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Messiaen magic

by Alison Hird

Article published on the 2008-12-22 Latest update 2008-12-22 17:41 TU

Olivier Messiaen(Credit: Wikipedia)

Olivier Messiaen
(Credit: Wikipedia)

Olivier Messiaen is one of France's most fascinating modern classical composers and he would have been 100 years old this year. Not only did he invent a new musical language, using Greek, Indian, even Peruvian rhythms, he saw notes as colour and believed birds were the only true maestros.

Culture: Musicologist Lucie Kayas on Messiaen and his poetic universe

22/12/2008 by Alison Hird

Messiaen is not easy listening and you will not find him on many mobile phone ringtones. Yet he is one of the most accessible musicians of a generation of contemporary composers.

According to Claude Samuel, from the Messiaen 2008 festival committee, he "offers an opening onto contemporary creation".

For this anniversary year, the association managed to put on 1,500 concerts around the world, which is "unique for a 20th century composer," adds Samuel.

Messiaen manages to touch the public in unexpected ways. He said himself, "my music is colour," and would, in a way, paint musical notes.

Just close your eyes and listen to Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange from Des Canyons aux etoiles, you can almost feel the heat of those red-orange rocks.

Messiaen was also deeply spiritual, his works sends, "a message that goes far beyond his notes," says Claude Samuel.

A committed Catholic all his life, he played the organ at La Trinité church in Paris for 60 years and his one opera is called St Francis of Assisi.

His faith is perhaps most tangible in his use of birdsong, which he used extensively in his work.

Messiaen loved birds and was an accomplished ornithologist. "Nature, birdsong - these are my passions, they are also my refuge," he said.

He was probably referring to the solace he took in birdsong when his first wife was dying from mental illness.

He believed birds were messengers from heaven, and rather like God’s scribe taking divine dictation, he would go out into the hills to transcribe the dawn chorus.

This is difficult to imagine in Europe as songbirds become increasingly rare. Olivier Messiaen's website can help. 

You can listen to short extracts from Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques and the ornithological recordings of 5 birdsongs he transcribed - prairie chicken, wood thrush, lazuli bunting, baltimore oriole and cardinal.

It would seem the birds sensed his devotion. Legend has it that at his funeral in 1992, a bird followed his hearse all the way from Paris to his place of rest in Petichet in the South of France.


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