(1908-1992).  French composer, performer, teacher.

Olivier Messiaen studied at the Paris Conservatoire (1919-30) with Dukas, Dupré and others, and taught there from 1941-78 while also serving as organist of La Trinité in Paris (1931-92). His pupils include many distinguished musicians such as Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis.

Messiaen quickly developed an original and unique style which included innovations in harmony and melody (including the use of his ingenious modes with limited transposition capabilities); rhythm (including utilizing rhythms from ancient Greek and Hindu sources, and developments such as palindromic rhythms and rhythms with added values); color (Messiaen had mild synaesthesia that caused him to see colors when he heard music); and orchestration (including the use of the ondes martenot and many unusual percussion instrument). Messiaen experimented with electronic music (Fête des belles eaux, 1937) and serialism (Quatre études de rythme, 1949), but made no sustained use of either.

His Roman Catholic faith was deep and lasting, and much of his music has an explicitly religious program (L’Ascension, 1933). He believed that all his music was written to glorify God and developed a sophisticated sign system with which to evangelize.

Messiaen was an ardent ornithologist. He incorporated birdsong transcriptions using his own ‘style oiseau’ into much of his music (Catalogue d'oiseaux, 1958). He wrote music in every major genre, making special contributions to the organ repertoire (Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité, 1969), and to the piano repertoire, due largely to the skills of his second wife Yvonne Loriod (Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, 1944). His output includes several large-scale orchestral works (Turangalîla-symphonie, 1948), and an opera, for which he also wrote the libretto (Saint François d'Assise, 1983).


Boston University Messiaen Project website

© Andrew Shenton, 2006
This biography was most recently edited by...
steven - 1 Dec 2010
steven - 1 Dec 2010
iecontent1 - 10 Dec 2009