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).

Love, Nature and the Divine

Nigel Simeone

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) married his first wife, Claire Delbos, in 1932. Four years later, the couple spent their first summer at a newly-built summer home in Petichet, which nestles by the Lac de Laffrey, facing the mountains of the Dauphiné in South-East France. That summer, Messiaen composed the Poèmes pour Mi - an extraordinarily intimate and personal song-cycle that celebrates the sacrament of marriage: specifically the marriage of Messiaen and 'Mi', his pet name for Claire. A year later, on Bastille Day 1937, their only son, Pascal, was born.

Messiaen was generally a very private man: he would talk freely about his works and his main sources of inspiration (his faith, birdsong, landscapes), but seldom discussed his domestic life. And yet here, in the Poèmes pour Mi, we are privileged with a wonderful glimpse into this world that he usually chose to keep secret.

The outbreak of World War II saw Messiaen enlisting in the French Army. He freely admitted to being somewhat unsuited to military life, but just as the authorities in Paris were on the point of finding him a posting more suited to his talents, he was one of the many thousands of French soldiers captured in the East of France by the advancing Germans in the summer of 1940. He was taken to Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp at Görlitz in Silesia, where he was to remain until March 1941.

Seldom have such unpropitious circumstances produced a work as original and as profoundly moving as the Quartet for the End of Time, written for the players at his disposal in the camp, and first performed there in the depths of the winter, on 15 January 1941. The camp's French-language newspaper printed a review which likened this memorable occasion to one of the great premières in Paris: that the prisoner-soldiers, freezing cold and almost famished, were hearing a piece as inventive and extraordinary as those who had been present at the first performance of The Rite of Spring almost 30 years earlier.

Messiaen had strong connections with the United States, beginning in 1936 when Serge Koussevitzky was the first conductor to perform any orchestral work by Messiaen outside France: he gave Messiaen's Les Offrandes oubliées with his Boston Symphony Orchestra. A decade later, it was Koussevitzky who was the first to offer Messiaen a major international commission. In June 1945, just over a month after the end of World War II in Europe, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation - established by the conductor in 1942 in memory of his first wife Natalie - wrote to Messiaen asking him to write 'a composition for symphony orchestra'. Among the first composers to be commissioned by the Foundation were Bartók, Britten and Messiaen - each with spectacular success, as the results were Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Britten's opera Peter Grimes and Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Koussevitzky gave his commissioned composers a very free hand, and in the letter to Messiaen he did not specify either the duration or the instrumental forces - simply that it was to be for orchestra. The commission also stipulated that the fee (one thousand dollars) would be paid on delivery of the manuscript, but set no time limit for delivery. On 20 August 1945, Messiaen wrote back, accepting with great pleasure and saying that he would write 'a work for large symphony orchestra.' It was to be Messiaen's grandest and most ambitious orchestral work to date, but it would take three years for what eventually became a ten-movement Symphony to evolve.

The composer's pocket diaries (which he also used for making notes about his plans for pieces) are revealing about the genesis of Turangalîla, and his notes show that initially he envisaged a conventional four-movement structure: Introduction, Scherzo, a slow movement ('love theme') and Finale. This was to change dramatically.

Messiaen did most of his composing during the summer months, when he could escape from teaching and organ-playing commitments in Paris to the peace and quiet of his small summer house at Petichet. In the summers of 1946 and 1947 he worked there intensively on Turangalîla and on 23 September 1947 he went with the pianist Yvonne Loriod (his former pupil, his musical muse, and eventually his second wife) to play the Symphony to Koussevitzky in his suite at the Hôtel Raphaël in Paris. By the end of that year the form of the work was still not decided - Messiaen noted two possible plans in the diary, in nine and ten movements, without definitive titles either for the individual pieces or for the work as a whole.

The orchestration had become extremely elaborate: a very large orchestra including a vast array of percussion (though this huge ensemble is without either timpani or harp), with important solo parts for piano and for ondes Martenot, the electronic instrument that Messiaen had already featured in his Trois petites Liturgies, but which was certainly to have its finest hour in Turangalîla. Given these massive and unconventional forces, it's not surprising that Messiaen felt the need to road-test some of his new Symphony.

In February 1948 the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, conducted by André Cluytens, gave the first performance in Paris of what appeared to be a new piece, with the title Trois Tâla. Although Messiaen's programme note makes no mention of the fact, these Tâla were movements 3, 4 and 5 of Turangalîla. The press reaction was one of some astonishment: Fred Goldbeck in Le Figaro littéraire wrote that 'it is rich in elements of the exotic (in the percussion) and scientific (ondes Martenot). This listener finds it all like an extraordinary musical toy, complicated, polyphonic and polyrhythmic. To be honest, he finds here both softness and violence, magic at every level, and an almost irresistible lashing of the senses.'

The second half of 1948 was spent working on putting the finishing touches to the whole symphony, and writing out a fair copy of the score. In his diary for 26 July, Messiaen noted that the 'Symphony was finished today' and on 31 July: 'copy the Symphony out in ink'. Things evidently didn't go quite as smoothly as this suggests, since it was not until 9 December 1948 that Messiaen wrote 'Symphony finished, and good ['bien'] from all points of view.'

The one pervasive feature of Messiaen's life and music that is missing from Turangalîla is religion: instead the Symphony is described by him as 'a song of love' - the centrepiece of a trilogy of works by Messiaen based on the legend of Tristan and Isolde. It's a joyous celebration - at times unashamedly ecstatic (the fifth movement is an orgiastic depiction of 'carnal love'), at others quietly rapturous (as in the slow movement 'Jardin du sommeil d'amour', where descants of birdsongs are heard over a meditative theme on strings and ondes Martenot). Turangalîla was written at a time when the composer's private life was particularly difficult. His beloved first wife, Claire - 'Mi' of the song-cycle Poèmes pour Mi - was suffering from increasingly severe mental illness (after years of decline, she died in 1959).

The world première took place in Symphony Hall Boston on 2 December 1949, with Yvonne Loriod (piano), Ginette Martenot (ondes Martenot), and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The same performers gave the New York première at Carnegie Hall a week later. Privately, Bernstein described the Symphony to Aaron Copland as 'the Messiaen Monster', but the surviving recordings of the rehearsals show how carefully he prepared the new work. Even so, after these performances, Bernstein never conducted Turangalîla again.

In his commentaries on Turangalîla, Messiaen often described it as 'almost a piano concerto', and the solo piano part is extremely demanding. It was written with Yvonne Loriod's brilliant virtuosity very much in mind - though it was only through Messiaen's determined and persistent efforts that she was booked by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the first performance: the orchestra's administration assumed that the piano part of a symphony could be played by the orchestra's resident pianist. Ginette Martenot, the ondiste for the première, was the sister of the instrument's inventor, but this part soon became very closely associated with Jeanne Loriod, and the Loriod sisters went on to give more than a hundred performances of Turangalîla together.

Réveil des Oiseaux and Oiseaux exotiques were composed in the 1950s - a decade of experimentation for Messiaen, which resulted in the emergence of a new and dazzling musical language for the representation of birdsong. Birds and their songs had fascinated the composer since childhood, but they had a much deeper meaning for him too - he thought of them as the 'songsters of Creation.'

In Réveil he attempted to depict a dawn chorus, including transcriptions of the birdsongs he had heard near Cognac, and in woodlands on the outskirts of Paris. For Oiseaux exotiques, Messiaen needed to observe and transcribe the songs of birds that were not native to France, so he not only visited bird exhibitions and private aviaries, but also made use of gramophone records from which to make notations.

These magnificent songs - of the Virginia Cardinal, the Indian Shama, the Golden Oriole and some forty other birds from the Americas and from Asia - were then transformed by Messiaen into a spectacular display of musical virtuosity in which the birds of the East and West come together in a work for a small ensemble of solo piano, woodwind, brass and percussion. Lasting around quarter of an hour, this is among Messiaen's most thrilling compositions directly inspired by birdsong. It was written in 1955-6 at the request of his former pupil Pierre Boulez, for the newly-founded concert society, the Domaine musical; the first performance was on 10 March 1956, in the intimate setting of the Petit Théâtre Marigny in Paris. The pianist was Yvonne Loriod, with a superb ensemble of French instrumentalists, conducted by Rudolf Albert.

This wonderfully confident and assured première was recorded live, and has recently been reissued on CD (by Accord/Universal). Messiaen always went to great pains to ensure that his new pieces were given the best possible start, and Oiseaux exotiques was no exception. The work always remained one of the composer's favourites, and in 1988 it was included in his 80th birthday concert in Paris, again with Yvonne Loriod at the piano, conducted by Pierre Boulez.

Chronochromie (1960) celebrates two of Messiaen's other fascinations: time and colour. This extremely elaborate and brilliantly written orchestral work caused quite a bit of scandal at the time of its first performances, but has come to be accepted as one of his most daring large-scale instrumental pieces, exploiting the different sections of the orchestra in astonishingly original (and sometimes extremely demanding) ways.

La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ dates from the end of the 1960s and is a magnificent choral and orchestral work inspired by Messiaen's religious faith, and particularly by the theological significance of Christ's Transfiguration. Has a somewhat abstruse theological concept ever inspired music of such extraordinary splendour or inventiveness? Along with its large chorus and orchestra, Messiaen also uses seven instrumental soloists to explore every aspect of his subject, including many passages where birdsong is woven into the musical fabric. Ending with a triumphant chorale in E major, this resplendent score is the composer's grandest work for the concert hall.

Further Reading