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Ludwig van Beethoven


Quartet for the End of Time


For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet


Cologne Music - Messiaen / Henze / Holt / Rattle, Milne, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen was a major twentieth-century composer, teacher, and organist, as well as the premier sacred composer of his time.  In a skeptical age, he sought to bring a sense of wonder and awe to his works and largely did so without the darker or more anxious expressive strains that dominated twentieth-century music.  He was also one of the most important teachers of the post-War period, counting among his students many of the most prominent and original composers of the day.

Early Life and Studies

Born in Avignon, France, on December 10, 1908, Olivier Messiaen grew up in Grenoble.  His father, Pierre Messiaen, was an English teacher, and his mother, Cécile, wrote poetry. Messiaen’s musical training and compositional explorations began early, at about age seven or eight, and he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the precocious age of eleven.

Messiaen remained at the Conservatoire until 1930, winning top prizes in virtually every subject (counterpoint and fugue, accompaniment, organ, improvisation, history of music, and composition), and studying composition with Paul Dukas.  Upon leaving the Conservatoire at the age of twenty-two, he was appointed organist at La Trinité Cathedral in Paris, a position he was to retain until his death.  Many of his earliest works are for the organ, and the evocation of Catholic theology was to remain a constant throughout his career.

In 1932 he married the composer and violinist Claire Delbos, with whom he gave frequent recitals; they had one son, Pascal.  His marriage inspired him to write two song cycles on the theme of love and married life, which are among his very few non-religious works.  The first cycle, Poems for Mi (1936-7), took its title from his pet name for his wife.  Both Poems for Mi and the second song cycle, Songs of Heaven and Earth (1938), set Messiaen’s own texts.

In 1936 Messiaen formed the group La Jeune France (Young France) with several other young composers.  Their aim was to re-infuse music with sensuality and passion, in opposition to neoclassicism, an emotionally detached style then dominating the French musical scene.

The War and Mature Works

At the outbreak of World War II, Messiaen was called up to the army.  Shortly thereafter, he was captured by the Germans, spending the years 1940 and 1941 in a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia.  Here Messiaen composed his first major work, Quartet for the End of Time.  The piece was written for Messiaen himself to play at the piano and for three other musicians also interned at the camp: a violinist, a cellist and a clarinetist.  The end of time referred to in the title is not the apocalypse but rather the end of earthly time that will follow on the return of the Savior.  Messiaen and his fellow musicians gave the first performance at the camp in the middle of winter, and he was later to say that he had never had a more attentive audience.

After the war Messiaen taught at the Paris Conservatoire, beginning as a lecturer in harmony.  His “Cours d’esthètique” included students who ultimately became leading European composers.  Among these students was the young Pierre Boulez, who was soon to revolutionize the musical scene in Europe.

At the same time Messiaen produced a treatise on his compositional practice entitled Technique of My Musical Language, in which he laid out the elements of his highly individual style.  Among these elements were adaptations of Indian rhythmic cycles, harmonies defined by their “coloristic” properties, and what he called “modes of limited transposition.”  These modes, or scales, had a great deal of symmetry in their organization so that, unlike the major scale, one tends to repeat the same notes when one repeats the pattern beginning on a different pitch.  The use of these modes, which occur in nearly all of Messiaen’s works, gives them a characteristically static and “timeless” feel.

Messiaen’s wife succumbed to illness in the late 1940s and was committed to a sanatorium.  At about the same time Messiaen fell in love with one of his students, the gifted pianist Yvonne Loriod.  These circumstances combined to inspire a trilogy of works on the theme of impossible love.  The second of these works, the Turangalila Symphony (1946-8), was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  It was this work which gave Messiaen and international reputation.

Paradoxically, the same piece caused a schism between Messiaen and some of his pupils.  The music is full of colorful, ecstatic sounds and propulsive rhythms that made it very attractive to general audiences.  Some in the avant-garde, however, found it vulgar; Boulez, for instance, called it “brothel music.” This disdain led to tension between Messiaen and his younger colleagues for a time.

Produced while he was teaching at the Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Summer Courses for New Music), Messiaen’s next works, a set of rhythmic etudes for piano, was to have quite the opposite effect.  The second etude in particular, entitled Modes of Values and Intensities (1949-50), had a profound effect on the music of Europe’s most radical composers.  In this piece Messiaen establishes a series for pitch structure, as did the composers of the Second Viennese School, but he also constructs a series of dynamics and durations.  Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen immediately adopted the technique, which formed the basis for what was later called “total serialism.”


Messiaen’s interest in such formally rigorous music was short-lived, however.  Beginning in 1951, his music was given over to an obsession with birdsong.  Messiaen had long been an amateur ornithologist, but from this point on he was to devote a good deal of his time to traveling all over France and the world, transcribing the calls of different birds as accurately as he could and then weaving these calls into his music.

The culmination of this passion was realized in three large works of the late 1950s: Oiseaux Exotiques  (1955-6) for winds and percussion, Catalogue d'Oiseaux (1956-7) for solo piano, and Chronochromie  (1959-60) for large orchestra.  In all of these pieces Messiaen uses the birdcalls not simply as melodic material but as a kind of musical symbol for the divinity of nature and the possibility of ecstatic union with it.

Most of these works featured prominent solo parts for Yvonne Loriod.  After over a decade of waiting, Messiaen was finally able to marry Loriod when his wife died in 1959.

Late Works

After his second marriage in 1961, Messiaen devoted himself to writing concert-length works of enormous scope and power.  The first of these pieces, La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ (1965-9), also marked Messiaen’s return to directly theological works after years of sublimating religious feelings into the natural world or human love.  Setting elements of the gospel narrative, La Transfiguration was scored for seven instrumental soloists, chorus, and orchestra.  It was also during these years that he finally became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire (1966).

Messiaen followed La Transfiguration with one just as vast in scope and resources, Des canyons aux Etoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) (1971-4), which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and inspired by Messiaen’s travels in Utah.  Utah later returned the compliment by naming a mountain in his honor.

After completing these works, Messiaen spent the next eight years composing his sole opera, Saint François d’Assise.  He constructed the libretto out of fragments of Saint Francis’ own writings, as well as from biblical excerpts and contemporary sources.  This colossal work (150 singers and 120 instrumentalists) is one of the few modern operas to be widely considered a classic work, despite its extremely rare performances. 

Messiaen’s last completed major work was another sacred work, the Livre du Saint Sacrement for organ.  He died on April 28, 1992.


Delaere, Mark.  “Olivier Messiaen’s Analysis Seminar and the Development of Post-War Serial Music.”  Music Analysis 21.1 (2002): 35-51.

Griffiths, Paul: ‘Messiaen, Olivier (Eugène Prosper Charles)’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 1 June 2006), <>

Hartman, James B.  “Alternative Organists.”  The Diapason 95.7 (2004): 20-22.