Pious genius who put the devil in music


October 27, 2006

Olivier Messiaen was a romantic who combined in his music originality, sensuality, technical organisation to an extraordinary degree and devotional piety. A US critic remarked how many of his works ended with "an apotheosis to open up the heavens and bring down the house". Genius is not too high praise for one of the half-dozen or so seminal composers of the 20th century.

The authors of this exemplary biography both teach at Sheffield University. Nigel Simeone is professor of musicology and Peter Hill is professor of music as well as a pianist who has specialised in and recorded the music of Messiaen. Hill has also taken many of the photographs that feature in this lavishly produced volume of well over 400 pages. Messiaen's life and music are explored in an easily flowing style, the music analysed as the life proceeds. The authors are clearly devotees of their subject, but they also give opposing views and background details. The price is not high for such an authoritative biography, one not likely to be surpassed for years to come. Notes and indexes are all satisfactory, and there is even a list of some 30 works planned but not executed.

Messiaen was born in 1908 in Avignon, and brought up there, and in Grenoble and Nantes. His father was a translator of Shakespeare into French and his mother, Cecile Sauvage, a poet. At the age of seven, he acquired a score of Gluck's Orfeo and was entranced by it, as he was later by Wagner's Tristan and Isolde , and later still by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring , works that he cherished all his life. At a precocious age he taught himself to play the piano and the organ.

He entered the composing world like a fully armed Minerva. While still only 20 and a student at the Paris Conservatoire (under Charles-Marie Widor and Paul Dukas), he wrote an organ piece called Le Banquet Céleste that is only 25 bars long but directed to be played so slowly that it takes nearly a quarter of an hour. The title refers to the Eucharist, the first of a hundred or more works or movements that have religious titles (three of the most famous are Three Short Liturgies of the Divine Presence , Twenty Aspects of the Infant Jesus and I Await the Resurrection of the Dead ).

The very first chord of Le Banquet takes the listener into Messiaen's special world of incense, sensuality and magic. How does he do it? To be technical, that chord contains the musical interval of the augmented fourth (on the piano C and up four whole tones to F sharp); that interval is called diabolus in musica (the devil in music) and was not permitted in respectable music until taken up by the likes of Debussy and Scriabin. Also heard in this early work is the chord of the added sixth, a gloss on the common chord (C E G with A added on top) often used in jazz and popular music. Both devices are not conducive to development in the classical sense; both tend to hinder the flow. But Messiaen does not proceed in a classical way: his method is to advance by means of juxtaposition and repetition, as opposed to classical sonata form with its structure of exposition, development and recapitulation.

By the time of the Second World War, Messiaen was famous, revered by many and reviled by some as a unique new voice, as important as the other giants of his century. Since he must have been the least soldierly man in the French Army, it was probably just as well that he soon became a prisoner-of-war. His German captors recognised his quality and let him have the wherewithal to compose his only chamber music work, the Quartet for the End of Time , duly given its premiere in Stalag VIII A at Görlitz, East Germany, using a clarinet with defective keys, a piano with notes that stuck and a none-too-healthy violin and cello. On his early release, he returned to Paris to be a professor at the Conservatoire, where his pupils later included the three most famous of avant-garde composers, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. He continued to compose, of course, and to be organist at the Trinité Church, where he was renowned for his improvisations, in both classical and contemporary style.

In 1952, Messiaen married a violinist-composer, Claire Delbos, and they had a son. She began to suffer from mental troubles, became an invalid and died in 1959. Two years later, he married Yvonne Loriod, his pupil, 16 years his junior. She was, and is, a pianist of extraordinary gifts, capable of playing and memorising anything her husband put before her. His relationship with her inspired him to compose a trio of works showing a sensuality even greater than he had shown in his religious oriented works, including the vast Turangalila symphony (described by Simon Rattle as "a giant Mars bar of a piece").

Messiaen's love for birdsong increased with the years. Any time he could spare from composing, performing, teaching, playing the organ and attending as many performances of his works all over the world, he spent transcribing birdsong, supported by his clipboard, a tape recorder and the faithful Yvonne at the wheel of their car. The notes on birdsong were recorded in 200 volumes, and the songs of hundreds of birds were transcribed, later to form the basis of compositions, mostly quite long piano pieces, not 100 per cent literally, as I found out when I compared birds and Messiaen side by side or, rather, tape by tape.

Messiaen died of cancer in 1992, having worked until the end. His later works continued to be vast. There is Saint François , an opera with little stage action that takes four hours; there are works for piano, organ, chorus and orchestra in various combinations. Perhaps latterly there was too much repetition of notes and form, even a suspicion of composing on auto-pilot. Of course, the sincerity was never in question, nor the expertise. However, the music of his high noon continues to move the mind and the heart; the spirit of Messiaen shines like the brightest of constellations in our dark creative age.

John Amis, a broadcaster and writer, has recently published My Life in Music in London , 1945-2000.


Author - Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 435
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 300 10907 5

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