Olivier Messiaen


Olivier Messiaen was a composer of colours. Repeatedly, he emphasised that in his imagination, certain sounds combined with synaesthetic colour sensations. His spirituality was no less significant: his work titles usually refer to Christian sources of inspiration – the texts that accompany his music are of spiritual origin. Messiaen referred to each of his works as an “act of faith”.

Born in Avignon in 1908, Messiaen was one of the central composer figures and composition teachers of the 20th century. In the course of his musical development, he formed a highly individual tonal language independent of the prevailing trends of his time. Its most important characteristics – modal-tonal harmony, an idiosyncratic time structure and the omnipresent religious references – can already be found in his first published work, [Le Banquet céleste] for organ from 1928. At the Conservatoire de Paris, Messiaen studied harmony, counterpoint, piano, percussion, organ, improvisation as well as composition and instrumentation, the latter under Paul Dukas. In 1931, he became organist at the Paris church La Sainte-Trinité, where he was to remain for 55 years. In the same year, Messiaen presented his first orchestral work [Les Offrandes oubliées] to the public – to great success. Together with Yves Baudrier, André Jolivet and Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur, Messiaen founded the group [Jeune France], which, with its striving for more spirituality, turned against the Neoclassicism which prevailed in Paris. He also began teaching at the École Normale de Paris and at the Schola Cantorum until he moved to the Conservatoire after an interruption due to the war. During his many years of teaching, Messiaen left his mark on several generations of composers: in addition to his future wife Yvonne Loriod, he also taught Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Gérard Grisey, György Kurtág and many others.


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