Olivier Messaien

Olivier Messiaen was born in Avignon in 1908. He was a composer, organist and ornithologist, and one of the major French composers of the 20th century. His music is rhythmically complex and he was influenced by rhythms from ancient Greek and Hindu sources. Many of his compositions depict what he termed "the marvellous aspects of the faith", and drew on his deeply held Roman Catholicism. He was one of the first composers to use an electronic keyboard, the ondes Martenot, in an orchestral work.

Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11 and was taught by Paul Dukas, Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré, amongst others. He was appointed organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris in 1931, a post he held until his death. He taught at the Schola Cantorum de Paris during the 1930s. On the fall of France in 1940, Messiaen was made a prisoner of war, during which time he composed his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of time) for the four instruments available inside the concentration camp, namely piano, violin, cello and clarinet. The piece was first performed by Messiaen and fellow prisoners for an audience of inmates and prison guards. He was appointed Professor of Harmony at the Paris Conservatoire soon after his release in 1941, and Professor of Composition in 1966, positions he held until his retirement in 1978. He found birdsong fascinating, and considered himself as much an ornithologist as a composer. He notated bird songs worldwide and incorporated birdsong transcriptions into much of his music. Famous as a composer of programmatical sacred organ music (there are more than seven hours of it), and wanting to represent this not as sin and atonement, but as the joy of divine love, he wrote the substantial suites linked to the key events of Christ’s life; La Nativité, Les Corps Glorieux, and L’Ascension.

Jean Langlais

Langlais was born the youngest of four into abject poverty in a small village in Brittany in 1907. Like Vierne some forty years previously, he was sent to study at the Institution des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, having become blind at the age of 2 due to glaucoma. Here he studied piano, organ and harmony, and eventually was accepted as an organ pupil of Dupré at the Paris Conservatoire, from which he graduated with the Premier Prix in 1930. His other teachers at the Conservatoire included Dukas and Tournemire. In 1932 he won the Premiere Prix for composition and joined the teaching staff of the Institution des Jeunes Aveugles, teaching composition and organ and conducting the choir in music by Palestrina and Bach. In 1945 he followed in the footsteps of César Franck and Tournemire as organist of Ste Clotilde - a post he was to hold for 42 years. In 1952 he made the first of many visits to the USA for organ recitals and teaching; many of his compositions after this date were written for Americans and American institutions, and he gave over 300 organ recitals in the USA. Approximately a quarter of his total output is based on Gregorian themes, treated in a way similar to Duruflé’s music, with great inventiveness, polymodal harmony and countermelodies. Almost all of his music was written as an expression of his deeply-held religious faith, particularly to the Virgin Mary, although secular works include the American Suite (1959), works paying homage to Rameau and Frescobaldi, and some chamber music for string ensembles. His prodigious output includes over 300 pieces for organ – more than J.S. Bach produced. His musical language is that of a late free-tonal style with rich and complicated harmonic progressions and free flowing modulations. The Messe Solennelle was written, and first performed in Ste Clotilde, in 1949. It was the first of four settings of the mass which he made; the final one, Solemn Mass Orbis Factor, was premiered in Washington DC in 1969. Langlais died in Paris in 1991.