Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen was one of the most prolific and recognized composers of the 20th century. Born in Avignon, France on 10th December, 1908, Messiaen revolutionized the classical music by bring in some of the most impressive and unusual compositional techniques. His music features a host of distinguished themes, ranging from Catholicism, Exoticism, and nature to his life-long fascination with birds and zoology. His technical capabilities were just as diverse and unconventional, yet able to set outstanding rhythm, harmony and melody as well as incorporating several different musical influences at the same time. An interpretation of interest is the way Messiaen linked musical chords to colors, ending up with some of the most stunning and inspiring musical compositions of the 20th century.

Having taught himself to play the piano, Messiaen still went ahead with formal lessons in his teenage years. His primary interests were the compositions of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and his techniques in classical music stemmed and built up on the foundations laid by them. At the age of 11, Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatory, and met several renowned artists at the time. He became interested with Greek methods of rhythmic progressions after meeting with Maurice Emmanuel, and ensconced on learning the organ afterwards. However, it was not until 1931 that Messiaen made his first official public debut with his orchestral piece Les offrandes oubliées. Having mastered the organ soon enough, he followed his instrumental prowess by composing an interesting piece called Apparition de l’eglise eternelle. After a brief marriage and some experiments with an orchestral band in 1937, Messiaen worked on The Ascension, another organ arrangement that he modified to make it more symbiotic with the classical taste of the time. After the outbreak of World War II, he was enlisted as a medical auxiliary in the French army and after being captured by the Germans, wrote one of his career’s most compositions called Quartet for the End of Time. The title referred specifically to the unusual way that Messiaen arranged his music, and also signified a wider theme concerning the apocalypse.

Following his release from prison, Messiaen produced music with an ever-stronger presence and diversified touch to the compositions. In 1943, he composed Visions of the Amen for a piano set-up, and followed this with a song cycle called Harawi, the latter being affiliated with the legend of Tristan and Isolde. After spending the latter half of the 1940s teaching music and improving his own understanding of classical progressions, Messiaen developed a keen interest in birds, something that was to show clearly in the works that followed. Some of the compositions influenced by his love for birds include the piano piece Catalog of the Birds (1958) and a passage of Chronochromie (1960). Towards the end of the 1960s, Messiaen, with a multiple instrumentalists embarked on a massive project called La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, consisting of fourteen movements and the based on the story of Jesus Christ’s Transfiguration. Towards the end of his life, he quit teaching and focused on the opera he only made, a composition by the name of St. Francis d’Assise (1983).

Olivier Messiaen’s music revolutionized the 20th century interpretation of classical music, and inspired a new wave of composition thus after. The great French composer passed away on April 27th, 1992 in Clichy, France.


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