Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Born at Avignon in 1908, Olivier Messiaen lived and worked in Paris from childhood onwards. He studied music at the Paris Conservatoire - organ with Marcel Dupré and composition with Paul Dukas, and became one of this century’s musical giants. Perhaps the most original French composer since Debussy, he created a new musical language which profoundly influenced twentieth-century music. Why do I count him as a spiritual hero? Because he gave his playing and his composition completely to the service of God.


In 1930 he was appointed organist of the church of La Trinité in Paris, and except for 1939-1942 (when he was a soldier, then prisoner of war) he regularly played for masses there until his death in 1992. He wrote for most musical forms, including symphonies, chamber music and opera, but a large part of his output was for the organ. These pieces span the whole of his sixty year composing career, from "La Banquet Céleste" (written when he was twenty) to the huge organ cycle "Livre du Saint Sacrement" of 1984. All his music expressed theological ideas, or rejoiced in the splendour of creation (including birdsong, which came to play an increasing part in his compositions). His works are a kind of revelation of God, meditative and exuberant by turns.

The end of time

Messiaen’s music is not constructed along neatly-proportioned classical lines, nor does it have the sense of struggle followed by victory that is found in Romantic music. His slow movements seem to dissolve in timeless contemplation, in which hypnotic slowly changing chords accompany a melismatic melody in an irregular rhythm which seeks to "banish the temporal". Indeed, in his "Quartet for the End of Time" (written and first performed in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1940) the composer’s avowed aim was to bring the listener closer to "eternity in space". In contrast, his fast movements are dances of joy depicting God’s good pleasure in his creation. The second half of "Dieu parmi nous" (God among us), the last movement of his organ cycle on the Nativity, consists of a great toccata in which fast-moving energetic chords for the hands portray Mary bursting with joy at the birth of her son, while the tune for the feet leaps majestically from the top to the bottom of the pedal board to honour God coming down to his world.

Colour and rhythm

Messiaen’s works are distinguished by variety of colour. This is achieved by his use of sumptuously sensual harmonies, and by his varied orchestration and organ registration. He was innovative in using the organ to its full capability, frequently using unusual combinations of stop timbres, often involving very high or low-pitched pipes, and giving melodies to the pedals played at high pitch (freeing them from their traditional rôle of bass accompaniment). His works are also experiments in rhythm in which notes are shortened or lengthened by half a beat, these augmented or diminished rhythms being then repeated or reversed and set symmetrically next to each other. Another of his compositional devices is the use of chromatic "modal" scales, from whose notes many of his melodies are formed, and whose notes played at the same time form many of those characteristic "Messiaen chords" in his harmonies.

I find it interesting that when a composer restricts his composition within specified limits in this way, he manages to create a work of great beauty. In a similar way, the last movement of Brahms’ fourth symphony is simply a gigantic "chaconne", while the works of Bach are frequently constructed within fugal structures. Is there a metaphor here for man not being truly free to express himself until he submits to the will of God? I will leave the last word to Messiaen himself, in an extract from the manifesto which he circulated when he gave performances of his first organ cycle "La Nativité du Seigneur":

  • Emotion and sincerity of the musical work.
  • Which must be at the service of the dogmas of Catholic theology.
  • The theological subject? The best, because it comprises all subjects.
  • And the abundance of technical means allows the heart to expand freely.

I hope you will enjoy some of Messiaen’s (easier) organ works, when I play them at St Peter’s.

Michael Leuty

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 25th September 1998