So, as part of my own self-education project in Olivier Messiaen, I am going to do a few posts on him and his music as it is my feeling that Messiaen, along with Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, is emerging as one of the great composers of the 20th century. Let's start with a photo. This is Messiaen reviewing a score alongside his erstwhile piano student, later second wife and long time interpreter, Yvonne Loriod:
My own encounter with Messiaen starts in the easternmost town of Germany, Görlitz, right on the border with Poland. By sheer accident one day while visiting with my ex-wife's family, who live near Dresden, I failed to get off the train when I should have and ended up in Görlitz, at that time a dreary industrial town--considerably prettier now. During the Second World War, just to the south of Görlitz (and not mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the town) was the site of Stalag VIII-A, a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp whose most famous prisoner was Olivier Messiaen, captured, along with many other Frenchmen, during the Battle of France in 1940. While there Messiaen composed his Quartet for the End of Time. It was written for the odd combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano simply because these were the only instruments (and players) available. The piece was actually premiered in the camp on January 15, 1941. Outdoors, in the rain, to an audience of 400 prisoners and guards.
Messiaen, as we learn from the magisterial work by Richard Taruskin, the Oxford History of Western Music, was a remarkably unusual figure. He is almost the only composer in recent centuries to have been a full-time church musician. For more than forty years he was the regular Sunday organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité, one of the largest churches in Paris. Probably the last important composer previously to be a working church musician was J. S. Bach. Messiaen was also a brilliant theorist and teacher. Unlike many composers he wrote in great detail about exactly how he composed his music (as opposed to, for example, Stravinsky who tended to lie about how he worked and Shostakovich who never discussed it at all). Every artist chooses his predecessors and the ones that influenced Messiaen were first of all the Russians, particularly the maximalizing and spiritual influence of Scriabin. This also revealed itself in the use of the octatonic scale, a typical Russian mode. I will be devoting a separate post to the theoretical structure of Messiaen's music.
Two other important influences in terms not of aspiration but of technique were Indian music, specifically the rhythmic modes, and Medieval music. Messiaen seems to have re-invented the isorhythmic motet without realizing it. Taruskin calls Messiaen, not a mystic, despite the deep religious nature of his music, but a scholastic because, like Thomas Aquinas, Messiaen strove to demonstrate revealed truths in rational discourse. While achieving great ambiguity through complexity, Messiaen's music is precisely and intricately constructed as I think we will see later on.
One final influence or perhaps inspiration, was birdsong. The Wikipedia article refers to Messiaen as a "French composer, organist and ornithologist" and, like his teacher Dukas, he was fascinated with the song of birds who are often portrayed in European myths and legends as prophetic creatures. Many pieces by Messiaen contain stylized birdsong and he wrote one, the gargantuan Catalogue d'oiseaux, two and a half hours of music for solo piano in seven books, entirely devoted to birdsong.
That gives you a bit of an introduction to Messiaen, not only a very important composer, but also one of the most significant teachers of composition in the 20th century. Let's end with the Catalogue d'oiseaux performed by Yvonne Loriod, probably the piece they are perusing in the above photo.