Messiaen married Claire Delbos in June 1932, and during the summer, the young couple moved into a new apartment in the South of Paris. Claire was a composer and violinist, a graduate of the Schola Cantorum, where her teachers had included Vincent d'Indy. As a wedding present, Messiaen composed his Theme and Variations for violin and piano, which has an unusual dedication: the musical note "E" (in the top space of the treble clef stave). This note is spelt "Mi" in French, and this was Messiaen's pet-name for his wife - the pitch of the top open string of the violin, her instrument.
During the early years of their marriage, there was sadness: Claire suffered the trauma of several miscarriages, although eventually she bore a son, Pascal, who arrived in the world on Bastille Day in 1937. Claire was a devoted and affectionate partner to Messiaen - as he was to her - and they gave regular concerts together. Messiaen was already starting to teach (at the Schola Cantorum and the École Normale de musique) and had weekly duties as organist at the Trinité, so the best time for composing was during the summer.
In the early years of their marriage, the couple often went down to stay at Neussargues in the Cantal, where Claire's parents owned a small chateau (it is still standing today), but in 1936 they were able to spend the summer alone, at a newly-constructed house by the shores of the Lac de Laffrey in Petichet, just off the Route Napoléon, south of Grenoble.
On an idyllic plot, they had a tiny house built (two rooms downstairs and two upstairs) as a rural retreat, away from Paris and set in the beautiful mountain scenery of the Dauphiné. This was to be where Messiaen did most of his composing over the next five decades, but the first piece he wrote there was a glorious love-letter to Claire: the Poèmes pour Mi, a cycle of nine poems by the composer himself about the sacrament of marriage. It was originally scored for voice and piano. Early the following year, Messiaen made an orchestral version.
The bond uniting man and woman in marriage serves as a symbol of the union of Christ and his Church. In the first song, the poet thanks God for Nature, and especially the gift of his beloved. It ends with a rapturous 'Alleluia'. In Paysage, Messiaen also expresses his love of the landscape in which the couple had found a new home; 'the lake is like a big blue jewel.' La Maison talks of 'leaving this house', meaning earthly life, to reach paradise. Épouvante presents the altenative: in startlingly graphic language, the poet describes an awful vision in which his loved one is lost. L'Épouse is almost a liturgical celebration of marriage: 'Go where the Spirit leads you; nothing can separate that which God has joined'. Ta voix is an evocation of the beloved's voice, which Messiaen compares to a bird in springtime, and again the words emphasise the idea of marriage as a sign of God's grace. Les deux guerriers are the bride and groom, who march as 'sacramental warriors'. Le Collier is unashamedly sensuous - a wonderful evocation of love, in which the 'necklace' is in fact the arms of a lover wrapped around her beloved's neck. The cycle ends with a celebration of love, both human and divine.
The first performances of both versions of the cycle were given by the great French Wagnerian singer Marcelle Bunlet, one of Messiaen's favourite interpreters. She gave the première of the voice and piano version with Messiaen himself on 28 April 1937 at one of the "Concerts de la Spirale", a progressive contemporary music society that Messiaen co-founded with André Jolivet and others. On this occasion Bunlet and Messiaen also performed a song cycle that Claire Delbos had composed at the same time Messiaen was working on the Poèmes pour Mi: her setting of poems from L'Âme en bourgeon ('The Soul in bud') was another intensely personal work for Messiaen - the poems were by his mother, Cécile Sauvage (1883-1927), and had been written while Messiaen himself was in the womb.
Despite Bunlet and Messiaen giving numerous performances of the cycle in its voice and piano incarnation, the orchestration took a while to catch on. One song (Action de grâces) was performed in 1937 - by Marcel Bunlet, conducted by Roger Désormière. However, the first known performance of the complete cycle for soprano and orchestra was not until 20 January 1949, given by Marcelle Bunlet and the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Roger Désormière, by which time Messiaen's beloved Claire had been suffering for several years from a debilitating mental illness - after years of suffering, she died in 1959.
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).