said that the terms "tonal," "modal," and "serial" (and other such terms) are misleading analytical conveniences (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 49–50) and that for him there were no modal, tonal, or serial compositions, only music with color and music without color. (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 63) For Messiaen the composers Claudio Monteverdi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Chopin, Richard Wagner, Mussorgsky, and Stravinsky all wrote music that was colored. (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 62) In addition, Messiaen experienced mild synaesthesia, manifested as the experience of colors when he heard or imagined music (he said that he did not perceive the colors visually).

In certain of Messiaen's scores, the colors in the music are notated (notably in Couleurs de la Cité Céleste and Des canyons aux étoiles…)—Messiaen's purpose being to aid the conductor in interpretation rather than to specify which colors the listener should experience.

George Benjamin said, when asked what Messiaen's main influence had been on composers, "I think the sheer… color has been so influential,… rather than being a decorative element, [Messiaen showed that color] could be a structural, a fundamental element,… the fundamental material of the music itself."[3]


Many of Messiaen's composition techniques made use of symmetries of time and pitch.

Symmetry in time

Messiaen combined rhythms with harmonic sequences in such a way that if the process were allowed to proceed indefinitely, the music would eventually run through all the possible permutations and return to its starting point—this represented for Messiaen what he termed the "charm of impossibilities" of these processes. An early example of this procedure is to be found in the piano and cello parts of the first movement of the Quatuor pour le fin de temps. In practice, of course, Messiaen only ever presented a portion of any such process, as if allowing the informed listener a glimpse of something eternal.

From his earliest works Messiaen often used non-retrogradable rhythms (palindromic rhythms).

Symmetry of pitch

Messiaen used modes which he referred to as his modes of limited transposition, which are distinguished as groups of notes which can only be transposed by a semitone a limited number of times. For example the whole tone scale (Messiaen's Mode 1) only exists in two transpositions: Namely C-D-E-F♯-G♯-A♯ and D♭-E♭-F-G-A-B. Messiaen abstracted these modes from the harmony of his improvisations and early works. (Hill 1995, 17) Music written using the modes avoids conventional diatonic harmonic progressions, since for example Messiaen's Mode 2 (identical to the octatonic scale used also by other composers) permits precisely the dominant seventh chords whose tonic the mode does not contain. (Griffiths 1985, 32) For Messiaen the modes also possessed color.

Time and rhythm

Messiaen considered his rhythmic contribution to music to be his distinguishing mark among modern composers. As well as making use of non-retrogradable rhythms, and the Hindu decî-tâlas, Messiaen also made use of "additive" rhythms. This involves lengthening individual notes slightly or interpolating a short note into an otherwise regular rhythm (for examples of this listen to Danse de fureur from the Quatuor), or shortening or lengthening every note of a rhythm by the same duration (adding a semiquaver to every note in a rhythm on its repeat, for example). This led Messiaen to use rhythmic cells alternating between two and three units, a process that also occurs in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which Messiaen admired.

A factor that contributes to Messiaen's suspension of the conventional perception of time in his music is the extremely slow tempos he often specifies (the 5th movement Louange à l'Eternité de Jésus of Quatour is actually given the tempo marking infinement lent); and even in his quick music he often uses repeated phrases and harmonies to make the speed seem static.

Messiaen also used the concept of "chromatic durations," for example in his Soixante-quatre durées from Livre d'orgue, which assigns a distinct duration to 64 pitches ranging from long to short and low to high, respectively.


Messiaen, in addition to making harmonic use of the modes of limited transposition, also cited the harmonic series as a physical phenomenon which provides chords with a context which he felt to be missing in purely serial music. (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 241–2) An example of Messiaen's harmonic use of this phenomenon, which he called "resonance," is the last two bars of Messiaen's first piano Prélude, La colombe ("The Dove"); the chord is built from harmonics of the fundamental base note E. (Griffiths 1985, 34)

Related to this use of resonance, Messaien also composed music where the lowest, or fundamental, note is combined with higher notes or chords played much more quietly. These higher notes, far from being perceived as conventional harmony, function as harmonics that alter the timbre of the fundamental note like mixture stops on a pipe organ. An example is the song of the golden oriole in Le loriot of the Catalogue d'oiseaux for solo piano.

In his use of conventional diatonic chords, Messiaen often transcended their historically banal connotations (for example, his frequent use of the added sixth chord as a resolution).


Messiaen was fascinated by birdsong from an early age, and was encouraged by his teacher Dukas who is reported to have urged his pupils to "listen to the birds." He made detailed studies of individual birdsongs by notating them in the wild while his wife, Yvonne Loriod, assisted by making a tape recording for checking later.

Messiaen included stylized birdsong in early compositions (for example, L'abîme d'oiseaux from the Quatuor), with birdsong integrated into Messiaen's sound-world by techniques such as use of the modes of limited transposition and of chord coloration. The birdsong episodes in his work became increasingly sophisticated, and eventually Messiaen began notating the bird species with the music in the score. With Le Réveil des Oiseaux this process reached maturity, the whole piece being built from birdsong; in effect, it is a dawn chorus for orchestra. The pieces are not simple transcriptions, however. Even the works with purely bird-inspired titles, such as Catalogue d'oiseaux and Fauvette des jardins, are tone poems evoking the landscape, its color, and its atmosphere.


Messiaen is credited by some critics with the invention of "total serialism," in which serialism is extended to include not only pitch, but also duration, attack, and timbre. Messiaen expressed annoyance that his work Mode de valeurs et d'intensités, seen by some as the first work of total serialism, was given such importance in his output. (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 47)

In a related development, Messiaen introduced what he called a "communicable language," in which he used a "musical alphabet" to encode sentences. This technique was first introduced in his Meditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité for organ; in this work the "alphabet" also includes motifs for the concepts to have, to be, and God, and the sentences encoded include sections from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Religion and music/his own words

When asked in an interview what he sought to communicate though his music he responded, "The first idea that I wish to express---and the most important, because it stands above them all---is the existence of the truths of the Catholic faith." Commenting on the highly diverse nature of his musical style, he stated, "God for me is manifest, and my conception of sacred music derives from this conviction. God being present in all things, music dealing with theological subjects can and must be extremely varied."

His aversion towards aleatory (chance music) was based on a religious conviction that God is a creative being who works according to laws and principles. "I don't believe in chance because I am a Christian; I believe in Providence and I think that all that happens is foreseen. Certainly the freedom of events is respected but, for God who sees everything simultaneously, there is no chance."

On several of his scores he inscribed expressions of his faith and scriptural passages, including the following on the score to Le tombeau: "I sing the gift of the divine essence, the body of Jesus Christ, his body and blood."

His comment: "I am a composer because I love music, and a Christian because I believe," could easily be said to be his personal credo as an artist and as a man.



  • Le banquet céleste, organ (1926[4] or 1928)
  • Préludes, piano (1928–29)
  • Dyptique, organ (1930)
  • La mort du nombre ("Number's Death"), soprano, tenor, violin and piano (1930)
  • Les offrandes oubliées ("The Forgotten Offerings"), orchestra (1930)
  • Trois mélodies, song cycle (1930)
  • Apparition de l'église éternelle ("Apparition of the Eternal Church"), organ (1932)
  • Fantaisie burlesque, piano (1932)
  • Hymne au Saint Sacrament ("Hymn to the Holy Sacrament"), orchestra (1932, reconstructed 194?)
  • Thème et variations, violin and piano (1932)
  • L'Ascension ("The Ascension"), orchestra (1932–33; organ version including replacement movement, 1933–34)
  • La Nativité du Seigneur ("The Lord's Nativity"), organ (1935)
  • Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas, piano (1935)
  • Vocalise, voice and piano (1935)
  • Poèmes pour Mi, song cycle (1936, orchestral version 1937)
  • O sacrum convivium!, choral motet (1937)
  • Chants de terre et de ciel ("Songs of Earth and Sky"), song cycle (1938)
  • Les corps glorieux ("Glorious Bodies"), organ (1939)
  • Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the end of time"), violin, cello, clarinet, piano (1940–41)
  • Rondeau, piano (1943)
  • Visions de l'Amen ("Visions of the Amen"), two pianos (1943)
  • Trois Petites liturgies de la Présence Divine ("Three small liturgies of the Divine Presence"), women's voices, piano solo, ondes Martenot solo, orchestra (1943–44)
  • Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus ("Twenty Gazes on the Christ-child"), piano (1944)
  • Harawi, song cycle (1944)
  • Turangalîla-Symphonie, piano solo, ondes Martenot solo, orchestra (1946–48)
  • Cinq réchants, 12 singers (1948)
  • Cantéyodjayâ, piano (1949)
  • Messe de la Pentecôte ("Pentecost Mass"), organ (1949–50)
  • Quatre études de rythme ("Four Studies in Rhythm"), piano (1949–50)
    1. Île de feu 1
    2. Mode de valeurs et d'intensités
    3. Neumes rhythmique
    4. Île de feu 2
  • Le merle noir ("Blackbird"), flute and piano (1949–50)
  • Livre d'orgue, organ (1951)
  • Réveil des oiseaux ("Dawn Chorus"), solo piano and orchestra (1953)
  • Oiseaux exotiques ("Exotic Birds"), solo piano and orchestra (1955–56)
  • Catalogue d'oiseaux ("Bird Catalogue"), piano (1956–58)
    • Book 1
      • i Le chocard des alpes ("Alpine Chough")
      • ii Le loriot ("Golden Oriole")
      • iii Le merle bleu ("Blue Rock Thrush")
    • Book 2
      • iv Le traquet stapazin ("Black-eared Wheatear")
    • Book 3
      • v La chouette hulotte ("Tawny Owl")
      • vi L'alouette lulu ("Woodlark")
    • Book 4
      • vii La rousserolle effarvatte ("Reed Warbler")
    • Book 5
      • viii L'alouette calandrelle ("Short-toed Lark")
      • ix La bouscarle ("Cetti's Warbler")
    • Book 6
      • x Le merle de roche ("Rock Thrush")
    • Book 7
      • xi La buse variable ("Common Buzzard")
      • xii Le traquet rieur ("Black Wheatear")
      • xiii Le courlis cendré ("Curlew")
  • Chronochromie ("Time-colour"), orchestra (1959–60)
  • Verset pour la fête de la dédicace, organ (1960)
  • Sept haïkaï ("Seven Haikus"), solo piano and orchestra (1962)
  • Couleurs de la cité céleste ("Colors of the Celestial City"), solo piano and ensemble (1963)
  • Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum ("And We Look for the Resurrection of the Dead"), wind, brass, and percussion (1964)
  • La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ ("The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ"), large 10-part chorus, piano solo, cello solo, flute solo, clarinet solo, xylorimba solo, vibraphone solo, large orchestra (1965–69)
  • Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité ("Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity"), organ (1969)
  • La fauvette des jardins ("Garden Warbler"), piano (1970)
  • Des Canyons aux étoiles… ("From the Canyons to the Stars…"), solo piano, solo horn, solo glockenspiel, solo xylorimba, small orchestra with 13 string players (1971–74)
  • Saint-François d'Assise (St. Francis of Assisi), opera (1975–1983)
  • Livre du Saint Sacrament ("Book of the Holy Sacrament"), organ (1984)
  • Petites esquisses d'oiseaux ("Small Sketches of Birds"), piano (1985)
  • Un vitrail et des oiseaux ("Stained-glass Window and Birds"), piano solo, brass, wind and percussion (1986)
  • La ville d'En-haut ("The City on High"), piano solo, brass, wind and percussion (1987)
  • Un sourire ("A Smile"), orchestra (1989)
  • Concert à quatre ("Quadruple Concerto"), piano, flute, oboe, cello and orchestra (1990–91, completed Loriod and Benjamin)
  • Pièce pour piano et quatuor à cordes ("Piece for Piano and String Quartet") (1991)
  • Eclairs sur l'au-delà ("Illuminations of the Beyond"), orchestra (1988–92)

A number of works exist that were not published in Messiaen's lifetime, including the following, some of which have been published posthumously:

  • La dame de Shallott, for piano (1917)
  • La banquet eucharistique, for orchestra (1928)
  • Variations écossaises, for organ (1928)
  • "Mass," 8 sopranos and 4 violins (1933)
  • Fêtes des belles eaux, for six ondes Martenots (1937)
  • Musique de scène pour un Oedipe, electronic (1942)
  • Chant des déportés, chorus and orchestra (1946)
  • Timbres-durées, musique concrète (1952), realized by Pierre Henry in the radiophonic workshop of Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française/French radio, an experiment which Messiaen later deemed a failure (Messiaen and Samuel 1994, 198)


  • Technique de mon language musical ("The Technique of My Musical Language"), Leduc, Paris, 1944.
  • Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie (1949–1992) ("Treatise of Rhythm, Colour, and Ornithology"), completed Loriod, Leduc, Paris, 1994–2002; 7 parts bound in 8 volumes.


  1. Quoted from the program for La Jeune France's opening concert in Griffiths 1985, p. 72.
  2. Program for Opéra de la Bastille production of St. François d'Assise, p. 18
  3. George Benjamin, speaking in an interview with Tommy Pearson, broadcast on BBC4 in the interval of the Prom concert in 2004 at which Benjamin conducted a performance of "Des canyons aux étoiles…." Asked what made Messiaen so influential, he said, "I think the sheer—the word he loved—colour has been so influential. People, composers, have found that colour, rather than being a decorative element, could be a structural, a fundamental element. And not colour just in a surface way, not just in the way you orchestrate it—no—the fundamental material of the music itself. More than that I can't say except that for my own small world he was incredibly important, and an exceptionally special and indeed wonderful person. I met him when I was very young (I was 16) and stayed closely in touch with him until he died in 1992, and was immensely fond of him…."
  4. Olivier Messiaen, notes for recording on Erato ECD75503

References and further reading

  • Bruhn, Siglind. 1997. Images and Ideas in Modern French Piano Music: The extra-musical subtext in piano works by Ravel, Debussy, and Messiaen. Stuyvesant, N.Y.: Pendragon Press. ISBN 0945193955
  • Goléa, A. 1960. Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen. Paris: Julliard.
  • Griffiths, Paul. 1985. Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0801418135
  • Hill, Peter (ed.). 1995. The Messiaen Companion. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-17033-1
  • Hill, Peter and Nigel Simeone. 2005. Messiaen. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10907-5
  • Kavanaugh, Patrick. 1992. Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. ISBN 0-310-20806-8
  • Messiaen, Olivier and Claude Samuel (tr. E. Thomas Glasgow). 1994. Conversations with Claude Samuel. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0-931340-67-5
  • Reverdy, Michèle. 1988. L'Œvre pour orchestre d'Olivier Messiaen. Editions musicales. Paris: A. Leduc. ISBN 2856890385
  • Rischin, Rebecca. 2003. For the End of Time: The story of the Messiaen quartet. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801441366

External links

All links retrieved November 17, 2022.


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