Messiaen was an exemplary student. He excelled in all areas
of his craft, taking prizes in harmony, counterpoint and fugue, piano
accompaniment, organ and eventually composition. His first works to be
published were written while he was a student. In 1931, he made his public
debut as a composer, and was also appointed organist at the Église de la
Sainte-Trinité in Paris, a position which he held until his death.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Messiaen was
conscripted into the French army. Poor eyesight, however, kept him from serving
as an active combatant. Nevertheless, he was captured at Verdun and eventually
imprisoned at Stalag VIII-A, near Görlitz (now Zgorzelec in modern day Poland).
There he befriended a violinist, a cellist and a clarinetists, all fellow
prisoners, and composed for them his Quatuor
pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the End of Time"), one of his most
famous compositions. Its title served a dual purpose, suggesting both the
Apocalypse (Messiaen maintained a strong Catholic faith throughout his life)
and his unique treatment of rhythm.
Almost immediately following his release from Görlitz,
Messiaen was granted the position of professor of harmony at the Paris
Conservatoire. His early students included Pierre Boulez, who would later
champion Messiaen's music; later students included Karlheinz Stockhausen,
Alexander Goehr and George Benjamin. In his teaching, Messiaen included the
works of serial composers, notably Arnold Schoenberg, leading him to eventually
experiment with serializing other aspects of music beyond pitch. Though his is
erroneously given credit for the first work of total serialism, his interest in
this area was nonetheless influential on Boulez and Stockhausen. During this
time, he also became interested in musique
Beginning in the 1950s, Messiaen began to incorporate
heavily into this music the use of birdsong. Birdsong fascinated him from an
early age and he had already incorporated stylized examples in his works.
However, his use of birdsong became increasingly complex eventually becoming
the central element of entire compositions. His reputation
as a composer grew continually during this time. In 1959, he became an Officier of the Légion d'honneur, eventually attaining the highest rank of Grand-Croix in 1987. In 1966, he
officially became the professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire.
Later, he received a commission to compose a piece to celebrate the United
States' bicentennial, as well as another from the Paris Opéra for his only opera,
Saint-François d'Assise. In 1978, he
retired from his post at the Conservatoire.
Despite declining health and serious pain, Messiaen
continued to compose until his death on April 27, 1992. Following his death,
his wife, the violinist Yvonne Loriod, discovered a concerto that he was
composing for her, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the oboist Heinz Holliger
and the flautist Catherine Cantin. Loriod, with the help of Messiaen's former
pupil George Benjamin, completed the work, which was premiered by its
dedicatees in 1994.
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