Olivier Messiaen

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

  • Composer

Olivier Messiaen (France, 1908-1992) was, without question, one of the greatest, most original and most influential composers of the twentieth century. The venerable New York critic and composer Virgil Thomson wrote of Messiaen’s music: “What strikes one right off on hearing any of his pieces is the power these have of commanding attention. They do not sound familiar; their textures … are fresh and strong. … And though a certain melodic banality may put one off no less than the pretentious mysticism of his titles may offend, it is not possible to come in contact with any of his major productions without being aware that one is in the presence of a major musical talent. Liking it or not is of no matter.”

The mysticism Thomson refers to is no mere passing fancy. Messiaen was a mystic to the core of his being, and believed that through music he could communicate “lofty sentiments … and in particular, the loftiest of all, the religious sentiments exalted by the theology and truths of our Catholic faith.” Profoundly Catholic since childhood, Messiaen drew strength from a deep and unshakeable faith; nevertheless, he seemed to embrace pagan elements as well. His professed goal was “an iridescent music, one which will delight the auditory senses with delicate, voluptuous pleasures … that lead the listener gently towards that theological rainbow which is the ultimate goal of music.” These concepts have been given expression in such monumental works as the Quartet for the End of Time (1941), the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944) and the five-hour stage extravaganza Saint François d’Assise, premiered in Paris in 1983. Another large-scale composition in this category is the Turangalîla Symphony, a ten-movement work of nearly eighty minutes’ duration.