Today will be a bit of a miscellanea of thoughts about Messiaen that I hope will help to introduce him to you. One book that is proving useful is The Messiaen Companion, issued just a couple of years after he passed away, so the first to be able to give a perspective on Messiaen's whole life and career.
Much of the music of the 20th century is challenging in various ways. All too often it seems to smack of sterile experimentation, or descend into the expression of agony and despair (not too surprising, considering 20th century history), or simply bully the listener. It is very rare indeed to listen to 20th century music with the kind of unalloyed pleasure that we find in the music of Haydn or Mozart. Every time I put on a piece by Haydn I catch myself breaking into a smile! I was surprised to find myself doing the same listening to Messiaen. Peter Hill, in the book I linked above, referred to Messiaen as an optimist and so he seems to be. Despite his bold approach to composition, he possessed many very traditional virtues, which included his firm Catholic faith and his innate curiosity. The shelves of his study contained volumes of Shakespeare (translated by his father Pierre), works of theology, books on birds, and musical scores.
It might seem anomalous that someone whose life was essentially simple, with the lucidity of a medieval craftsman, would also be a hugely influential teacher in the post-World War II musical avant-garde--impervious to dogma in a particularly dogmatic era! At a time when abstraction in music reigned supreme, he believed in music's power to describe and symbolize as a moment's glance at almost any of his scores reveals.
I empathize with Messiaen's fascination with and love of birdsong: in my early youth we moved to a homestead in the Canadian north and I spent many hours wandering in the woods trying to imitate the calls of the birds. It was a kind of ear-training. For Messiaen it was much more, of course, as he regarded birdsong as a kind of music and incorporated symbolic birdsong in a host of compositions, most of all the very large collection of piano pieces I included in my post on Sunday, the Catalogue d'oiseaux.
He also found stained glass inspiring which might offer a clue as to his striking and bold orchestrations which dazzle the listener.
Messiaen was a brilliant analyst, able to sort out the, at the time, esoteric compositions of Stravinsky, Berg and Schoenberg and explain them to a new generation of young composers that included Pierre Boulez. This was a kind of bound or turning point for Messiaen for the sessions of ideological disputation he ultimately found unsatisfying and he turned away from musical abstraction and spent a decade in which he became intensely engaged with birdsong in his composition. The first of these was a piece written as a test piece for flutists at the Conservatoire titled Le merle noir ("The Blackbird") composed in 1952. This gives us a good envoi for today. Here are Kenneth Smith, flute and Matthew Schellhorn, piano: