10 December 2008

Olivier Messiaen 100


There are many websites and books where you can find out about the composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). For something a little different, I will recall how I met him in the church of La Trinité in Paris on 29th December, 1974, soon after I had left university where I had specialised in his music.

As I entered the church, I was met by the most glorious blaze of organ sound - full organ in the style of very resplendent Bach. What a tremendous welcome to La Trinité! When the mass I was attending had finished, a helpful lady was insistent that I should meet the organist and went to ask a priest where I should wait. The priest said that the organist would be "longtemps." There were some others waiting – four organ students from Vienna. One of them had met Messiaen before and the others also wanted to meet him.

Messiaen certainly was "longtemps." The others were about to leave, thinking they must have missed him. It was 20 to 25 minutes after he had stopped playing when there was the sound of a key turning somewhere above us. We argued about who was going to speak first. None of us wanted to, especially in French!

Suddenly the door opened and Messiaen’s wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, appeared. When she saw us, she smiled and stood back for her husband to appear. We were all quite overcome and struck dumb by the sight of him, but he paused as if waiting for us to speak. In the end it was I that broke the silence, and then the others joined in. Messiaen seemed interested in us, kind and friendly, and I apologised for my bad French, explaining that I was English. He asked if we were all English, so we explained our various nationalities. Messiaen enthused about the organ at La Trinité, saying what a magnificent instrument it was, and gave us a brief history of the instrument which I didn't quite grasp since he spoke only in French. He spoke of it with great warmth, affection and quiet enthusiasm. I mentioned that I knew the organist Gillian Weir and Messiaen immediately began to enthuse about her, saying what a magnificent organist she was. Was she really mon "amie?" He had a rather soft, musical voice and seemed very kindly, but also business-like and obviously didn't want to hang around for too long, though he wasn't in a hurry either. Then he turned, shook hands with me and said "Merci" really warmly, and did the same with a couple of the others. He went to join Yvonne Loriod who was already in their car, and they drove off, while we, in a state of euphoria, hardly knew where we went.

Messiaen, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, must have had visitors like this regularly, yet he was gracious enough to spend time with us and take a friendly interest, even though we were total strangers.

Listen to some Messiaen today:



Some other particularly interesting videos of Messiaen on YouTube:

Messiaen teaches his students about Debussy and Colour




Websites about Messiaen:


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