Olivier Messiaen was a French composer who wrote a hauntingly beautiful quartet…while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.
In this series, we’re exploring the stories of the best composers in Western music history and why their work matters to us today.
This is Olivier’s story.
His surname is best pronounced Mess-YAWN.
(At least that’s what I’ve gathered from my study. If there are any French-speakers reading this, by all means feel free to correct me).
An important composer in French history who was known for incorporating birdsong and sacred themes into his works.
Messiaen was also a talented organist and teacher.
Although he was most prolific in chamber and orchestral music, he also wrote one opera and several choral and vocal works.
December 10, 1908 – April 27, 1992.
Messiaen lived during the Modern period.
He was a contemporary of Maurice Ravel, Maurice Emmanuel, Guy Ropartz, Francis Polenc, Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, and Cecile Chaminade.
Messiaen was born in Avignon and later attended the Paris Conservatory.
He was imprisoned for two years in Silesia before being repatriated and returning to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life.
Why It Matters
Just the fact that Messiaen was able to write something as beautiful as Quartet for the End of Time while in a Nazi prison camp is enough to make him significant in music history.
But he has other claims to fame as well: a promoter of new styles of French music, a unique rhythmic style, and a talent for colorful orchestral writing.
He also wrote a compositional treatise, Technique of My Musical Language, after his imprisonment.
Messiaen is one of the most well-known composers in French history.
Other Interesting Facts
Messiaen, a self-taught pianist, started composing at a very young age.
He began attending the conservatory in Paris when he was only eleven.
In addition to being a gifted musician and composer, he was also a dedicated ornithologist (or bird expert).
He is known for having studied various bird songs and incorporating them into his music (for example, his Le Merle noir, “The Blackbird”).
When the Second World War broke out, he was drafted into the French army.
After briefly serving as a medic, he was captured by German soldiers in 1940 and spent two years as a prisoner of war camp.
While he was there, he wrote one of his most famous works: Quartet for the End of Time, which is regarded as one of the most significant works produced during the WWII era.
This beautifully moving piece of music was premiered in the camp, performed by himself and three other prisoners.
After he was released from the prison camp in 1942, he returned to Paris and became a professor at the Paris Conservatory where he himself had attended.
Below is an excerpt from Quartet for the End of Time, Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”).
And that is the story of Olivier Messiaen. What do you think?