Messiaen's music is rhythmically complex (he was interested in rhythms from ancient Greek and from Hindu sources), and is harmonically and melodically based on modes of limited transposition, which were Messiaen's own innovation. Many of his compositions depict what he termed "the marvellous aspects of the faith", drawing on his unshakeable Roman Catholicism. He travelled widely, and he wrote works inspired by such diverse influences as Japanese music, the landscape of Bryce Canyon in Utah, and the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Messiaen experienced a mild form of synaesthesia manifested as a perception of colours when he heard certain harmonies, particularly harmonies built from his modes, and he used combinations of these colours in his compositions. For a short period Messiaen experimented with the parametrization associated with "total serialism", in which field he is often cited as an innovator. His style absorbed many exotic musical influences such as Indonesian gamelan (tuned percussion often features prominently in his orchestral works), and he also championed the ondes Martenot.
Messiaen found birdsong fascinating; he believed birds to be the greatest musicians and considered himself as much an ornithologist as a composer. He notated birdsongs worldwide, and he incorporated birdsong transcriptions into a majority of his music. His innovative use of colour, his personal conception of the relationship between time and music, his use of birdsong, and his intent to express religious ideas, all combine to make Messiaen's musical style notably distinctive.
On the outbreak of World War I in 1914 Pierre Messiaen became a soldier, and their mother took the two boys to live with her brother in Grenoble. Here Messiaen became fascinated with drama, reciting Shakespeare to his brother with the help of a home-made toy theatre with translucent backdrops made from old Cellophane wrappers. At this time he also adopted the Roman Catholic faith. Later, Messiaen felt most at home in the Alps of the Dauphiné, where he had a house built south of Grenoble, and he composed most of his music there.
He commenced piano lessons after having already taught himself to play. His interest embraced the recent music of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and he asked for opera vocal scores for Christmas presents. During this period he started to compose. In 1918 his father returned from the war, and the family moved to Nantes. He continued music lessons; one of his teachers, Jehan de Gibon, gave him a score of Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which Messiaen described as "a thunderbolt" and "probably the most decisive influence on me". The following year Pierre Messiaen gained a teaching post in Paris, and the family moved there. Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1919, aged 11.
At the Conservatoire Messiaen made excellent academic progress, many times finding himself top of the class. In 1924, aged 15, he was awarded second prize in harmony, in 1926 he gained first prize in counterpoint and fugue, and in 1927 he won first prize in piano accompaniment. In 1928, after studying with Maurice Emmanuel, he was awarded first prize for the history of music. Emmanuel's example engendered in Messiaen an interest in ancient Greek rhythms and exotic modes. After showing improvisation skills on the piano Messiaen began to study the organ with Marcel Dupré, and from him he inherited the tradition of great French organists (Dupré had studied with Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne; Vierne in turn was a pupil of César Franck). Messiaen gained first prize in organ playing and improvisation in 1929. After a year studying composition with Charles-Marie Widor, in the autumn of 1927 he entered the class of the newly appointed Paul Dukas who instilled in Messiaen mastery of orchestration, and in 1930 Messiaen won first prize in composition.
While he was a student he composed his first published compositions, his eight Préludes for piano (the earlier Le banquet céleste was published subsequently). These already exhibit Messiaen's use of his preferred modes of limited transposition and palindromic rhythms (Messiaen called these non-retrogradable rhythms). His public debut came in 1931 with his orchestral suite Les offrandes oubliées. Also in that year he first heard a gamelan group, which sparked his interest in the use of tuned percussion.
In 1932, Messiaen married the violinist and fellow composer Claire Delbos. Their marriage inspired him to compose works for her to play (Thème et variations for violin and piano in the year they were married), and pieces to celebrate their domestic happiness (including the song cycle Poèmes pour Mi in 1936, which Messiaen orchestrated in 1937). Mi was Messiaen's affectionate nickname for his wife. In 1937 their son Pascal was born. Messiaen's marriage turned to tragedy when his wife lost her memory after an operation, and she spent the rest of her life in mental institutions.
In 1936, Messiaen, André Jolivet, Daniel-Lesur and Yves Baudrier formed the group La Jeune France ("Young France"). Their manifesto implicitly attacked the frivolity predominant in contemporary Parisian music, rejecting Jean Cocteau's manifesto Le coq et l'arlequin of 1918 in favour of a "living music, having the impetus of sincerity, generosity and artistic conscientiousness". Messiaen's career soon departed from this public phase, however, as the music he was composing at this time was not for public commissions or conventional concerts.
In 1937, in response to a commission for a piece to accompany light- and water-shows on the Seine during the Paris Exposition, Messiaen demonstrated his interest in using the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument, by composing the unpublished Fêtes des belles eaux for an ensemble of six. He included a part for the instrument in several of his subsequent compositions.
During this period Messiaen composed several multi-movement organ works. He arranged his orchestral suite L'Ascension ("The Ascension") for organ, replacing the orchestral version's third movement with an entirely new movement, Transports de joie d'une âme devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne ("Ecstasies of a soul before the glory of Christ, which is its own glory"). This movement became one of Messiaen's most popular pieces. He also wrote the extensive cycles La Nativité du Seigneur ("The Nativity of the Lord") and Les corps glorieux ("The glorious bodies"). The final toccata of La Nativité, Dieu parmi nous ("God among us"), has become another favourite recital piece.
At the outbreak of World War II Messiaen was called up into the French army, as a medical auxiliary rather than an active combatant due to his poor eyesight. In May 1940 he was captured at Verdun, and was taken to Görlitz where he was imprisoned at prison camp Stalag VIII-A. He soon encountered a violinist, a cellist, and a clarinettist among his fellow prisoners. Initially he wrote a trio for them, but gradually incorporated this trio into his Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the End of Time"). This was first performed in the camp to an audience of prisoners and prison guards, the composer playing a poorly maintained upright piano, in freezing conditions in January 1941. Thus the enforced introspection and reflection of camp life bore fruit in one of 20th-century European classical music's acknowledged masterpieces. The "end of time" of the title is not purely an allusion to the Apocalypse, the work's ostensible subject, but also refers to the way in which Messiaen, through rhythm and harmony, used time in a way completely different from the music of his predecessors or contemporaries.
Among Messiaen's early students at the Conservatoire were the composers Pierre Boulez and Karel Goeyvaerts, and the pianist Yvonne Loriod. Other pupils later included Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1952, György Kurtág in 1957, and George Benjamin in the second half of the 1970s. The Greek Iannis Xenakis was briefly referred to him in 1951; Messiaen provided encouragement and exhorted Xenakis to take advantage of his background in mathematics and architecture, and use them in his music. Although Messiaen was only in his mid-thirties his students of the period later reported that he was already an outstanding teacher, encouraging each of them to find their own voice rather than imposing his own ideas.
In 1943, Messiaen wrote Visions de l'Amen ("Visions of the Amen") for two pianos for Loriod and himself to perform, and shortly afterwards composed the enormous solo piano cycle Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus ("Twenty gazes on the child Jesus") for her. He also wrote Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine ("Three small liturgies of the Divine Presence") for female chorus and orchestra which includes a difficult solo piano part, again for Loriod. Messiaen thus continued to bring liturgical subjects into the piano recital and the concert hall.
Two years after Visions de l'Amen, in 1945, Messiaen composed the first of three works on the theme of human (as opposed to divine) love, particularly inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde. This was the song cycle Harawi. The second of the Tristan works was the result of a commission from Serge Koussevitsky for a piece (Messiaen stated that the commission did not specify the length of the work or the size of the orchestra); this was the ten-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie. This is not a conventional symphony, but rather an extended meditation on the joy of human love and union. It lacks the sexual guilt inherent in Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde because Messiaen's attitude was that sexual love is a divine gift. The third piece inspired by the Tristan myth was Cinq rechants for twelve unaccompanied singers, which Messiaen said was influenced by the alba of the troubadours.
Messiaen visited the United States in 1947, his music being conducted there by Koussevitsky and Leopold Stokowski, and his Turangalîla-Symphonie was first performed there in 1949 conducted by Leonard Bernstein. During this period, as well as giving an analysis class at the Paris Conservatoire, he also taught in Budapest in 1947 and Tanglewood in 1949; in the summers of 1949 and 1950 he taught in the new music summer school classes at Darmstadt. Though he never employed twelve-tone technique himself, after three years teaching analysis of scores using it, such as works by Arnold Schoenberg, he did experiment with ways of making scales of other elements (including duration, articulation, and dynamics) analogous to the chromatic pitch scale. The results of these innovations was the piece "Mode de valeurs et d'intensités" for piano (from the Quatre Études de Rhythme) which has been incorrectly described as the first work of total serialism, though it had a large influence on the earliest European serial composers, including Pierre Boulez, Karel Goeyvaerts, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. During this period he also experimented with musique concrète, music for recorded sounds.
Messiaen's first wife died in 1959 following her long illness, and in 1961 he married Yvonne Loriod. He began to travel widely, both to attend musical events and to seek out and transcribe the songs of more exotic birds. Loriod frequently assisted her husband's detailed studies of birdsongs, which he notated in the wild, by walking with him and making a tape recording for checking later. In 1962 his travels took him to Japan, where Gagaku music and Noh theatre inspired him to compose the orchestral "Japanese sketches", Sept haïkaï, which contain stylised imitations of traditional Japanese instruments.
Messiaen's music was at this time championed by, among others, Pierre Boulez, who programmed first performances at his Domaine musical concerts and the Donaueschingen festival. Works performed here included Réveil des oiseaux, Chronochromie (commissioned for the 1960 festival) and Couleurs de la cité céleste. The latter piece was the result of a commission for a composition for three trombones and three xylophones; Messiaen added to this more brass, wind, percussion and piano, and specified a xylophone, xylorimba and marimba rather than three xylophones. Another work of this period, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorem, was commissioned as a commemoration of the dead of the two World Wars, and was performed first semi-privately in the Sainte-Chapelle, then publicly in Chartres Cathedral with Charles de Gaulle in the audience.
His reputation as a composer continued to grow. In 1959 Messiaen was nominated as an Officier of the Légion d'honneur, and in 1966 he was officially appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire (although he had in effect been teaching composition for years). Further honours bestowed on Messiaen later included election to the Institut de France in 1967, the Erasmus Prize in 1971, the award of the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal in 1975, the Sonning Award (Denmark's highest musical honour) in 1977, and the presentation of the Croix de Commander of the Belgian Order of the Crown in 1980.
Messiaen had been asked as early as 1971 for a piece for the Paris Opéra. Initially reluctant to undertake such a major project, in 1975 Messiaen was finally persuaded to accept the commission and began work on his Saint-François d'Assise. Composition of this work was an intensive task (he also wrote his own libretto), occupying him during the period 1975–79, and then the orchestration was carried out from 1979 until 1983. The work (which Messiaen preferred to call a "spectacle" rather than an opera) was first performed in 1983. Some commentators at the time of its first production thought that Messiaen's opera would be his valediction (indeed, at times Messiaen himself believed so), but he continued composing, bringing out a major collection of organ pieces, Livre du Saint Sacrement, in 1984, as well as further bird pieces for solo piano and pieces for piano with orchestra.
Messiaen had retired from teaching at the Conservatoire in the summer of 1978. In 1987 he was promoted to the highest rank, Grand-Croix, of the Légion d'honneur. An operation prevented his participating in events to celebrate his 70th birthday, but in 1988 tributes for Messiaen's 80th birthday around the globe included a complete performance in London's Royal Festival Hall of St. François, which the composer attended, and Erato's publication of a seventeen-CD collection of Messiaen's music including recordings by Loriod and a disc of the composer in conversation with Claude Samuel.
Messiaen's last composition resulted from a commission from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; although he was in considerable pain near the end of his life (requiring repeated surgery on his back) he was able to complete Éclairs sur l'au-delà…, which premiered six months after the composer's death. Messiaen had also been composing a concerto for four musicians he felt particularly grateful to, namely Loriod, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the oboist Heinz Holliger and the flautist Catherine Cantin. This was substantially complete when Messiaen died, and Yvonne Loriod undertook the final movement's orchestration with advice from George Benjamin.
It is almost impossible to mistake a Messiaen composition for the work of any other Western classical composer. His music has been described as outside the western musical tradition, although growing out of that tradition and influenced by it. Much of Messiaen's output denies the western conventions of forward motion, development and diatonic harmonic resolution. This is partly due to the symmetries of his technique — for instance the modes of limited transposition do not admit the conventional cadences found in western classical music.
Messiaen's youthful love for the fairy-tale element in Shakespeare prefigured his later expressions of what he called "the marvellous aspects of the [Roman Catholic] Faith" — among which may be numbered Christ's Nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Transfiguration, the Apocalypse and the hereafter. Messiaen was not interested in depicting aspects of theology such as sin; rather he concentrated on the theology of joy, divine love, and human redemption.
Although Messiaen continually evolved new composition techniques, he integrated them into his musical style; so, for instance, his final work still retains the use of modes of limited transposition. For many commentators this continual development of Messiaen's musical language made every major work from the Quatuor onwards a conscious summation of all that Messiaen had composed up to that time. However, very few of these major works contain no new technical ideas — simple examples being the introduction of communicable language in Meditations, the invention of a new percussion instrument (the geophone) for Des canyons aux etoiles…, and the freedom from any synchronisation with the main pulse of individual parts in certain birdsong episodes of St. François d'Assise.
As well as discovering new techniques for himself, Messiaen found and absorbed exotic music into his compositional style, including Ancient Greek rhythms, Hindu rhythms (he encountered Śārṅgadeva's list of 120 rhythmic units, the deçî-tâlas) Balinese and Javanese Gamelan, birdsong, and Japanese music (see Example 1 for an instance of his use of ancient Greek and Hindu rhythms).
While he was instrumental in the academic exploration of his techniques (he published two treatises, the later one in five volumes which was substantially complete when he died), and was himself a master of music analysis, he considered the development and study of techniques to be a means to intellectual, aesthetic and emotional ends. In this connection, Messiaen maintained that a musical composition must be measured against three separate criteria: to be successful it must be interesting, beautiful to listen to, and it must touch the listener.
Messiaen wrote a large body of music for the piano. Although a considerable pianist himself, he was undoubtedly assisted by Yvonne Loriod's formidable piano technique and ability to convey complex rhythms and rhythmic combinations; in his piano writing from Visions de l'Amen onwards he had her in mind. Messiaen said, "I am able to allow myself the greatest eccentricities because to her anything is possible.
Messiaen also had a great admiration for the music of Igor Stravinsky, particularly his use of rhythm in earlier works such as The Rite of Spring, and also his use of colour. He was also influenced by the orchestral brilliance of Heitor Villa-Lobos, who lived in Paris in the 1920s and gave acclaimed concerts there. Among composers for the keyboard Messiaen singled out Jean-Philippe Rameau, Domenico Scarlatti, Frédéric Chopin, Debussy and Isaac Albéniz. He also loved the music of Modest Mussorgsky, and Messiaen incorporated varied modifications of what he called the "M-shaped" melodic motif from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov into his music, although Messiaen characteristically modified the final interval in this motif from a perfect fourth to a tritone (Example 3).
Messiaen was also influenced by Surrealism, as may be seen from the titles of some of the piano Préludes (Un reflet dans le vent…, "A reflection in the wind") and in some of the imagery of his poetry (he published poems as prefaces to certain works, for example Les offrandes oubliées).
George Benjamin said, when asked what Messiaen's main influence had been on composers, "I think the sheer […] colour has been so influential, […] rather than being a decorative element, [Messiaen showed that colour] could be a structural, a fundamental element, […] the fundamental material of the music itself.
From his earliest works Messiaen often used non-retrogradable (palindromic) rhythms (Example 2).
Messiaen sometimes combined rhythms with harmonic sequences in such a way that if the process were allowed to proceed indefinitely the music would eventually run through all the possible permutations and return to its starting point. For Messiaen, this represented what he termed the "charm of impossibilities" of these processes. In practice, of course, Messiaen only ever presented a portion of any such process, as if allowing the informed listener a glimpse of something eternal. In the first movement of Quatuor pour la fin du temps the piano and cello together provide an early example.
Messiaen considered his rhythmic contribution to music to be his distinguishing mark among modern composers. As well as making use of non-retrogradable rhythms, and the Hindu decî-tâlas, Messiaen also made use of "additive" rhythms. This involves lengthening individual notes slightly or interpolating a short note into an otherwise regular rhythm (see Example 3 or to Danse de fureur from the Quatuor), or shortening or lengthening every note of a rhythm by the same duration (adding a semiquaver to every note in a rhythm on its repeat, for example). This led Messiaen to use rhythmic cells alternating between two and three units, a process which also occurs in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring which Messiaen admired.
A factor that contributes to Messiaen's suspension of the conventional perception of time in his music is the extremely slow tempos he often specifies (the 5th movement Louange à l'Eternité de Jésus of Quatuor is actually given the tempo marking infiniment lent); and even in his quick music he often uses repeated phrases and harmonies to make the speed seem static.
Messiaen also used the concept of "chromatic durations", for example in his Soixante-quatre durées from Livre d'orgue, which assigns a distinct duration to 64 pitches ranging from long to short and low to high, respectively.
Messiaen, in addition to making harmonic use of the modes of limited transposition, also cited the harmonic series as a physical phenomenon which provides chords with a context which he felt to be missing in purely serial music. An example of Messiaen's harmonic use of this phenomenon, which he called "resonance", is the last two bars of Messiaen's first piano Prélude, La colombe ("The dove"); the chord is built from harmonics of the fundamental base note E.
Related to this use of resonance, Messiaen also composed music where the lowest, or fundamental, note is combined with higher notes or chords played much more quietly. These higher notes, far from being perceived as conventional harmony, function as harmonics that alter the timbre of the fundamental note like mixture stops on a pipe organ. An example is the song of the golden oriole in Le loriot of the Catalogue d'oiseaux for solo piano (Example 4).
In a related development, Messiaen introduced what he called a "communicable language", in which he used a "musical alphabet" to encode sentences. This technique was first introduced in his Meditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité for organ; in this work the "alphabet" also includes motifs for the concepts to have, to be, and God, and the sentences encoded include sections from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.
A number of Messiaen's compositions were not sanctioned by the composer for publication. They include the following, some of which have been published posthumously, and some of which are lost.