Music Olivier Messiaen
Nigel Simeone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0057


Olivier Messiaen (b. 1908–d. 1992) was one of the true originals of 20th-century music: a composer whose innovative exploration of sonority, rhythm, and harmony was profoundly influenced by his religious faith and his love of nature. Critics welcomed his new works in the 1930s, such as Les offrandes oubliées for orchestra, La Nativité du Seigneur for organ, and Poèmes pour Mi, a song cycle celebrating love and marriage dedicated to his first wife, Claire Delbos. In 1931 he was also appointed organist of the church of La Trinité, and worked there for six decades. During his captivity as a prisoner-of-war in 1940–1941, Messiaen composed the Quartet for the End of Time, and on his return to France he took up a post teaching harmony at the Paris Conservatoire. One of the students in his first class was Yvonne Loriod, later to become his second wife. Over the next few years he produced Visions de l’Amen for two pianos, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus for solo piano, and Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine for piano, ondes Martenot, percussion, strings, and women’s voices. The commentaries that accompanied these works aroused some critical hostility, and the press became embroiled in “Le cas Messiaen” (“The Messiaen Affair”) in which critics disputed the value of Messiaen’s highly systematized musical language. In 1945 he began work on a trilogy inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde: the song-cycle Harawi, Cinq Rechants for twelve unaccompanied voices, and Turangalîla-Symphonie. At least part of the motivation for turning to the Tristan myth was the declining health of his wife, Claire. After the ten-movement extravaganza of Turangalîla, Messiaen embarked at the end of the 1940s on a period of experimentation, producing the Quatre études de rythme for piano and Messe de la Pentecôte for organ. He had been fascinated by nature since childhood, but his systematic study of birdsong began in the 1950s. After the rather literalistic Réveil des oiseaux for piano and orchestra, two masterpieces followed: Oiseaux exotiques for piano and large ensemble, and Catalogue d’oiseaux for solo piano. The 1960s saw a return to music inspired by Messiaen’s faith: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum for brass, woodwind and percussion, and the oratorio La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ. At the start of the 1970s he composed Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte-Trinité for organ and followed this with Des canyons aux étoiles . . . for piano and chamber orchestra, inspired by the landscapes and birds of Arizona and Utah, finished in 1974. The next nine years were devoted almost entirely to his vast opera Saint François d’Assise, first performed in 1983. Messiaen voiced doubts about his ability to compose anything after this, but produced another major organ work (Livre du Saint Sacrement), a brilliant set of piano miniatures (Petites esquisses d’oiseaux), and his valedictory orchestral work: Éclairs sur l’Au-Delàº.º.º.—a vision of Paradise enhanced by the songs of Australian lyrebirds. Messiaen’s reputation has continued to grow since his death in 1992, and his music still has the capacity to excite controversy and fierce partisanship.

General Overviews

The most detailed biography of Messiaen is Hill and Simeone 2005, and this was followed by Dingle 2007, an attractively written study of the composer’s life. Périer 1979, a study of the life and works remains a very useful introduction to the composer (in French). Griffiths 1985 examines Messiaen’s musical language and it includes interesting biographical information alongside discussion of the works. So, too, does Halbreich 2008, a greatly expanded version of his earlier study of Messiaen’s music. Johnson 2008 is a thorough and sympathetic study of Messiaen’s compositional techniques, while Nichols 1986 provides an eminently readable overview of his musical output. While Schlee and Kämpfer 1998 is—strictly speaking—an exhibition catalogue, it nevertheless contains a wealth of valuable documentary information about the composer not found elsewhere.

  • Dingle, Christopher. The Life of Messiaen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    An up-to-date and readable account of Messiaen’s life, the result of research that is presented in lucid prose. Includes interesting material about Messiaen’s early years and the Occupation, and thoughtful commentary on his late works.

  • Griffiths, Paul. Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time. London: Faber & Faber, 1985.

    A penetrating study of Messiaen’s musical language that was among the first to propose a different interpretation of his works from the composer’s own. Griffiths believes that a crucial element of Messiaen’s originality was the innovative way in which he treated the concept of musical time, and he also takes a sympathetic but more detached view of the religious element of Messiaen’s art.

  • Halbreich, Harry. L’œuvre d’Olivier Messiaen. Paris: Fayard, 2008.

    Written by a Messiaen pupil, the much expanded 2008 edition of Halbreich’s book (originally published in 1980) stands as the most comprehensive study of Messiaen’s musical works to have appeared in French.

  • Hill, Peter, and Nigel Simeone. Messiaen. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2005.

    This biography was the first to draw extensively on Messiaen’s private archives, including diaries, notebooks, and sketches. This detailed account of Messiaen and his works (especially their genesis and reception) is extensively illustrated with photographs and documents, many published for the first time. For the 2008 French edition (Olivier Messiaen, trans. Lucie Kayas, Paris: Fayard), the authors added a new chapter on Messiaen’s “pensée musicale” and a catalogue of works.

  • Johnson, Robert Sherlaw. Messiaen. New exp. ed. with additions by Caroline Rae. London: Ominibus Press, 2008.

    A study of Messiaen’s language and technique first published in 1975 that is particularly useful for its detailed examination of Messiaen’s use of modes and his approach to rhythm, along with discussion of Christian symbolism. The 2008 edition includes discussion of Messiaen’s final works by Caroline Rae.

  • Nichols, Roger. Messiaen, 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    A commentary on Messiaen’s works up to Saint François d’Assise, including perceptive and pithy discussion of the development of his musical language.

  • Périer, Alain. Messiaen. Paris: Seuil, 1979.

    A concise and well-written life and works, by one of Messiaen’s former pupils. It includes some useful biographical details, especially about Messiaen’s early years.

  • Schlee, Thomas Daniel, and Dietrich Kämpfer, eds. Olivier Messiaen: La Cité céleste—Das himmlische Jerusalem. Über Leben und Werk des französischen Komponisten. Cologne: Wienand Verlag, 1998.

    A magnificently illustrated catalogue devoted to Messiaen materials many of which had never been seen before, with detailed descriptions by Thomas Daniel Schlee. The first part of the book includes essays by Pierre Boulez, Elmar Budde, Chong-Hui Choe-Thomas, Père Jean-Rodolphe Kars, Brigitte Massin, Nguyen Thien Dao, Claude Samuel, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Iannis Xenakis. In German.

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