top of page

OLIVIER-EUGENE-PROSPER-CHARLES MESSIAEN (b. Dec. 10, 1908, Avignon, France.d. April 27, 1992, Clichy, near Paris), Olivier Messiaen was the son of Pierre Messiaen, a scholar of English literature, and of the poet Cecile Sauvage. Soon after his birth the family moved to Ambert (the birthplace of Chabrier) where his brother, Alain was born in 1913. Around the time of the outbreak of World War 1, Cecile Sauvage took her two sons to live with her brother in Grenoble where Olivier Messiaen spent his early childhood, began composing at the age of seven, and taught himself to play the piano. On his return from the war, Pierre Messiaen took the family to Nantes and in 1919 they all moved to Paris where Olivier entered the Conservatoire.


From very early on it was clear that Messiaen would be a composer who would stand alone in the history of music. Coming not from any particular 'school' or style but forming and creating his own totally individual musical voice. He achieved this by creating his own 'modes of limited transposition', taking rhythmic ideas from India (deci tala), ancient Greece and the orient and most importantly adapting the songs of birds from around the world. He was a man of many interests including painting, literature, and the orient where he took in not only the musical culture but theatre, literature and even the cuisine of foreign countries!

The single most important driving force in his musical creations was his devout Catholic faith.

My first encounter with the music of Olivier Messiaen was as an impressionable fourteen year old who had just discovered Bach through Jacques Loussier and was listening somewhat idly to a BBC Radio 3 organ recital which concluded with this amazing sound world that was completely new to me and at the same time overwhelming. The piece I was experiencing was Dieu Parmi Nous (God Among Us) from La Nativité du Seigneur.

Pierre Messiaen, Cecile Sauvage and Olivier Messiaen


This is what Messiaen had to say regarding his relationship with colours and synaesthesia


" When I was 20 years old I met a Swiss painter who became a good friend by the name of Charles Blanc-Gatti, he was synaethesiac which is a disturbance of the optic and auditory nerves so when one hears sounds one also sees corresponding colours in the eye. I unfortunately didn't have this. But intellectually like synaethesiacs I too see colours- if only in my mind - colours corresponding to sound. I try to incorporate this in my work, to pass on to the listener. It's all very mobile. You've got to feel sound moving. Sounds are high, low, fast, slow etc. My colours do the same thing, they move in the same way. Like rainbows shifting from one hue to the next. It's very fleeting and impossible to fix in any absolute way.
It's true I see colours, it's true they're there. They're musician’s colours, not to be confused with painter's colours. They're colours that go with music. If you tried to reproduce these colours on canvas it may produce something horrible. They're not made for that, they're musicians colours. What I'm saying is strange but it's true.
I believe in natural resonance, as I believe in all natural phenomena. Natural resonance is in exact agreement with the phenomena of complimentary colours. I have a red carpet that I often look at. Where this carpet meets the lighter coloured parquet next to it, I intermittently see marvelous greens that a painter couldn't mix - natural colours created in the eye"

Messiaen's particular condition was chromesthesia, a type of synesthesia in which sound involuntarily evokes an experience of colour, shape and movement.


He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eleven and stayed until his early twenties learning his 'craft' from eminent teachers including Georges Falkenberg, piano, Jean Gallon, harmony, Noël Gallon counterpoint and fugue, professor Baggers, timpani & percussion, Paul Dukas composition & orchestration, Maurice Emmanuel history of music and Marcel Dupré organ and improvisation, of which Messiaen excelled, becoming organist of La Sainte Trinité in Paris when he was 22 and remained there until his death. It's sometimes easy to forget that Messiaens' contribution to the organ repertoire is probably the greatest since Bach. The term 'craft' is purposeful here as Messiaen developed into a true craftsman in every respect with immensely detailed scores including string bowing, woodwind articulations, fingerings for keyboards and even sticking for percussion. 

Since the age of eighteen Messiaen had been collecting the songs of thousands of birds throughout France and the world. Early works showed an inkling of birdsong influence but after the war in the late 40s and 50s he began notating their songs in great detail and this became a vital musical source for him. An important event in 1952 was his meeting with ornithologist and author Jacques Delamain of which Messiaen declared: 'It was Delamain who taught me to recognise a bird from its song, without having to see its plumage or the shape of its beak.'

Messiaen would begin by selecting a bird, say a warbler where he would notate hundreds of different warblers and then creates a composite of the best elements of all the warblers notated thus ending up with an 'ideal' warbler. The song is usually combined with the birds habitat, surroundings and time of day. 'It's the process of transformation' that Messiaen enjoys and relates this to the paintings of Monet who is not interested in putting say a water lily directly on the water of a picture but representing one variation of the light on the water lilies. His researches were so intense that he became an authoritative ornithologist able to recognize almost any bird that he heard. Several works have been devoted entirely to birdsong namely Catalogue d'Oiseaux, Réveil des oiseaux, Oiseaux Exotique, Le merle noir, Petites esquisses d'oiseaux and almost all other works include substantial references to the songs of birds.

At the age of 19 the young Messiaen witnessed the death from consumption of his beloved mother. He moved to his paternal aunts in the countryside of the Aube region of France where, in Yvonne Loriod's words, 'the aunts took their nephew in to revive his taste for life and restore his health with good country air whilst he continued to compose'.

OM and Claire Delbos 1939-200x.jpg
OM and Claire Delbos 1936-200x.jpg

Messiaen married his first wife Claire Delbos in June 1932. The daughter of a Sorbonne professor, she was a member of La Spirale, a prominent new music society, an accomplished violinist and composer (works include Primevere 5 Songs for soprano and piano, Deux Pièces for Organ 1935, Parce, Domine {Pardonnez,Seigneur, à votre peuple...} pour le temps du Carême for organ and Marie, toute-puissance suppliante for 4 Ondes Martenots) she sadly became physically and mentally ill and entered a psychiatric hospital (where she eventually died in 1959) leaving Messiaen a single parent bringing up their only son Pascal (born in 1937 a teacher of Russian, died 31st January 2020) throughout the late 30s and 40s. Messiaen and Claire Delbos gave many recitals in and around Paris during the early 1930s featuring the Romantic repetoire for violin and piano and in 1932 he composed Theme and Variations for her and they premiered the piece at a concert held by the Société Nationale. A second work for violin and piano recently came to light entitled Fantaisie composed in 1933. His song cycle Poemes pour Mi is also dedicated to Claire Delbos, Mi being a 'pet' name for her. Both music and words were written by Messiaen and celebrates the joy and sanctity of marriage. Messiaen was to continue to write the texts for most of his choral and vocal works including the Trois Petite liturgies de la Presence Divine which caused some negative if not hostile reactions from many critics at the first performance. He believes that this reaction was due to the fact that the work is full of passion but with a deep religious foundation and this took the critics by surprise and much of the criticisms were not directed at the music. In 1936, with the composers Andre Jolivet, Daniel Lesur, and Yves Baudrier, he founded the group La Jeune France ("Young France") to promote new French music. From 1934 to 1939 he taught piano sight reading at the École Normale de Musique and an organ improvisation course at the Schola Cantorum.


Undoubtedly it has been Messiaens' devout Christian faith and Catholicism that has driven his compositional output through the years and there was no greater test of his faith than in June 1940 when he was captured by the Nazis and interned in prisoner of war camp Stalag 8A, Gorlitz, Poland. He recalls that at the time he and everybody in the camp were freezing, starving and miserable. The starvation was such that it heightened his 'coloured' dreams and this coupled with the experience of seeing the 'aurora borealis', coloured waves of clouds, led him to compose what is probably his most performed work: Quatour pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the end of Time). He befriended a German officer Carl-Albert Brüll who smuggled him manuscript paper, pencil and eraser which enabled him to retreat to the priests block after morning duties and compose. The instrumentation was governed by the musician friends that were with Messiaen in the camp. These were; violinist Jean Le Boulaire, cellist Etienne Pasquier, clarinetist Henri Akoka and with himself on a rather dilapidated piano premiered the work on January 15th 1941 in front of fellow prisoners who although maybe never understood the new harmonies etc. it took them away from the routine mundane life in the camp. He says that his music 'is not "nice" - it is certain. I am convinced that joy exists, convinced that the invisible exists more than the visible, joy is beyond sorrow, beauty is beyond horror'. 

Golden Oriole2a.jpg

Golden Oriole (Loriot) © Malcolm Raines and Chris Knights

He returned from captivity in March 1941 and became a teacher and lecturer at the Paris Conservatoire giving his first class on 7th May the same year. He held classes in analysis, theory, aesthetics and rhythm but it wasn't until 1966 that he was officially appointed Professor of Composition (although he had in effect been teaching composition for years). Many famous 'names' passed through these classes including Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Alexander Goehr and later George Benjamin who Messiaen had a particular fondness and admiration of. Perhaps the one thing that rubbed off on all these composers is Messiaens' avoidance of regular metre citing it as artificial relating to marches and more popular music. Messiaen supports his argument by pointing out that in nature things are not even or regular. For example the branches of a tree and the waves of the sea are not even patterns. However, what is true is 'natural resonance', and this true phenomenon is what his music is based on.
















This period produced a great outpouring of music including the Trois Petite liturgies de la Presence Divine, the song cycle Harawi, Chant des deportes for choir and orchestra, Turangalila Symphonie, the mammoth piano cycles Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus and Visions de l'Amen for two pianos. These last two works and many more to follow were dedicated to Yvonne Loriod a young and highly gifted pupil who turned up in Messiaens' first class held at the Conservatoire in 1941. She says of that first encounter that 'all the students waited eagerly for this new teacher to arrive and finally he appeared with music case and badly swollen fingers, a result of his stay in the prisoner of war camp. He proceeded to the piano and produced the full score of Debussys' Prelude á l'apres-Midi d'un Faune and began to play all the parts. The whole class was captivated and stunned and everyone immediately fell in love with him'.

Messiaen never imparted his own compositional techniques in his classes but rather steered students along their own paths.

Messiaen has not always been in the favour of the musical establishment not least by the BBC who broadcast next to nothing on the then Third programme (later Radio 3) right up until the sixties by which time the composer was in his 60s. It was Felix Aprahamian who brought Messiaen to London in the late 30s to play La Nativite and has been a champion and formidable writer on Messiaen ever since. 

In the forties and fifties Messiaen was shunned on the one hand by the new 'avant-garde' as too sweet and sentimental and on the other hand by the more conventional musical public as too austere and discordant. Boulez in particular could not come to terms with and reacted against works like Turangalila with it's rich mix of tonal and atonal language saying that he prefers the ones that remain true to one style or the other. However, one gem of a composition was to turn 20th century music on its head. This was 'Mode de valeurs et d'intensites' part of four studies in rhythm for piano. It took Schoenberg's theory of serializing pitches a whole leap forward whereby Messiaen effectively serialized all musical parameters i.e. pitches, durations, dynamics and articulations. Thus each note has a character and identity all of its own which is maintained throughout the piece. For example, middle C will always appear as a dotted minim value, forte dynamic and have a tenuto articulation mark. Although this paved the way for the young generation of composers such as Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono etc. to explore previously uncharted territory, Messiaen himself never pursued the idea beyond that study but continued to turn to nature and his faith as the inspiration and starting points for his music continuing to use his own modes, complex rhythmic ideas and the songs of birds. Having said that, there are occasions when for instance he wanted to describe the horror and blackness of the night in the opening of "The Tawny Owl' from Catalogue d'Oiseaux where he uses a 'Mode de valeurs et d'intensites' in a poetical sense to portray this. Indeed it must be said that Messiaen did more to advance rhythmic forms and ideas than any other composer of the 20th century.


From the original programme of the first performance of Turangalîla Symphonie by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949


Christiane Eda-Pierre in the role of the Angel: Saint Francois d'Assise

Photo: Jacques Moetti

In 1975 Messiaen embarked on his most ambitious project of his life, the opera Saint François d'Assise, a work that would occupy him for the following eight years. Saint François represents his life work combining all his compositional techniques gathered over fifty or so years. Scored for 22 woodwinds. 16 brass, 68 strings, 3 ondes Martenot and 5 keyboard percussions playing xylophone, xylorimba, marimba, glockenspiel & vibraphone. There are 6 percussionists playing tubular bells, claves, wind machine, snare drum, triangles,temple blocks, wood blocks, cymbals of various kinds, whip, maracas, reco-reco, glass chimes, shell chimes, wood chimes, tambourine, tôle (thunder sheet), gongs, tam tam, crotales tom toms and geophone (sand machine) together with 7 main solo characters and a choir of 150 it is certainly the largest forces Messiaen considered.Among the best essays on this work are Paul Griffiths' account in The Messiaen Companion and Messiaens' own comments in an interview with him.

Soon after Messiaen's death I happened to be visiting Paris and felt the need to pay my respects at La Sainte Trinité, the church where Messiaen conceived so many of his great organ works. I was lucky enough to meet Father Yves de Boisrehen who for many years read the lessons etc. and said how he would be amazed when his words would suddenly 'come to life' for the congregation through the improvisations of Messiaen responding at the organ.
Some would say 'an impossible act to follow' but in 1993 Naji Hakim entered that revered organ loft at la Trinité as successor to Messiaen. An accomplished composer and improviser, Naji Hakim was the one person Messiaen felt comfortable in the knowledge that the great French tradition of organist - composer and improviser would continue at la Trinité. Naji Hakim's reign came to an end in 2008 the centenary of Messiaen's birth. 


Thanks to today's mass audio market you won't have to scratch around as I did, finding recordings of the greatest French composer since Debussy.
Fragments of Messiaen's music have found their way into several feature films including: Ken Russell's Dante's Inferno (Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum), the BBC documentary The Ascent of Man (also Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum), Oren Moverman's The Dinner (Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu's The Revenant (Oraison-L'eau from Fêtes des Belles Eaux).

Messiaen received many honours and prizes globally including:

1959 Nomination as an Officier of the Légion d'honneur
1967 Member of the Institut de France
1969 Calouste Gulbenkian Prize
1971 Erasmus Award
1975 Ernest von Siemens Award
1975 Associate Member of the Royal Academy of Science, Literature and Art of Belgium
1975 Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society
1978 The White Cliffs in Utah were renamed Mount Messiaen
1980 Presentation of the Croix de Commander of the Belgian Order of the Crown
1983 Wolf Foundation of the Arts Prize (Jerusalem)
1985 Inamori Foundation Prize (Kyoto)
1987 He was promoted to the highest rank, Grand-Croix, of the Légion d'honneur 
1989 Primio Internazionale Paolo VI 1988

bottom of page