I probably don’t think of any other composer as often as I think of Messiaen in my daily life – at least not with this regularity, which has lasted for years. His piece Le merle noir is practically in my head as soon as I set foot outside. We live in the country and usually I hear the first bird singing after a few seconds. It’s usually a blackbird. I answer it with the tones of Messiaen.


Here is a brief introduction.


Messiaen was born on 10 December 1908 in Avignon into a very poetic and literary family. His father was an Anglicist, a Shakespeare specialist, and his mother was the symbolist poet Cécile Sauvage. In 1912, the family moved to Grenoble, where the young Olivier was very attracted to the mountains and nature.

He began to play the piano autodidactically and shortly afterwards received lessons.

In 1918, after the war, the family moved to Nantes. There Olivier found formative teachers; and the decision to go to the Conservatoire in Paris the next year was soon made. He would study until 1930, winning many Premier Prix along the way. He continued to read a lot, mainly romantics and theological writings.


In 1931, Messiaen became France’s youngest titular organist at the Sainte-Trinité church in Paris. He held this post until his death in 1992.

In 1939 he was drafted, became a prisoner of war and continued composing there. He wrote the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, one of his most frequently performed works.

In 1947, Messiaen took over a newly established class for musical analysis at the Conservatoire.

He had long been the most important representative of contemporary French music. It will be seen that he had an influence on several generations of young composers.

Messiaen developed his own modes, which he frequently changed or even used in parallel.

His work is determined by this modal harmony, by a very complex rhythm and by extraordinarily colourful passages. Presumably, the transcription of birdcalls, which he practised since his youth, also played a large part in this.

The first work in which a bird makes an appearance is Le Merle noir from 1952. Like many important components of the flute literature, it was commissioned for the Concours at the Conservatoire.


Messiaen: “Listen to the birds, they are great masters. Their melodic turns, especially those of the blackbird, surpass the human imagination in imagination.”



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Literature: STEFAN KEYM, Art. Messiaen, Olivier in: MGG Online, hrsg. von Laurenz Lütteken, Kassel, Stuttgart, New York 2016ff., veröffentlicht August 2016, https://www.mgg-online.com/mgg/stable/12103


(A. W.)