Timeline: Olivier Messiaen

Jan 9, 2017

When he heard harmony, he saw color. Olivier Messiaen was not just a visionary composer; he was an organist, an ornithologist and a professor of world-wide acclaim. He was influenced by Ancient Greek theory, Hindu and Japanese culture, his own Roman Catholic faith and the songs of his feathered friends. His music stands as a pillar of the avant-garde in the 20th century.

Messiaen’s father was an English teacher in Paris and his mother was a poet. His musical talents were discovered very early and he began composing at the age of seven. As a child he was drawn to the impressionism of Claude Debussy. He was accepted into the Paris Conservatory when he was 11 and won prizes for counterpoint, piano accompaniment, music history and composition. After graduating, he took a position as the organist at La Trinite in Paris, a job he held for over 40 years. He also founded a group of composing friends that called themselves "La Jeune France".

This is a photograph of a class at the Paris Conservatory attended by Olivier Messiaen and taught by Paul Dukas.
Credit US-PD

During the Second World War, Messiaen was drafted into service but due to his poor eyesight he was placed in the medical auxiliary. Yet, he was captured in 1940 and held as a prisoner of war at the Nazi camp Stalag VIII-A. There he befriended a violinist, a cellist and a clarinetist and composed his seminal work, The Quartet for the End of Time. This work was premiered before 5,000 detainees and guards at the camp and stands as a meditation on the cycles of life and nature and the apocalypse itself.

Messiaen was liberated from the camp in 1941 and took a position as a professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatory. Teaching became a passion and a group of students (calling themselves “The Arrows”) followed him like disciples. The next few decades saw him traveling the world teaching courses and giving lectures. His lessons went far beyond traditional Western music, incorporating Ancient Greek theory, Eastern culture and music and even birdsong. Messiaen was an amateur ornithologist and his love for birds included the practice of transcribing their songs and calls and composing his own works based on their music.

He retired from teaching in 1978 at the age of 70. He wrestled with illness and medical procedures for the next 15 years, yet still composed new works on commission. Messiaen died in Paris on April 27, 1992.

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