The Music of Olivier Messiaen

The Music of Olivier Messiaen

Update: 2022-07-07


There is one composer who I’ve never devoted a full show to that fills me with the same devotion and ecstasy as the people who claim that Wagner almost immediately dissolves them into tears. His music is widely played, but it has never been totally embraced by the wider classical music audience. There are a variety of reasons for this, but his uniquely 20th century language of tonality mixed with atonality mixed with something completely different from anyone who has ever written music makes it sometimes difficult to pin down his vast contribution to the world of music. His music is as deeply connected to his religious faith as any composer in history, and yes, that includes Bach. His music is as deeply connected to Nature as any composer who ever lived, and his music is tied directly to the colors he saw as he played and listened to it. His name is Olivier Messiaen, and he is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. I wish I could describe to you the otherworldly feeling I get when I listen to his music, but for a very long time, I shied away from it.  Perhaps the reason is that it’s extremely hard to talk about Messiaen’s musical outlook without talking about his religious faith. I’m a non-religious Jewish person, so the depths of devotion that Messiaen describes regularly as his inspirations were and are foreign to me. And yet, the first time I heard his L’Ascension, every single hair on my body seemed to stand on end. I was completely blown away by these ravishing harmonies, how light seemed to shine off of them, how Messiaen translated his religious devotion into sound. I’ve not talked about Messiaen’s music on the show because it’s not easy to grapple with, but I can’t wait any longer. Today I’ll tell you a bit about Messiaen’s life, his upbringing, his musical and religious revelations, and then I’ll discuss some of his greatest pieces using three frameworks - religion, nature and specifically birdsong, and color. Join us!









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The Music of Olivier Messiaen

The Music of Olivier Messiaen

Joshua Weilerstein