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Olivier Messiaen

Messiaen, Olivier (ôlēvyāˈ mĕsyäNˈ) [key], 1908–92, French composer and organist, b. Avignon. Messiaen was a pupil of Paul Dukas at the Paris Conservatory. He became organist of La Trinité, Paris, in 1931 and taught at the Schola Cantorum and the École Normale de Musique (1936–39). In 1942 he was appointed professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatory, where he taught such 20th-century figures as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Messiaen's music is remarkably original and personal, rich in color and texture. It draws from many schools and styles, including electronic and serial music, and is often based on scale formulas of his own invention or on his studies of Asian music and birdsong. His compositions also reflect his profound religious mysticism, which is also expounded in his didactic prose works.

Messiaen's major works include L'Ascension (1933), for orchestra; Apparition de l'Église Éternelle (1932), La Nativité du Seigneur (1935), Le Banquet Céleste (1936), and Les Corps Glorieux (1939), for organ; Quartet for the End of Time (1941), his best-known piece, composed while he was a prisoner of war in Germany (1940–42); Visions de l'Amen (1943), for two pianos; the orchestral Oiseaux Exotiques (1956), Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum (1965), and Des Canyons aux Étoiles (1974); and The Transfiguration (1969), an oratorio. He also wrote masses, songs, and much chamber music. His symphony in 10 movements, Turangalila Symphony (1948), is considered the most grandiose expression of his theories. Messiaen's only opera is the five-hour St. Francis of Assisi (1983). His last major composition, Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà (1992), was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

See his Technique of My Mystical Language (tr. 1957); biography by R. S. Johnson (1975, rev. 1989); studies by C. H. Bell (1984), P. Griffiths (1985), and R. Nichols (1986).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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