The Organ Music of Olivier Messiaen

by Thomas Brett

If you’re into long tones, drones and shimmering chords, you might like the organ music of French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992).  While I was a music student in college I discovered the organ music of Messiaen through a CD of some of his best known works. Messiaen was the organist at La Trinite Church in Paris for over 60 years, and in the YouTube video below we learn about the importance of La Trinite church and its organ to the composer, who used to improvise at the instrument in order to try out experiments with sound combinations during midday masses.  These improvisations would later become written compositions.

Here’s a clip of Messiaen improvising at the organ:

Finally, for a representative example of the dynamic, timbral, and emotional range of Messiaen’s organ music, listen his piece “La nativite du seigneur” (1935), a work Messiaen says was inspired by theology, mountains near the Swiss Alps, and the stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals.  The movement in this clip is called “Dieu Parmi Nous.”  If you are into chords and all the emotional hues chords can have, pay close attention at 0:46-1:42 where you can hear Messiaen’s utterly singular harmonic language unfolding over long tones.  Also, the very last chord is a humongous construction of notes that seems to last, well, forever!