One of the first public performances of Messiaen's music was at the Salle du Conservatoire in Paris, on 29 January 1930. On that occasion the orchestral version of Le Banquet céleste was heard for the first and last time - before being hastily withdrawn by its composer, who had already reworked what he considered the best section as a work for organ. But it is easy to forget that Messiaen - so often photographed in the organ gallery of the Église de la Trinité - made his name in the 1930s as a composer of highly original music for orchestra. In almost every case, these works provided the composer with an opportunity to express his deeply held religious beliefs not through conventional church music, but in the concert hall.
His earliest big success - at the Concerts Straram on 19 February 1931, while he still in his early twenties - was Les Offrandes oubliées, a kind of sacred tone poem (described by Messiaen as a 'symphonic meditation') in three distinct sections, which includes music of astonishing violence at the centre, and of seemingly timeless repose at the close - both features that were to become characteristic of his later music. This was quickly followed by several similar works: Le Tombeau resplendissant, first conducted by Pierre Monteux in 1932, Hymne au Saint-Sacrement at the Concerts Straram in 1933, and culminating in the original orchestral version of L'Ascension, given its première in 1935, but completed two years earlier, and then arranged by Messiaen for organ (an arrangement that included the substitution of an entire movement). This steady flow of music for orchestra was interrupted in the late 1930s by other projects, but the orchestral version of the Poèmes pour Mi found Messiaen exploring yet further possibilities in the orchestra.
Throughout the 1930s, Messiaen had composed music for orchestra that already showed an extremely original approach, not only in terms of using largely religious subject matter for concert works, but also his avoidance of characteristic orchestral sonorities: not once in his published output did Messiaen write for the harp - that most French of orchestral instruments. By the time of the Poèmes pour Mi he even abandoned the use of timpani in his orchestra, but started instead to expand the range of other percussion in his instrumentation.
During World War II, Messiaen composed the Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine, where he used strings, solo piano, the ondes Martenot, and a glittering array of percussion to accompany female voices. This marked a very important departure in at least two ways: above all, it was the first time Messiaen had used a percussion section that attempted to evoke the sound of the Gamelan - a path he was to pursue with brilliant inventiveness for the rest of his life; it was also the first time he had used the electronic ondes Martenot in combination with other instruments, as he was later to do in the Turangalîla-Symphonie and in Saint François d'Assise.
Messiaen's first overseas commission came from Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, and the result was the Turangalîla-Symphonie, first performed under Leonard Bernstein on 2 December 1949. Koussevitzky had already performed Les Offrandes oubliées with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1936, and he declared that Turangalîla was the most important development in orchestral music since Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (a work, coincidentally, which Koussevitzky had first published). In terms of its orchestral writing, the absence of harps and timpani is probably the last thing we notice. Instead, here is a super-charged and surrealistic sound-world in which solo piano and ondes Martenot mix with a vast array of tuned and untuned percussion, as well as conventional strings, woodwind and brass. The result is a work that has a sonority like no other, even by Messiaen himself.
Messiaen seems to have seen the erotic opulence of Turangalîla as the culmination of his orchestral writing up to that point, but also as a time to reassess and reconsider. What followed in the 1950s were two far less expansive works for solo piano with orchestra: Réveil des oiseaux (1953) for piano and a relatively standard orchestra (along with much additional percussion), and the brilliant Oiseaux exotiques (1956), written for piano and an ensemble of woodwind, brass and percussion, with no strings. Four years later he wrote orchestrachromie (1960), a work for large orchestra - without any soloist this time, but including writing for strings and woodwind (in particular) of dizzying complexity. Two years later came the Sept Haïkaï for piano and small orchestra, exploiting new and unfamiliar sounds inspired by Messiaen's experiences of Japan, and using no string instruments. This was followed almost immediately by another work for piano and an orchestra consisting of clarinets, brass and metallic percussion, Couleurs de la Cité céleste (1963) - the first major work on an explicitly religious subject that Messiaen had composed for almost twenty years. Again, the sound of this piece is entirely individual, yet more evidence of a composer who always treats the instruments of the orchestra with the greatest originality.
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum of 1964 was an even bolder departure: scored for a massive array of woodwind, brass and metallic percussion, it was a state commission (from André Malraux) to commemorate the dead of two World Wars. What Messiaen produced was something much more affirmative: a huge celebration of the hope of resurrection, first performed privately in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and given publicly in the immense space of Chartres Cathedral, in the presence of General De Gaulle. But Messiaen's orchestral writing here could - the composer believed - reach far beyond mere walls: his note in the score states that the work 'is intended for vast spaces: in churches, cathedrals, and even in the open air or on mountain tops.'
It will be clear by now that Messiaen never resorted to the conventional when writing for orchestra, and nor did he become predictable. In La Transfiguration (1969), a very large chorus and orchestra is complemented by seven instrumental soloists; yet more possibilities are explored through the juxtaposition of these soloists with larger forces. In Des Canyons aux étoiles (1974), the commission was for a work for an orchestra of just over 40 players (with piano and horn soloists), and Messiaen achieves an astonishing feat: his expanded chamber orchestra generates a range and power of sounds far larger than seems possible with the number of players at his disposal. Once again, here is a composer whose aural imagination explores the unexpected - and, especially in this work, evokes a sense of sheer wonderment at the glories of nature.
For his only opera, Saint François d'Assise (given its première in 1983) Messiaen used a very large orchestra (including three ondes Martenot), then turned to a series of late works for smaller forces, several including solo piano parts. But his last completed piece was also for orchestra, and it shows the composer still experimenting with all the possibilities that were at his disposal: Éclairs sur l'Au-delà (1991) uses the different sections of the orchestra with astonishing inventiveness, and the final orchestral sonority to be heard in this work is the sound of three humble triangles, a miraculously simple evocation of what may lie beyond.
Nigel Simeone is Professor of Historical Musicology at Sheffield University. He is the author of several books on Messiaen, including two co-authored with Peter Hill: Messiaen (Yale University Press, 2005) and Olivier Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques (Ashgate, 2007).