Home > Olivier Messiaen
Photo: Francois Lochon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Photo: Francois Lochon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images


Eugène Charles Prosper Olivier Messiaen (born on 10 December 1908 in Avignon, died on 27 April 1992 in Clichy..) – French composer, organist, teacher and passionate ornithologist.

Olivier Messiaen was born into a literary orientated family in Avignon. He had a younger brother, Alain. His father Pierre Messiaen was an English professor and worked from 1919 over three decades on a translation of the works of William Shakespeare, a circumstance which influenced the young Olivier decisively. As a teenager, he was reading Shakespeare in the translation of Jean-Baptiste Joseph Émile Montégut. The depiction of human passions as well as the fairytale magical world of Shakespeare, populated by mythical creatures, witches and ghosts, fascinated him.

“I oriented myself towards fairy tales, and Shakespeare is sometimes a super fairytale, and it is mainly this aspect that has influenced me. […] I loved more than anything else Macbeth (because of the witches and the ghost of Banquo) as well as Puck and Ariel.” / Messiaen

As a child, he staged Shakespeare using cellophane and with watercolors he painted on glass glued decors; only audience was his younger brother. His mother, the poetess Cecile Sauvage, had ancestors from the southern French region. A poem to the unborn son, which she wrote during her pregnancy, is characterized by a pantheistic feeling for nature that should be characteristic of the adult Olivier.

“I will say: I have given this flame to those eyes, I have the ambiguous smile of the moon , the lights of the sea, the velvet of the plum taken these two childish stars that open up to the infinite.” / Messiaen

The mothers’ influence for the time when the family lived in Grenoble and his father and grandfather were in the war must to be classified as particularly influential. Messiaen has developed in the next in addition to the musical interests literary abilities.

Nearly all his vocal works based on his own texts. Many of his works are preceded comments in the form of prose poems. Messiaen was well aware the formative influences of his youth. So he took on a record with organ improvisations framing the poems of his mother. In an interview with Claude Samuel he remembered: “The biggest impression I received came by my mother […]; during all this time […]my mother educated me in a climate of poetry and fairy tales, which, -regardless of vocation to musician-, was the origin of all this, what I did later. “


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In 1912 the Messiaen moved to Ambert and in 1914 to Grenoble. Messiaen later emphasized often his intense attachment to this place and especially its magnificent mountains [4] and bought a house in the south of the city. From the age of eight first unusual musical interests are detected.

Messiaen began playing autodidacticly the piano and composing canons by feel in the octave. Soon after, he received his first piano lessons. He became relatively early familiar with the piano works of Ravel (Gaspard de la nuit) and Debussy (Estampes), both were later important for his own compositional development. At Christmas he wished opera scores of Mozart, Gluck, Berlioz and Wagner. Early with the Catholic faith showed up a further guideline of his later thinking and creation. Even as child he bought theological books. The relationship between imagination, music, theater and religion he later described in the following words:

“It is undeniable that I have found in the truths of the Catholic faith this seduction by the miraculous multiplied hundredfold, a thousand times, and it was no longer a theatrical fiction, but something true.” / Messiaen

After the return of the father the family moved for a short time to Nantes. In addition to various, alternating piano teachers especially the harmony lessons with Jehan de Gibon were important, who introduced him to at this time as progressively perceived opera Pelléas et Mélisande of Debussy.

Messiaen later admitted that this had affected him like a lightning revelation and no other have influenced him this way. In the autumn of 1919 his father was called to the Lycée Charlemagne Paris, so that a repeated change of residence was necessary. Here for the young Olivier began the classes at one of the most famous musical training centers of that time, the Conservatoire de Paris.



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