Olivier-Eugène-Prosper-Charles Messiaen was a French composer, organist, and ornithologist, regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century.
On the fall of France in 1940, Messiaen was made a prisoner of war, during which time he composed his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the end of time”) for the four available instruments in the prison camp: piano, violin, cello and clarinet. The piece was first performed by Messiaen and fellow prisoners for an audience of inmates and prison guards.
Messiaen was appointed professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire soon after his release in 1941, and because also professor of composition in 1966; positions he held until his retirement in 1978.
He travelled widely to attend musical events and to transcribe the songs of exotic birds in the wild, frequently assisted by his wife, who made tape recordings for later reference. Le merle noir for flute, a piece written as an exam for flute players, is devised entirely from the song of the blackbird. The diverse influences from his trips abroad inspired works about Japanese music, the landscape of Bryce Canyon in Utah and the life of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1962 he visited Japan, where Gagaku music and Noh theatre inspired Sept haïkaï – Japanese Sketches for Piano and Orchestra, which contain stylised imitations of traditional Japanese instruments.
His many distinguished pupils included Quincy Jones, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and George Benjamin.
Messiaen had synaesthesia: he perceived musical chords as colours. Combinations of these colours, he said, were important in his compositional process.
He wrote music for chamber ensembles and orchestra, as well as for solo organ and piano, and also experimented with the use of novel electronic instruments developed in Europe during his lifetime, including the theramin (which became more widely known through the music of the Beach Boys).
His music is rhythmically complex; harmonically and melodically he employs a system he called ‘modes of limited transposition’, which he abstracted from the systems of material generated by his early compositions and improvisations to create his sonorous, colourful music. His style absorbed many global musical influences such as Indonesian gamelan (tuned percussion often features prominently in his orchestral works). His innovative use of colour, his conception of the relationship between time and music, and his use of birdsong are among the features that make Messiaen’s music so distinctive.
Oliver Messiaen held the position of organist at the church of La Sainte Trinité from 1931 until his death, and he is also world-famous for the beauty and invention of his organ improvisations
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