Thursday, September 20, 2007

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Sierra Club


My faith is the grand drama of my life. I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith.


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Messiaen studied at the Paris Conservatoire (1919-30) with Dukas, Emmanuel and Dupre, and taught there (1941-78) while also serving as organist of La Trinite in Paris. Right from his first published work, the eight Preludes for piano (1929), he was using his own modal system, with its strong flavouring of tritones, diminished 7ths and augmented triads. During the 1930s he added a taste for rhythmic irregularity and for the rapid changing of intense colours, in both orchestral and organ works. Most of his compositions were explicitly religious and divided between characteristic styles of extremely slow meditation, bounding dance and the objective unfolding of arithmetical systems.

They include the orchestral L'ascension (1933), the organ cycles La nativite du Seigneur (1935) and Les corps glorieux (1939), the song cycles Poemes pour Mi (1936) and Chants de terre et de ciel (1938), and the culminating work of this period, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (1941). During the war he found himself surrounded by an eager group of students, including Boulez and Yvonne Loriod, who eventually became his second wife. For her pianistic brilliance he conceived the Visions de l'amen (1943, with a second piano part for himself) and the Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jesus (1944), followed by an exuberant triptych on the theme of erotic love: the song cycle Harawi (1945), the Turangal√É®la, symphonie with solo piano and ondes martenot (1948) and the Cinq rechants for small chorus (1949). Meanwhile the serial adventures of Boulez and others were also making a mark, and Messiaen produced his most abstract, atonal and irregular music in the Quatre etudes de rythme for piano (1949) and the Livre d'orgue (1951). His next works were based largely on his own adaptations of birdsongs: they include Reveil des oiseaux for piano and orchestra (1953), Oiseaux exotiques for piano, wind and percussion (1956), the immense Catalogue d'oiseaux for solo piano (1958) and the orchestral Chronochromie (1960). In these, and in his Japanese postcards Sept hai kai for piano and small orchestra (1962), he continued to follow his junior contemporaries, but then returned to religious subjects in works that bring together all aspects of his music. These include another small-scale piano concerto, Couleurs de la cite celeste (1963), and the monumental Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum for wind and percussion (1964). Thereafter he devoted himself to a sequence of works on the largest scale: the choral-orchestral La Transfiguration (1969), the organ volumes Meditations sur le mystere de la Sainte Trinite (1969), the 12-movement piano concerto Des canyons aux etoiles (1974) and the opera Saint Francois d'Assise (1983). [Adapted from Karadar]

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