Olivier Messiaen is among the most influential figures in the music of the twentieth century. At first alarming and shocking audiences, he later won an unassailable position, respected at home in France and abroad for his achievement through a musical language that is intensely personal, emotional and informed by a deep Catholic piety. Born in Avignon in 1908, he started piano lessons in 1917 and two years later entered the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Marcel Dupr�, Maurice Emmanuel and Paul Dukas. In 1931 he was appointed organist at La Trinit� and held this position until his death, writing, particularly in the 1930s, a number of important compositions for the organ. In 1940, as a prisoner-of-war in Silesia, he wrote his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (�Quartet for the End of Time�), returning, on his release in 1942, to the Conservatoire. There he taught harmony but exercised even stronger influence in the following years through his teaching of analysis and his work at various centres abroad. As a composer his attention was now turned also to composition for the piano, inspired by his pupil Yvonne Loriod, who became Messiaen's second wife in 1962, three years after the death of his first wife, the violinist Clajre Delbos. Yvonne Loriod continued as a leading exponent of his music. In 1966 Messiaen became professor of composition at the Conservatoire and the following year was appointed a member of the Institut de France. In 1971 he received the Erasmus Prize and in 1978 retired from the Conservatoire, although his influence continued unabated. He died in Paris in 1992.
Messiaen's very personal musical language was derived from a number of sources. His interest in bird-song is directly evident in his Oiseaux exotiques (�Exotic Birds�) and Catalogue d'oiseaux (�Catalogue of Birds�, Naxos 8.553532-34) and indirectly elsewhere in his music. Describing himself as a rythmicien, he had a profound interest in Greek verse rhythms, Hindu rhythms and the rhythms of major Western composers, from Claude Le Jeune to Debussy and Stravinsky. His harmony draws on a combination of sources, from serialism and atonality to tonal and modal writing, with an idiosyncratic use of organ registration and orchestral colour.
The eight Pr�lude, were published in 1929, while Messiaen was still a student, at the instance of Paul Dukas. While the titles sometimes suggest Debussy, the music itself shows considerable originality. The first of the set, La colombe (�The Dove�), is evocative in its binary form, the second half repeating the first until the final gentle ascent, a characteristically symmetrical piece Chant d'extase dans un paysage triste (�Song of Ecstasy in a Sad Landscape�) is similarly clear in structure. The opening section, presented simply at first, frames a chordal section before returning in fuller form. At the heart of the piece is new material, ecstatic in mood, framing in turn a central section that presents its melodic material in imitative canon. The opening material returns, again framing the material of the second section, each offered in a varied form. There is use of canon in the final section of Le nombre l�ger (�The Light Number�), after the opening section has returned in a higher, related key. Instants d�funts (�Dead Instants�) has a similar regularity of structure, with its opening material framing secondary material, the latter elaborated, while the former is shortened at each re�appearance. The piece ends with a coda. Les sons impalpable, du r�ve (�The Impalpable Sounds of the Dream�) has the symmetry of a rondo, its opening section returning to frame two intervening episodes. It is followed by Cloches d'angoisse et larmes d'adieu (�Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell�). Here a repeated note suggests the sound of a bell, with its overtones above. After an intervening section the bell tolls again, in a higher tonality, rising still further at the next repetition. The material develops to a dynamic climax, followed by a tenderly evocative passage, dominated by a recurrent motif, before the return of the bell, heard intermittently as the piece comes to an end. The seventh piece, Plainte calme (�Calm Plaint�) is ternary in form. It is followed by Un reflet dans le vent (�A Reflection in the Wind�), a piece with an equally clear structure, perhaps obscured by the illustrative element that is present.
The two �les de feu (�Isles of Fire�), dedicated to Papua and written in 1950, were grouped together with Mode de valeurs et d'intensit�s (�Mode of Durations and Intensities�) and Neumes rythmiques (�Rhythmic Neums�) of 1949 as part of Quatre �tudes rythmiques (Four Rhythmic Studies). Mode de valeurs et d'intensit�s initiates the use of total serialism. While Schoenberg had applied serialism to a series of the twelve different notes of the octave in a determined order, then to be used also inverted, in retrograde form, or in retrograde inversion, Messiaen now extended this from notes to durations, attack and intensity, specifying twelve kinds of attack, seven dynamic intensities, three series of twelve notes and 24 durations. Written at Darmstadt, the piece had a strong influence on the young composers present there, although aurally not at first easy to grasp. In particular its three sets of pitches are not treated as in a predetermined order, but differentiated by the other determined elements specified. The work had a direct influence on the total serialism employed subsequently by Pierre Boulez.
Neumes rythmiques takes its title from the note-�groupings of plainchant, the rhythmic neums, that are framed here by recurrent refrains. In the first group of refrains the rhythm is gradually expanded while in the second Messiaen makes use of durations in a series of prime numbers, offering what he refers to as 'non-�retrogradable rhythms', rhythmic patterns that, if reversed, form the same pattern. The intervening episodes of rhythmic neums have determined resonances and intensities, to be augmented by additive rhythms.
�le de feu I is based on a theme which is repeated in different registers. The theme of �le de leu II is derived from this, but here there are intervening episodes based on a mode of twelve durations, twelve pitches, four attacks and five intensities, in a series of what Messiaen calls 'interversions', ten in number. These are derived from an original series of twelve durations that is opened out like a fan, each succeeding 'interversion' derived from the preceding one. In this way the series 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 can be opened out from the centre, offering the permutation.
Interversion I: 6 7 5 8 4 9 3 10 2 11 1 12
and this can be treated in the same way to form
Interversion II: 3 9 10 4 2 8 11 5 1 7 12 6
Successive 'interversions' are played simultaneously, each pair forming an episode. The mathematically inclined will see that the tenth permutation restores the original order. The piece ends in a rapid and energetic coda.
Cant�odjay� was written in 1948. Messiaen had long been interested in Hindu rhythms, relying on the listing of 120 such rhythms in the thirteenth-century Sangitaratnākara of Sarngadeva. The score includes names drawn from this work and from Karnatic musical theory, the latter including the title of the work, indicating the element with which the piece opens, interspersed with intervening material. The sixth appearance of this characteristic rhythm and figuration is followed by three brief refrains, a first couplet, a return of the first refrain and a second couplet. There follows the second refrain and third couplet, including a six voice canon. The first and third refrains are heard before the final return of the original cant�yndjay�. The work contains elements further explored in the Mode de valeurs et d'intensit�s. At a first hearing a listener unfamiliar with the style of writing might do worse than keep in mind the opening phrases, although the general form is one rather of superimposition than extensive repetition and development.
ReviewsMessiaen has been very fortunate in his keyboard interpreters. AustbÃ¸ is among the best of them, and to have such playing available at such a low price is a cause for grateful rejoicing. - Michael Oliver, Gramophone, February 2000