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Music / Olivier Messiaen

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Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a French composer of classical music.

He was a pianist, organist, composer, and devout Catholic Christian. Religion figured strongly into his compositions; he wrote an opera about Saint Francis of Assisi and a two-hour cycle of twenty piano pieces meant to be contemplations on the infant Jesus. Among music theorists, he's also known for developing and using a set of scales he called "modes of limited transposition", as well as a frequent lack of time signature, which results in anything from irregular, jagged rhythms to something akin to Medieval chant, which was also unmetered. He was also very interested in birdsong; he tried to transcribe bird sounds into musical notation, and wrote instrumental imitations of bird calls into some of his music.

Famous works by Olivier Messiaen include:

  • Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the End of Time", quartet for piano, clarinet, violin, and cello)
  • Saint François d'Assise ("Saint Francis of Assisi", opera)
  • Turangalîla-Symphonie ("Turangalila Symphony", work for large orchestra; the character Turanga Leela from Futurama is named after this piece)
  • Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus ("Twenty Contemplations upon the Infant Jesus", set of piano pieces)

Tropes represented in his work:

  • All There in the Manual: His work often followed certain special rules of tonality derived from scales he called "modes of limited transposition". Some are relatively obvious (such as the better-known whole-tone and octatonic scales), but for a full explanation, you ought to consult his writings about these modes.
  • Avant-Garde Music: Especially in its rhythm and harmony, most of Messiaen's musical style is pretty far out there.
  • Author Appeal: Topics that fascinated Messiaen included bird song, his Catholic faith, and the legend of Tristan and Iseult. These can be found everywhere in his music. Also noteworthy was his synesthesia: many of his own prefaces casually refer to individual motifs and chords as "golden", "purple", "orange" etc. despite the fact that most listeners cannot possibly get the reference (even other synesthetes don't necessarily have the same associations to the same sound).
  • Avian Flute: The flute/piano duo The Blackbird is one of this composer's earliest works to show his affinity for avian song. The flute's bird-like arsenal of effects includes trills, fast staccato passages, grace-note embellishments, and fleet scalar figures.
  • In Harmony with Nature: Wrote several works glorifying nature, including "Catalogue des Oiseaux" ("Bird Catalogue") and "Des Canyons Aux Etoiles" ("[Looking] Out of the canyons to the Stars").
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Messiaen was a very devout Catholic and wrote multiple sacred works. He also drew from the Catholic faith for inspiration while composing.
  • Reality Subtext: Quatuor pour la fin du temps, which reflects on themes about The End of the World as We Know It, was composed while Messiaen was a prisoner of war during World War II. It was premiered in a concert with other prisoners.
  • Signature Style: A highly distinctive one, including the use of birdsong as melody, cyclical structures, and massive chords that are also colours.
  • Uncommon Time: Messiaen's use of rhythm is extremely complex even as twentieth-century music goes, often based on patterns from Hindu music or palindromic forms ("nonretrogradable rhythms"). As under All There in the Manual, he wrote a treatise on rhythm... which is seven volumes long.
  • World of Symbolism: Some of his works are like this. The Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus features not just titles that are related to various things related to baby Jesus, but extensive annotations throughout the score indicating leitmotifs and other musical constructions that are meant to represent various concepts, characters, or events.