Emotional landscapes

Is the world finally ready for the extraordinary, passionate music of Olivier Messiaen?

Of all the mad avant-garde composers of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen was surely the maddest. The organist at a large church in Paris for nearly 60 years, he interrupted his duties only for the Second World War. As an army medic, he was captured and imprisoned in Silesia, where he composed his great Quartet for the End of Time. He was obsessed with birdsong, recording and notating the themes of species now extinct. He championed an early electronic instrument, the ondes martenot, using it not in the background, but as the solo voice in his largest works. This year is his centenary and we can anticipate a craze for his extraordinarily beautiful music.

Messiaen was born in Avignon in 1908 to Pierre Messiaen, a teacher of English, and Cécile Sauv age, a poet who during her pregnancy wrote the 2,000-line "Âme en bourgeon" ("soul in bud"), which contains much of the intense imagery - celestial bodies, the natural world, colours - that Messiaen later used. His first exposure to art was literary, and as a boy he enacted Shakespeare with his brother and improvised operatic scenes at the piano. His earliest surviving composition is entitled La dame de Shalott, after Tennyson's poem.

Messiaen studied at the Paris Conservatoire. His training was conventional and he won prizes, but he found his way out of conventional harmony by using modal scales drawn from both the medieval church and non-western musical traditions. He became organist of the Église de la Trinité in Paris in 1931, and stayed in that post until he died in 1992. His position was contradictory: his passion for experimentation made him an unusual church organist but, on the other hand, his religious devotion made him an unusual innovator. The synthesis of these contrary personalities accounts for Messiaen's originality.

He developed a taste for dissonance, which emerged in improvisation on the organ and in composition. His two greatest organ sequences date from the 1930s: 'Ascension (1933-34) and La Nativité du Seigneur (1935), both static contemplations rather than progressive narratives of a religious event. His music does not tell stories, but reflects and worships in its own right. One movement from the former, the expansively titled "Transport de joie d'une âme devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne" ("a soul's transport of joy before the glory of Christ which is his"), is surely the most thrilling emotional outburst in any art form to come out of the past century.

Joy is not often an emotion associated with the 20th-century musical avant-garde, which tended to dwell on the horror and existential absurdities of the human condition, but in Messiaen, who had faith, it is a particular feature. In the mighty Turangalîla Symphony (1946-48), the movement entitled "Joie du sang des étoiles" ("joy of the blood of stars") leaps and bounds in unbridled euphoria, an almost circus-like tune tinkling over the rich clusters of Messiaen's coruscating chords. By his own admission, he connects religious and sexual ecstasy - an idea that might seem awkward to a buttoned-up Roman Catholic, but not for a Hindu worshipper at a temple covered in erotic carvings. In Messiaen's unembarrassed theology, the sex act has a holy function in the continuation of life. "Turangalîla" is a Sanskrit term for a rhythmic pattern that expresses this simple idea.

In 1932, Messiaen married the violinist and composer Claire Delbos. Their son, Pascal, was born on Bastille Day, 1937. Delbos died in a mental hospital in 1959, by which time Messiaen had already begun a relationship with his new wife-to-be, Yvonne Loriod, a pianist and performer on the ondes martenot. It is this instrument, invented by a French army radio engineer, that whoops like a sophisticated Swanee whistle through the Turangalîla. Messiaen first heard it in 1937, and was so excited by the expressive simplicity of its sound that he immediately composed an ondes sextet.

Messiaen used the ondes to represent birds in the opera Saint François d'Assise (completed 1983). Birdsong fascinated him, not least because of its often weird, repeated and therefore deliberately atonal melodies. Messiaen made sense of what had started to switch audiences off, namely contemporary music's unsingable tunes. In the 1950s he transcribed birdsong for piano in Catalogue d'oiseaux, and for orchestra in Réveil des oiseaux and Oiseaux exotiques, borrowing the sounds both from life (going out into the Bois de Boulogne carrying a tape recorder) and from other recordings.

It was said that the cello in the original prison-camp performance of Quartet for the End of Time had only three strings. Apparently it was all the German guards could find. The cellist himself later denied this, though he confirmed the rest of the story. The clarinettist and violinist had their own instruments. It was so cold at the January 1941 premiere that some of the keys on the piano, which was no Steinway, stuck together. The audience numbered 5,000, and the German officers of Stalag VIII-A sat in the front row. One might imagine that the first listeners found Messiaen's artistic vision difficult, but no. "Never have I been heard with such attention or understanding," he said.

Until now, perhaps. Musical celebrations of his life and work begin this month at the Southbank Centre with a performance of Des Canyons aux Étoiles, his homage to the Wild West. One fancies that, once again, the world is ready to pay this great composer the attention he deserves.

"From the Canyons to the Stars: the Music of Olivier Messiaen" starts at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 1 February. For more information visit: www.southbankcentre.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God