Olivier Messiaen (*10.12. 1908, Avignon; † 27.4.1992, Paris) is widely regarded as a pioneer of serial music and one of the most important composers of the 20th century. His parents were highly educated – the father a professor of English, specializing in the works of Shakespeare; the mother a poet, who passed her creative talents on to her son, who would later on base all his vocal pieces on texts of his own devising. Messiaen‘s outstanding talents soon became evident; his music education started at the age of 11 at the Paris Conservatory and in the course of his comprehensive training he was awarded almost every available prize and distinction this institution had to offer, amongst them the First Prize in the subjects counterpoint and fugue, piano accompaniment, organ and improvisation, percussion, musical history and composition.
Paul Dukas was one of his most important teachers; later, Messiaen found employment at the church of La Trinité in Paris, which satisfied his penchant for combining music and spirituality. This may also serve to explain his predilection towards keyboard instruments and his commitment to working with musical groups such as “Jeune France”, who, starting in the middle of the 1930ies, valued good music according to its confessional flavour rather than the hitherto prevailing distanced aestheticism. In 1940 he became a prisoner of war.
During his confinement, he wrote his “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” for piano, violin, cello and clarinet, which were the instruments available to him at the time.
Messiaen’s art has enormous power; combined with his charismatic personality, this gave him great authority when he himself became a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire in 1941, where he was to show a host of young composers such as Stockhausen, Boulez and Xenakis the way. Olivier Messiaen’s musical system draws from his in-depth investigation of the mysticism of numbers, Greek and Indian rhythms, bird song and his meticulous study of the works of Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Modest Mussorgsky, Alban Berg and Gregorian Chant. He researched non-reversible rhythms, which are the same in their reversed as in their original shape; “modes”, a concept which, as with dodecaphony, concerns the division of musical space; and also the transfer of models from nature, such as birdsong, into his music.
Messiaen was the author of hundreds of works for orchestra, chamber music, piano, organ and the voice.