Olivier Messiaen

Avignon, Vaucluse, France, 1908 — Paris, France, 1992

  • Composer

Olivier Messiaen was born in 1908 in Avignon, France. At the age of 11, he entered the Paris Conservatory where his piano teachers included Marcel Dupré, Maurice Emmanuel, and Paul Dukas. In the course of his studies, Messiaen was awarded five premier prix: in counterpoint and fugue, piano accompaniment, organ and improvisation, music history, and composition. In 1931, he was appointed organist at the Eglise de la Trinité and held this position until the end of his life. It is in this capacity that Messiaen wrote a number of important compositions for the organ. Taken as a prisoner-of-war in Silesia in 1940, Messiaen composed the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) while in captivity. On his release, he was appointed to the Paris conservatory where he taught harmony and analysis, and eventually, composition. His students included Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Iannis Xenakis.

Messiaen’s music, which at first alarmed and shocked his audiences, has wielded an influential and idiosyncratic influence on the twentieth century. Intensely personal, his art embodies a deep connection to the Catholic faith, the celebration of human love, and his love of nature. Messiaen’s compositional language includes rich and chromatic harmony, derived from Debussy’s use of 7ths and 9ths and modal progressions. He employed the ondes Martenot in the grand symphony Turangalîla, along with exotic percussion instruments, producing an oriental effect. His organ works make special use of acoustic reverberations and contrasting timbres producing a unique range of colour and intensity. In 1966, the same year that Messiean was promoted to professor of composition at the Paris conservatory, he was elected a member of the Institut de France. In 1971, he received the Erasmus Prize and in 1978 retired from the Conservatoire. He died in Paris in 1992.