November 3, 2013: The Celestial Banquet

November 03, 2013 10:30

"Le Banquet Celéste" ("The Celestial Banquet") Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) was a French composer, organist, and ornithologist(!), considered one of the important composers of the 20th century. As a boy he liked to enact Shakespeare plays with the help of his brother in a home-made theater. He also asked Santa for opera scores for Christmas. He entered the Paris Conservatory of Music at age 11 – one of his teachers was Paul Dukas (most famous for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — think Fantasia and Mickey Mouse with wooden buckets hauling water).

At age 19 Messiaen joined an organ course taught by Marcel Dupré (a famous organist). Dupré later wrote that Messiaen, having never seen an organ console, sat quietly for an hour while Dupré explained and demonstrated the instrument, and then came back a week later to play J.S. Bach’s Fantasia in C minor to an impressive standard. From age 21 he was regularly the substitute organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité, Paris, and became their organist at age 24, a post he held for more than sixty years.

Messiaen married at age 24, and he and his wife Claire had a son Pascal. Sadly, Claire suffered complications during an operation that resulted in the complete loss of her memory and steadily declining health, and she was placed in a nursing home. Messiaen remarried after her death 27 years later.

At the outbreak of WWII, Messiaen was drafted, but due to his poor eyesight he was assigned to the medical corps instead of the front line. He was nevertheless captured at Verdun and imprisoned at Stalag VIII-A. There he met violinist, a cellist and a clarinetist among his fellow prisoners. So he wrote his Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps ("Quartet for the End of Time"), first performed in January 1941 to an audience of prisoners and prison guards, with the composer playing a beastly upright piano in freezing conditions. His “Quartet“ is now considered one of the important works of the 20th century.

Messiaen was a life-long devout Catholic, particularly known for his mystical, gentle and other-worldly organ music. Such as this morning’s prelude.

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