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Olivier Messiaen

(1908—1992) French composer

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(b Avignon, 1908; d Clichy, Hauts‐de‐Seine, 1992).

Fr. composer, organist, and teacher. In his youth he studied Indian and Greek mus. rhythms, plainchant, and folk mus. He also notated the songs of all French birds, classifying them by region. Several of his works quote and make great use of birdsong. In 1931 he became organist of L'Église de la Trinité, Paris, holding the post for over 40 years. In 1936 he became a teacher at the École Normale de Musique and Schola Cantorum, and founded Jeune France, a group of young musicians, with Jolivet, Daniel Lesur, and Baudrier. He was imprisoned by the Germans for 2 years during the war, but on release, 1942, he was appointed a teacher at Paris Cons. (harmony, then analysis from 1947 and comp. from 1966). His pupils incl. Boulez, Stockhausen, Barraqué, Xenakis, Amy, Sherlaw Johnson, and Goehr. His 2nd wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, exercised great influence on his work.

Messiaen's mus., which is among the most influential and idiosyncratic of the century, was compounded from his deep Catholic faith, his celebration of human love, and his love of nature. He gave a new dimension of colour and intensity to org. mus., making special use of acoustic reverberations and contrasts of timbres. His harmony, rich and chromatic, derived from Debussy's use of 7ths and 9ths and modal progressions of chords. In his orch. works he made use of the ondes Martenot in the vast Turangalîla‐symphonie and of exotic perc. instrs., giving an oriental effect. Birdsong was also a major feature. His treatment of rhythm was novel, involving irregular metres, some of them originating in ancient Gr. procedures. Messiaen also acknowledged the supremacy of melody. Prin. works:


Saint François d'Assise

(lib. by comp., f.p. Paris 1983) (1975–83).


Le Banquet eucharistique


Les Offrandes oubliées


Le tombeau resplendissant


Hymne au Saint Sacrement






Réveil des oiseaux


Oiseaux exotiques




7 Hai‐Kai


Couleurs de la cité céleste


Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum


Des canyons aux Étoiles


Un vitrail et des oiseaux


La ville d'en haut


Éclairs sur l'au‐delà


Un sourire


vocal & choral:

2 Ballades de Villon

, v., pf. (1921);

3 Mélodies

, sop., pf. (1929);

La mort du nombre



, 8 sop., 4 vn. (1933);


, sop., pf. (1935);

Poèmes pour Mi

, sop., pf. (1936), orch. (1937);

O sacrum convivium


Chants de terre et de ciel


3 Petites Liturgies de la présence divine

, women's ch., pf., ondes Martenot, orch. (1944);

Chants des Déportés

, sop., ten., ch., orch. (1945);

Harawi, chant d'amour et de mort

, sop., pf. (1945);

5 Rechants

, 12 unacc. vv. (1948);

La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus‐Christ

, ten., bar., ch., pf., orch. (1965–9).


8 Préludes


Fantaisie burlesque


Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas


Visions de l'Amen

, 2 pf. (1943);



20 Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus




Subjects: Music

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