When Olivier Messiaen died in April 1992, the musical world mourned the loss not only of one of the most distinctive and influential composers this century, but of an artist who, in contrast to many contemporaries, raised his sights above the difficulties of human existence, choosing instead to convey the mysteries of his religious faith. The elder son of literary parents, Messiaen was born in Avignon in 1908, grew up in Grenoble, but inhabited a world of fairy tales. From the age of seven he taught himself piano, devouring advanced repertoire and singing through entire operas by Gluck, Mozart and Wagner.
At the age of ten, the bombshell of Debussy’s Pelléas was added to the list. A year later Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire where his teachers included Paul Dukas and Marcel Dupré. The latter had suggested using unorthodox musical scales and so Messiaen discovered a set of highly personal modes. Along with a radical approach to time and rhythm, these modes formed the rich building blocks of Messiaen’s musical language from his earliest published piece, the organ work Le banquet céleste, to the engaging visions of his last completed work, Éclairs sur l’au-delà…
Messiaen claimed to have been born a believer, but it was his improvisational skill that led him to the organ. In 1931, he accepted a post at the church of La Sainte Trinité, a position he would hold for six decades. In 1932, he married the violinist Claire Delbos and over the next seven years Messiaen carved a career as an organist-composer. Four devotional works dominate the latter part of the decade, La nativité du Seigneur (1935) and Les corps glorieux (1939) for organ and the song cycles Poèmes pour Mi (1936/7) and Chants de terre et de ciel (1938).
Messiaen was called up in WWII and, due to his pacifism and poor eyesight, he became a medical auxiliary. Captured by the invading German army, he was transported to Stalag VIIIA in Silesia. The privations of the prison-camp provided the catalyst for a work of extraordinary faith in the face of these most desolate circumstances, Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The premiere took place in freezing January temperatures before thousands of fellow prisoners. As the composer recalled, ‘Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding.’
On repatriation in 1941 Messiaen was appointed professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire. Attending the earliest classes were Pierre Boulez and a talented young pianist named Yvonne Loriod. The skills of the latter, who would become the composer’s second wife (following Claire Delbos’s death in 1959) had a galvanising influence and were to remain Messiaen’s primary inspiration for the rest of his life. Alongside his teaching, there was now a major outpouring of joyous, piano-based religious works – Visions de l’amen (two pianos, 1943), Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (piano, 1944) and Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (piano, ondes martenot, women’s chorus and small orchestra, 1944).
Shortly after the war, conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned a symphony from Messiaen. The remit was to ‘choose as many instruments as you desire, write a work as long as you wish and in the style you want’. Sandwiched between the song cycle Harawi (1945) and Cinq rechants (1948) for a cappella voices, the symphony was to form the large central panel of a triptych of works inspired by the Tristan myth. Just as few symphonies have a substantial part for piano soloist, or a gamelan-inspired percussion section, never mind an ondes martenot, none have the ten movements which comprised the Turangalîla.
After the modal Turangalîla, Messiaen stripped his music of its more opulent components and concentrated instead on what Boulez has described as the ‘more anarchic intervals’. The piano works Cantéyodjayâ and Mode de valeurs et d’intensités (1949) showed the younger generation the path to serialism. But, as a composer who had faith in the ability of music to portray, abstract experiments inevitably proved to be a cul de sac. Messiaen needed to find his own way to progress in the revolutionary climate of the ’50s. He turned to ‘the oldest musicians on the planet’, the birds.
Stylised birdsong passages had appeared in his music from the mid-1930s onwards, but now he began to use the birds as more than filigree decorating the principal musical line. Initially, in Réveil des oiseaux (1953) and Oiseaux exotiques (1955-6), he concentrated just on the birds, but with Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-8), he stretched the piano to its limits to provide his feathered protagonists with a backdrop of sunsets, mountains, fog, crickets, and even the scent in the air. The next orchestral work, Chronochromie, saw birdsong as just one element among many, including rocks, streams and colours.
Messiaen argued that all of his works were in praise of God, but the only pieces written after the premiere of Trois petites liturgies which are explicitly religious were for organ. The ’60s saw Messiaen return to devotional composition with a vengeance. His music had changed in the 1950s and now La transfiguration de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ brought together the divergent styles found in his music before and after 1949 in an omnifarious whole.
The next 15 years produced a further five works, ranging from large scale to gargantuan. There are two organ works, Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969) and the 18-movement Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984), a nature portrait for piano, La fauvette des jardins (1970) intended as a pendant to Catalogue d’oiseaux, and a celebration of God through the natural phenomena of America, Des canyons aux étoiles. Towering above all of these is the vast opera, Saint François d’Assise. Yet the most striking characteristic of his final work, Éclairs sur l’au-délà… is restraint. The greatest purveyor of musical overstatement since Wagner had become in his final years a master of delectable understatement.