Olivier MessiaenComposer and organist Olivier Messiaen was born on Dec. 10, 1908, in Avignon. He had many musical influences, like Claude Debussy, and his teachers, Maurice Emmanuel, Marcel Dupré, and Paul Dukas, but his body of work is utterly unique from theirs and from other modernist music. It is created in modes (both European and Asian) rather than diatonic scales, but still does not strictly following modal harmonies, yet isn't cerebrally atonal; and it incorporates rhythm -- or suspends it -- as a building block separate from pitch. Without going into too much detail about his life, there are several recurring themes that appear in his music.

More than any other theme, Messiaen's Catholic faith runs like a wide, smooth, shining ribbon through his works, even as he absorbed ideas from other cultures. Unlike other French organist-composers, who would compose works primarily for liturgical use, Messiaen's devotional works are for performance outside of a ritualistic setting. A few of the highlights of these pieces are Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine, Visions de l'Amen, Méditations sur le mystère de Sainte Trinité, and Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus.

Maîtrise & Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France; Myung-Whun Chung, cond. - Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine
Andreas Grau, Gotz Schumacher, pianos - Visions de l'Amen: Amen de la Création
Gillian Weir, organ - Méditations sur le mystère de Sainte Trinité: Le Père ingendré
Peter Serkin, piano - Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus: Regard du Père
Messiaen: Catalogue d'oiseauxAs a student, Messiaen began notating birdsong as he heard it to use as an alternative to traditional modes and scales. He did not just imitate the songs, but used it note for note, and frequently would also try to musically depict the birds and their environments. The avian sounds show up incidentally in several works, but others are specifically based on the birdsong, like Le merle noir for flute and, most famously, his massive Catalogue d'oiseaux for piano. And it wasn't just birdsong that fascinated Messiaen, it was the natural world in general and its existence outside of or separate from man's life.

Kenneth Smith, flute - Le merle noir
Anatol Ugorski, piano - Catalogue d'oiseaux: The golden oriole
Family and personal events also play a large role in Messiaen's music. His mother was the poet Cécile Sauvage, on whose set of poems L'âme en bourgeon ("The Budding Soul") -- which she wrote when she was pregnant with Olivier -- he recorded organ improvisations. He wrote the song cycle Poèmes pour Mi for his first wife and Chants de terre et de ciel after the birth of his son in 1937. The Quatuor pour la fin du temps was written for himself and three other inmates of Stalag VIII-A, where he was a prisoner of war in 1940-1941. Many of his compositions after the war were written with pianist Yvonne Loriod in mind, including Visions de l'Amen (for two pianos) and Vingt regards (piano solo), Harawi (song cycle), and the masterpiece Turangalîla-symphonie. She was one of his students at the Paris Conservatoire and became his second wife two years after the death of his first wife.

Françoise Pollet, soprano; Cleveland Orchestra; Pierre Boulez, cond. - Poèmes pour Mi: Action des grâces
Suzie Leblanc, soprano; Robert Kortgaard, piano - Chants de terre et de ciel: Antienne du silence
Soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra - Quatour pour la fin du temps: Liturgie de cristal
Judith Vindevogel, soprano; Alain Franco, piano - Harawi: La ville qui dormait, toi
Orchestre de l'Opéra Bastille; Myung-Whun Chung, cond. - Turangalîla-symphonie:Chant d'amour I

Messiaen: Turangalîla-SymphonieHarawi and Turangalîla are parts of a triology based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult. (The final part is the Cinq rechants.) In Turangalîla -- from the Sanskrit -- Messiaen experimented with rhythmic techniques and instrumentation, famously using the electronic ondes martenot and a percussion section full of metallophones. A similarly large-scale work, Des canyons aux étoiles... (From the canyons to the stars…), from the early 1970s, in a way represents a confluence of the many currents in Messiaen's music -- the distinctive instrumentation and rhythmic experimentation, the love of nature, the spiritual journey -- all in a work inspired by photos of Utah's landscape.

Marja Bon, piano; Asko Ensemble; Schonberg Ensemble; Slagwerkgroep den Haag; Reinbert de Leeuw, cond. - Des canyons aux étoiles...: Zion Park et la Cité céleste
No matter where you start, listening to Messiaen's music can be a visionary, mystical, majestic, and yet personal and always intense experience.