10 December 1908 - 27 April 1992 (age 83)

Olivier Messiaen was a 20th century French composer, organist, teacher, theologian and ornithologist. 
One of the most influential composers of the 20th century.
His avant-garde music often incorporates transcriptions of birdsong and was influenced by his deep religious convictions.






portrait of Messiaen


Born:Olivier Eugene Prosper Charles, 10 December 1908, Avignon, France.
Father: Pierre Messiaen, English teacher
Mother: Cécile Sauvage, poet
Siblings: brother - Alain Messiaen
Wife 1 married 1934: Claire Delbos (1906-1959) musician
Wife 2 married 1961: Yvonne Loriod (1924 - 2010) musician
Children: son - Pascal Messiaen (born 1937)
Died: 27 April 1992, age 83, Clichy, near Paris, France


Style: Mystical, Impressionist
Output: considerable
Influences: Bartok, Dukas, Debussy, Scriabin, birdsong, music of India, music of Bali, plainchant, medieval music, Roman Catholicism.

- Organ solos 
- Piano solos
- Chamber music
- Orchestral including Turangalîla-symphonie 
- Choral music
- Opera: only 1 - Saint François d'Assise (5 hours long!

Illustration from the Musugia Universalis
-click on image for more info

A Life in Colour - a profile


Age 7: first compositions
Age 10: Heard Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande which convinced him he was to become a composer.
1919: age 11 starts 11 years of study at Paris Conservatoire. Among his teachers is Paul Dukas. He won many prizes including 5 firsts. 
1931: age 23 appointed organist of the church Sainte Trinité, Paris, a position he will fill for the next 40 years.
1933-34: compulsory military service
1936: First performance in USA of his ----------
1939: age 31. France declares war on Germany. Called up for military service.
1940: Captured by Germans and sent to POW camp Stalag 8A where he was to remain for two years. While there he composed his best known work "Quartet for the End of Time" which was first performed for an audience of 5000 of his fellow prisoners and their guards.
1942: Released. Appointed professor at the the Paris Conservatoire where he taught for 37 years. His pupils included Piere Boulez, Stockhausen and his second wife Yvonne Loriod.
1962: Visits Japan for performances and to collect birdsongs. 

1972: American tour.
1978: retires from teaching at Paris Conservatoir

"4° Feuillet Inédit" played on Ondes Martenot 
an early electronic instrument liked by Messiaen

The Man

Interests: He had many interests including literature, theatre, painting and food. He was also interested in other cultures, particularly India and the Far East which had a significant influence on his music. 
Personality: A very private man and a devout Catholic. He was very precise and meticulous. He was well liked by his students. 
Religion: His deep Catholic faith however was very important to him and played a large part in his life and in his music.
Birdsong: His great hobby was the study and collection of birdsongs which he transposed and incorporated into many of his compositions.. He travelled extensively all over the world, to find and record new species.
Synesthesia: He had an unusual condition called synesthesia by which different sounds caused him to see different colours. Other composers who had this condition were Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin and Duke Ellington.

Oiseaux Exotiques - part 1
Played by he Juilliard Orchestra, NY


- "My faith is the grand drama of my life. I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith. 
I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none."

- "No one should be allowed to make music as if he were made of wood. One must reproduce the musical text exactly, but not play like a stone." 

Messiaen on Birds (1)


London's Philharmonia Orchestra's Messiaen website

BBC's Messiaen page


Fan page by Malcolm Ball 

New Statesman article by Rick Jones

French Composers 
Profiles of other French composers here at 52composers.com

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