Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) was a twentieth-century composer and organist whose music, writings, and pedagogical activities made lasting and unique contributions to the cultural landscape of modern music.

Messiaen’s musical talents manifested early, during his time as a student at the Paris Conservatoire (1919/20–1930). His principal teachers for organ and composition at the Conservatoire included Marcel Dupré and Paul Dukas, respectively. After completing his studies, Messiaen in 1931 became the organist at La Trinité in Paris, where he would serve until shortly before his death. Messiaen’s compositions tended to have a religious motivation or reference, creating a corpus of artistic expression devoted to Christian themes that managed to straddle the typical sacred/secular divisions. Exceptions exist, such as Messiaen’s two major song cycles of the 1930s celebrating his familial relationships, Poèmes pour Mi (Poems for Mi—Mi being the nickname for his first wife, Claire Delbos, whom Messiaen married in 1932—composed in 1936–1937) and Chants de terre et de ciel (Songs of the Earth and the Sky, written in 1938 after the birth of their son Pascal the previous year).

Near the start of World War II Messiaen served in the French military, but in 1940 he was captured and held at a prisoner-of-war camp at Görlitz. There he composed the majority of what would become perhaps his best known work: Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for clarinet, piano, violin, and violoncello. After Messiaen’s release from the prison camp in 1941, he began his tenure as an instructor at the Paris Conservatoire. At the Conservatoire he worked with a remarkable set of students, most notably Pierre Boulez and Messiaen’s future wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod (they would marry after the lengthy decline and death of Claire Delbos in 1959). Many of Messiaen’s compositions of the 1940s were written specifically for Loriod. His interactions with students like Boulez led to a more abstract period of composition for Messiaen, which was relatively brief in duration. Messiaen’s contributions as a teacher were significant and continuous. At the Conservatoire he taught harmony (and later composition; in 1944 he completed his Technique de mon langage musical) in addition to offering private tutelage and briefly teaching at the Darmstadt summer courses. A few of his other composer students included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Jean Barraqué, Iannis Xenakis, Jean-Louis Florentz, Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, and George Benjamin.

Messiaen’s ornithological passions can be heard in earlier works, but beginning in 1951 birdsong offered a new set of possibilities. Messiaen collected these representatives of naturally occurring musical melodies from around the world, starting in France, and recomposed them in idiosyncratic compilations that display great variety yet live comfortably in his already established sound worlds. Much of Messiaen’s late work consists of huge pieces for large forces, ranging from opera (Saint François d’Assise, 1975–1983) to the orchestral giant Eclairs sur l’au-delà (Illuminations of the Beyond, 1991). Well known for his music’s expressions of Christian faith, Messiaen also drew significantly on concepts from other cultures (such as Indian and Balinese), especially with respect to how he approached time, orchestration, and rhythm.

Significant Works.

Messiaen maintained a consistent focus on religious topics in works largely intended for the concert hall; despite his devout Catholicism, he produced very little specifically liturgical music—instead he would practice a form of evangelism in making a shared sacrament of the concert space. This was in part, perhaps, because the liturgical was localized at the time and place of worship (Messiaen gave much to these endeavors as well, given his service as organist at La Trinité), while religious expression in music in general was more universally available, without the same strictures. The intellectual and artistic qualities of Messiaen’s works have created a broader base of positive reception beyond the Catholic population, of which portions may not be attuned to Messiaen’s personal vision. For the purposes of consistency, all biblical references have been adapted to the English New Revised Standard Edition.

Piano Music.

Messiaen’s piano music alone would ensure him an elevated status among modern composers. It was his first instrument, and throughout his life the piano maintained a privileged status in his compositions, especially after he met the pianist Yvonne Loriod; for the remainder of his life Messiaen would compose major works and soloist parts for her. In the early years his primary source of inspiration was Debussy, and that influence can be glimpsed in the Huit Préludes (1928–1929) of the 20-year-old composer, who had nevertheless already developed his own stylistic traits. What also emerges when examining Messiaen’s statements about his music is the role of personalized symbolic and synesthetic (in this case the association of specific colors with certain sonorities) relationships in his thinking; with the Préludes Messiaen had expressed the vivid relationships of the colors he associated with his music and the modes on which they are based (his own modes of limited transposition). Messiaen moved into a more spiritual realm with his work for two pianos from 1943, Visions de l’Amen, composed for himself and Loriod to play together. Divided into seven “visions” (the number of perfection), Messiaen references biblical passages and themes, including Genesis 1:3, Matthew 25:41 and 26:42, Revelation 7:11, Proverbs 4:18, Daniel, and excerpts from Baruch.

In 1944 Messiaen composed one of the monuments of the piano literature—Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Glances at the Infant Jesus). Over the course of nearly two hours, Messiaen explores the mysteries of the theological and poetic aspects of the birth of Jesus in a tour-de-force of pianistic and artistic accomplishment. Messiaen’s notes indicate that he was exploring the range of responses to the birth of Christ in his own way, but he also included references to specific biblical passages such as Matthew 3:17 and Hebrews 1:3. A symbolic system of thematic references link the movements as appropriate in what is generally a celebration of creation, communion, love, and other spiritual themes.

One of Messiaen’s influential nonreligious works was his Quatre Etudes de rythme (1949–1950). In particular, the second etude, Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, contributed to the interest in total serialism of Boulez and Stockhausen, with its organization of pitches, durations, attacks, dynamics, and tempi. The bulk of Messiaen’s remaining solo piano works stem from his observations and emulations of what he perceived as God’s manifest natural music: birdsong. The primary works that fall into this category are the Catalogue d’oiseaux (Bird Catalog in seven books—a vast collection of recontextualized birdsong gathered from around France, 1956–1958), La Fauvette des Jardins (The Garden Warbler, 1970), and the Petites Esquisses d’oiseaux (Little Bird Sketches, 1985).

Organ Music.

Messiaen’s music for organ amounts to another imposing edifice of keyboard creativity, produced over the course of his life. Given that the organ’s typical venue is the church, it is no surprise that much of Messiaen’s oeuvre for the instrument has a religious focus. His first acknowledged essay was Le Banquet céleste (The Heavenly Feast) of 1928—the Eucharist was a theme to which Messiaen would return (in Le Banquet céleste, Messiaen specifically references John 6:56). This is slow, spacious music, as is the Apparition de l’Eglise éternelle (Vision of the Eternal Church) of 1932. The Diptyque of 1929, subtitled Essai sur la vie et l’éternité bienheureuse (Essay on the Earthly Life and Blessed Eternity), was dedicated to his teachers Duruflé and Dukas, notable here because Messiaen later arranged the second part as the final movement of the Quatuor pour le fin du temps.

In 1934 Messiaen transcribed his orchestral work L’Ascension for organ, but replaced the third movement with new music. The religious references are here quite specific, as was becoming the norm for Messiaen. He gave summary titles with direct allusions, including John 17:1, a reference to an Ascension Day prayer, a conflation of two passages from Paul’s letters to the Colossians and Ephesians (Col 1:12; Eph 2:6), John 17:6, and John 17:11. La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of Our Lord, 1935) is a collection of nine meditations on themes of the nativity; it features the use of additive rhythm for destabilization, an attribute characteristic of Messiaen’s future work. Another major organ work, Les Corps glorieux (Bodies in Glory, 1939), also includes biblical references, drawing on 1 Corinthians 15:43–44, Matthew 13:43 and 22:30, and Revelation 7:17 and 8:9.

After the war, Messiaen wrote several works of liturgical import that nevertheless have value as concert works: the Messe de la Pentecôte (Mass for Pentecost, 1949–1950) and Livre d’orgue (Book for the Organ, 1950), the latter drawing specifically from the Old and New Testaments as well as birdsong. The massive Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, 1969) draws on both biblical sources and Thomas Aquinas. In addition to smaller works composed throughout his life, Messiaen contributed a final organ cycle, Le Livre du Saint Sacrement (The Book of the Holy Sacrament, 1984).

Chamber and Electronic Music.

Messiaen often provided additional verbal information for the purposes of illuminating a work. The notes for the Quatuor pour la fin du temps are a great example of the intertextual nature of Messiaen’s art; the Quatuor represents the summit of his chamber work, given the circumstances of its conception and apocalyptic vision, as well as its conceptual discipline. The year 1937 brought an outdoor work for the unusual combination of six ondes martenots, Fête des belles eaux (Celebration of the Beautiful Waters, replete with reference to the Gospel of John). Music from the L’eau movements was to be arranged as part of the beautiful Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus (Praise to the Eternity of Jesus) movement in the Quatuor. There are only a handful of other small works, such as the violin and piano pieces from the early 1930s and unpublished pieces for piano and ondes martenot.

Vocal and Choral Music.

Messiaen wrote or compiled most of his vocal texts; a highly personal early work is the Trois Mélodies from 1930, in which Messiaen used two of his own poems as bookends for a setting of one of his mother’s poems (“Le Sourire” by Cécile Sauvage, who died in 1927). The two primary vocal works of the 1930s were the song cycles Poèmes pour Mi (1936, orchestrated in 1937) and Chants de Terre et de Ciel (1938). Messiaen’s motet O sacrum convivium (1937) is a popular setting of the St. Thomas Aquinas text. The Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (Three Short Liturgies of the Divine Presence, 1944) is simultaneously sacred and experimental. Again using Messiaen’s texts for female choir, Trois petites liturgies was also a work designed for Loriod at the piano, combined with the not-quite vox humana of the ondes martenot.

The next major song cycle was composed in 1945—Harawi, with the subtitle Chant d’Amour et de Mort (Song of Life and Death). This work, along with the Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946–1948) and the Cinq Rechants (Five Refrains, 1948), is part of Messiaen’s so-called Tristan cycle. Among other reasons, the 12-voice a cappella Cinq Rechants is notable for its use of invented syllables and its ties to Indian rhythmic talas, including Messiaen’s favored nonretrogradable rhythms (palindromic rhythmic patterns). Prior to the composition of his opera, Messiaen’s magnum opus for orchestra and voices was La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, a monumental 14-movement piece in two “perfect” seven-part sections. Messiaen assembled texts largely biblical in origin. These include Matthew 17:1-9; Philippians 3:20–21; Psalms 26:8, 43:3, 48:2, 77:19, 84:2–4, 104:2; Hebrews 1:3; Luke 2:14; Genesis 28:17; the Wisdom of Solomon 7:26, and liturgical texts and excerpts from the Summa theologica of Thomas Aquinas.


Shortly after World War I, when the Messiaen family lived in Nantes, the young Olivier was given a copy of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy’s work had a profound effect on him, and for most of his life Messiaen would not feel up to the task of writing an opera. Saint François d’Assise (1983) was the fruit of more than eight years of work and a lifetime of accumulated experience—it is indeed the supreme synthesis of Messiaen’s compositional interests and techniques. More a staged oratorio than a dramatic opera, Saint François was scored for huge forces and lasts some four hours. Set in eight scenes, it is intended to be a portrayal of the development of grace in St. Francis. The near absence of negative, tension-based drama is a distinguishing feature of the work. Messiaen wrote the libretto, basing elements of the story on the Fioretti and Reflections on the Stigmata, as well as incorporating other references. The primary characters are St. Francis, the Angel, the Leper, six monks, and a chorus. Act I culminates in the third scene, “The Kissing of the Leper,” in which St. Francis overcomes his fear of the leper and in so doing cures the leper he embraces. In Act II the Angel plays a prominent role in provoking thought and revealing the divine. Scene 6, “The Sermon to the Birds,” is perhaps the musical heart of the opera and the most expansive scene, displaying Messiaen’s compositional virtuosity. Act III includes the conferral of stigmata on St. Francis, as well as his death and renewed life. The ecstatic qualities of the music are consistent with the positive theological stance that Messiaen held in most of his music—it is immediately evident that this is the same optimistic composer of the Vingt Regards. As St. Francis nears death he sings a small portion (referencing “Sister Death”) of his “Canticle of the Sun.” Luminous may be the best way to describe Messiaen’s closing music and is appropriate for much of his spiritually motivated music.


The suggestive relationships between text and music remain strong in Messiaen’s significant body of orchestral music with and without soloists. Messiaen’s early orchestral works impress with the distinction his music already has from its Impressionist forebears. Les Offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings, 1930) includes three stanzas by Messiaen referencing the Eucharist; his work of the following year, Le Tombeau resplendissant (The Resplendent Tomb, 1931), also has a preface by Messiaen, this time concerning the death of youth (Messiaen also references Matthew 5:5). The Hymne au Saint Sacrament was composed in 1932 but was lost and later reconstructed by Messiaen in 1946. L’Ascension (1932–1935) is the orchestral version (with a different third movement) of the organ meditations for Ascension Day addressed above.

A series of not explicitly religious works for orchestra were composed after World War II. The colossal ten-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946–1948) includes a solo piano part for Loriod; this work, which received a mixed critical reception, helped to cement Messiaen’s reputation as an orchestral composer. His Réveil des oiseaux (Awakening of the Birds, 1953) for piano and orchestra initiated his large-scale exploration of birdsong, structured around the passing time of day. Paired with Oiseaux exotiques (Exotic Birds, 1955–1956), Messiaen set the precedent for the omnipresence of birdsong in his remaining works. Chronochromie (Time Colors/Colored Time, 1960) and Sept Haïkaï (Seven Haiku, 1962) follow before a return to more overtly religious works, such as Couleurs de la Cité Céleste (Colors of the Heavenly City, 1963), drawing on the book of Revelation, and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (And I Await the Resurrection of the Dead, 1964), which references plainchant and biblical passages such as Psalm 130:1–2 (De Profundis), Romans 6:9, John 5:25, 1 Corinthians 15:43, Revelation 2:17, and Job 38:7. Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars, 1974) is a large work inspired by the canyons of the American West (Utah in particular). Messiaen here references the writing of Ernest Hello (whose work also was inspirational for the Visions de l’Amen), as well as Psalm 146:3–4, Job 16:18, Ephesians 3:18, Revelation 2:17 and 21:19–20, 1 Corinthians 15:41–42, Daniel 5:25–28, and the writings of Romano Guardini and the Flemish mystic John of Ruysbroeck. Visions of heaven return in the late work La Ville d’en Haut (The City Above, 1987), referencing Colossians 3:1 and Revelation 21:2.

Two additional shorter works—Un Vitrail et des Oiseaux (A Stained-Glass Window and Birds, 1988) and Un Sourire (A Smile, 1989, a homage to Mozart)—precede Messiaen’s final completed work, Éclairs sur l’au-delà (Illuminations of the Beyond, 1991), which evocatively explores Messiaen’s beliefs in 11 movements. Messiaen’s last work was only completed posthumously and is not an explicitly religious work—Concert à quatre (1992) is a concerto for flute, oboe, cello, and piano. Recent scholarship has delved into the religious aspects of Messiaen’s art, but there is much room for further exploration in this and other topics related to this major cultural figure of the twentieth century.


  • Bruhn, Siglind. Messiaen’s Interpretations of Holiness and Trinity: Echoes of Medieval Theology in the Oratorio, Organ Meditations, and Opera. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Pendragon, 2008.
  • Crispin, Judith, ed. Olivier Messiaen: The Centenary Papers. Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars, 2010.
  • Dingle, Christopher. The Life of Messiaen. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Dingle, Christopher. Messiaen’s Final Works. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2013.
  • Goetze, Albrecht, and Jörn Peter Hiekel. Religion und Glaube als künstlerische Kernkräfte im Werk von Olivier Messiaen. Hamburg, Germany: Wolke, 2010.
  • Hill, Peter, and Nigel Simeone. Messiaen. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Shenton, Andrew. Messiaen’s System of Signs. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2008.
  • Shenton, Andrew, ed. Messiaen the Theologian. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2010.
  • Sholl, Robert, ed. Messiaen Studies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

David Plylar