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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908–1992)

Messiaen is the composer of a work voted by television viewers to be the "Piece of the Century". The work concerned is the "Quartet for the End of Time", created whilst Messiaen was interned in a Nazi prison camp and first performed on 15 January 1941 in front of an audience of POWs. The choice of instrumentation reflected the musicians and instruments available amongst his fellow inmates: violin, cello, piano and clarinet. The music is heavily influenced by the composer's profound Catholic faith, and specifically inspired by a passage from the Book of Revelation. Its movements alternate in tempo between urgency and serenity, with an eventual resolution ringing a powerful sense of transcendence.

This same quality of transcendence is very characteristic again in the slightly later and more universalist Turangalila Symphony, composed in 1946-48, which is inspired by Hindu mythology. The word 'Turangalila' is Sanskrit. It is also influenced by another of this composer's recurrent themes: birds and their songs. A further significant factor in his creative work is the visit made by the composer to the USA, bringing extra-European inspirations from the experience of the American landscape. Unlike the intimately scored quartet, the Turangalila Symphony is a monumental work for full orchestra with the addition of solo piano, gamelan and ondes martinot. The piano part was written for the composer's muse and eventual second wife, Yvonne Loriod. The effect of their love also leaves its imprint on the score.

These two works are perhaps the best known and most widely performed of Messiaen's oeuvre. However, he has a very considerable output, spanning chamber forces, orchestra, solo piano, church music and particularly organ works. There’s also an opera on the life of St Francis of Assisi. Messiaen was important as a performer and as a teacher of music as well as a composer. His pupils included Xenakis, Boulez and Stockhausen; he created precedents for the use of non-Western music as source material and developed a whole new sound-world for the organ.

Born in Avignon, France in 1908, he was initially self-taught as a musician and started composing music at the age of seven. After the First World War, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire where he won every available prize for the piano, but also became interested in eastern musical approaches. Appointed during this time as organist at La Trinité in Paris - a post he held for over five decades - he became a very significant contributor to the French organ tradition. His earliest published work - Le Banquet Céleste (1928) - was for this instrument. His weekly improvisations at La Trinité were distilled into two further published works: La Nativité du Seigneur (1936) and Livre du St Sacrement (1984). Both his first and last published compositions were of organ music.

During the years 1936 to 1940 he also held the position of Professor of Music at the Ecole Normale in Paris. Here he involved himself in the development and propagation of a specifically French aesthetic to counter the increasing German cultural influence. In the course of the Second World War, he was conscripted into the army, where he served as a medical auxiliary until his capture and internment. It was during his subsequent imprisonment that he composed of the "Quartet for the End of Time" (q.v.), a work which has come to capture and symbolise the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and which encapsulates the best and the worst of the European 20th century history.

On his return to Paris after the war, he became Professor at the Paris Conservatoire where he had himself studied earlier. In 1944, he composed what is arguably his most significant work for solo piano -- Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus - a sequence of twenty consecutive meditations on the theme of the nativity (on which he had also created an earlier piece for organ - La Nativité du Seigneur (q.v.) - lasting some two hours in total. At the time, the composer had recently met a talented pupil who was to inspire him profoundly on both professional and personal levels: Yvonne Loriod. In the work the influences of his compatriots Debussy and Ravel can be heard clearly, particularly in the slower sections, but so can the eastern influences which were becoming increasingly important in his work. This was followed in 1948 by the Turangalila Symphony (q.v.), after the composer's first visit to the USA.

The experience of travel and of other cultures is one of the strands of inspiration recurring in the composer's oeuvre; he made two journeys to the USA - in the mid-1940s and subsequently in the early 1970s. The first was associated with the creation of the Turangalila Symphony and the second with Des Canyons aux Etoiles - a work for piano and orchestra inspired by the landscapes of Utah. He travelled to Japan - an influence on Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorem - for woodwind and percussion, commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture in 1964 by way of commemoration of the world war dead. He visited the Holy Land in the last decade of his life.

During this last journey, Messiaen devoted much of his time to an earlier preoccupation - transcribing the songs of wild birds, which he had done from the 1950s onwards in visits to the French countryside, resulting in the Catalogue des Oiseaux. Although Messiaen is well known for the effect of his profound religious faith upon his musical works, he also expresses human as well as divine love and finds inspiration in the natural world as well as the spiritual one.

The centenary of Messiaen's birth will be in 2008. This is being marked by a major retrospective festival at London's South Bank Centre, under the direction of the pianist Pierre Laurent Aimard, a pupil of Yvonne Loriod, and a celebrated interpreter of his piano works.

Julie Williams

MAJOR WORKS

Le Banquet Celeste (for organ) 1928

La Nativité du Seigneur (for organ)1936

Vingt Regards Sur L'enfant Jésus (for solo piano)1944

Quartet for the End of Time 1941

Turangalila Symphony 1948

Catalogue des Oiseaux 1958

Chronochromie 1960

Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum 1964

La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ

Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (for organ)

Des Canyons aux Etoiles (orchestral sequence) 1974

L'Ascension

St François d'Assise (opera) 1983

Livre de Saint-Sacrement (for organ) 1984

 


 


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