Messiaen

Born: 1908

Died: 1992

Olivier Messiaen

Probably the only classical composer to have a mountain named after him (Mount Messiaen, Utah, 1978), Messiaen is among the most strikingly individual of 20th-century composers.

Probably the only classical composer to have a mountain named after him (Mount Messiaen, Utah, 1978), Messiaen is among the most strikingly individual of 20th-century composers. He entered the Paris Conservatoire aged 11, specialising in organ, improvisation and composition (he studied with Dukas and with the great French organist Marcel Dupré). When he graduated in 1930, he not only became organist at the Trinity Church in Paris – he played there regularly until the end of his life – but also began a distingushed teaching career and co-founded a group called ‘La Jeune France’, which had the express intention of promoting modern French music. 

He joined the French army at the outbreak of the Second World War but was taken prisoner and spent two years in a German prison camp in Görlitz, Silesia. Here he composed his Quatuor pour le fin du temps. Repatriated in 1942, he resumed his post at Holy Trinity and was appointed to the faculty of the Paris Conservatoire. From then, his career as France’s leading living composer developed apace and by the early 1950s he had an international standing and a generation of young composers eager to study with him, including Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis.

Messiaen came from a family of literary intellectuals and his breadth of knowledge and interests coloured all his music: he was an expert ornithologist (his Oiseaux exotiques, Catalogue d’oiseaux and Réveil des oiseaux are just some of the complex works which use birdsong as their inspiration); he studied Greek and Indian verse; above all, he was a religious philosopher who knew all the world religions and was himself a devout Roman Catholic. His religion’s mystic and celebratory elements are at the root of all his music.

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