Jamie Hitel plays the organ of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Akron, Ohio, USA
Olivier Eugène Prosper Charles Messiaen was born on 10th December, 1908, in Avignon, France. He was the son of Shakespearean scholar Pierre Messiaen and poet Cécile Sauvage, and as such was destined to become one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century.
His musical genius manifested itself at an early age. He was ten years old when he received a score of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and was profoundly affected. He knew then that he was meant to be a composer. He began studying at the Paris Conservatoire at the remarkably young age of 11, and continued his formal training there until 1930. Among his famous professors were Dukas and Dupré. His first published works Le Banquet Céleste (The Heavenly Banquet) for organ in 1928 and the Eight Preludes for Piano in 1929, already displayed his interest and influence of ancient Greek modes and the meters of Greek verse.
Though his parents were not religious, Messiaen claimed that he was “born a believer”. His faith was the cornerstone of his life. He gave his playing and his prodigious output of compositions to the glory of God. The Nativity, the Transfiguration of our Lord, the Resurrection, the Ascension of Jesus Christ and the hope of mankind in the afterlife were the religious themes to which he was most attracted.
He also had a passion for the natural world that God had made, particularly for birds, which he claimed to be “the finest musicians on the planet”. Many of his works are dedicated to reproducing the unique songs of birds. Along with the aforementioned birds and ancient modes, he was influenced by the music of India, as catalogued in Sanskrit writings on melodic shapes and rhythms, and Asian music and form, particularly from Japan. He incorporated all of these elements into his compositions. In short, he created a unique musical language using these influences, which can be appreciated in his chromatic modal scales, rich textures, and striking use of rhythm.
One of the most unusual aspects of his music was his perception and use of colour. Messiaen had a rare neurological “gift” called synesthesia, which is the blending of two different senses. The majority of synesthetes describe seeing colours that correspond to letters and numbers, but Messiaen saw colours that corresponded to music. He used this ability to compose sounds just as a painter uses paint to produce pictures. He said, “I think (and see) complexes of sound that correspond to complexes of colours. A complex of ten or twelve sounds, for example, may correspond to a red flecked with violet with orange streaks…the same sound complex always engenders the same colour complex, which is reproduced in lighter shades in high octaves and in darker shades in low octaves. But if the sound complex is transposed by a semitone, one tone, a third, a fourth, or a fifth, the colours change.” This phenomenon of synesthesia is actively being studied in many Universities, including an ongoing study at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
At the age of twenty-two he finished his studies at the Conservatoire, and was appointed Titular Organist for La Sainte Trinité (Holy Trinity) in Paris, a position which he held for life. This Church houses a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ which, constructed in the French tradition, was created to reproduce symphonic sound. He composed many pieces specifically for this organ including Les Corps Glorieux (The Glorified Bodies), heard on this recording.
After his marriage in 1934 to violinist Claire Delbos, he wrote pieces expressing a new theme, the joy of family, such as Poèmes Pour Mi (Poems for Mi), Mi being his pet name for Claire, and Chants de Terre et de Ciel (Songs of Earth and Heaven), written after the birth of their son Pascal in 1937.
In 1939 he served in the military and was captured and became a prisoner of war in Silesia, Germany. His Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) was written in the prison camp for the unlikely but available combination of clarinet, violin, piano and cello. It was first performed for 5000 prisoners and guards. It is probably still his best-known work.
Upon his repatriation to France, he began a long teaching career at the Paris Conservatoire where his classes in composition, theory and analysis had a great influence on many, including Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez, George Benjamin and Yvonne Loriod. Unfortunately, tragedy befell him when his wife became gravely ill and completely lost her memory following an operation. She died in 1959 after many years in a sanatorium.
During this difficult time, his pupil, the brilliant pianist Yvonne Loriod, became increasingly important to him and he wrote many pieces to suit her talents. Among these were Visions de L’Amen and a song cycle Harawi which became the first of a trilogy based on the Tristan legend. The others were the Turangalîla-symphonie and the Cinq Rechants for twelve mixed voices.
His personal life became joyful again when Messiaen and Loriod were married in 1962. Much time was spent composing at his home near Grenoble, amidst the birds that inspired him. The immense work Catalogue d’Oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds) for solo piano, required travelling throughout France to study birds in their natural habitats. His Oiseaux Exotiques (Exotic Birds) is based on the tropical birds of the Americas and Asia. His “bird period” culminated in Chronochromie for orchestra where the bird songs and shrieks are heard among impressions of rocks and waterfalls. Continuing his travels, he and Loriod went to Japan, where he wrote Sept Haïkaï, to celebrate the Asian music he found so inspiring.
In 1964 the French Government commissioned Messiaen to compose a piece to honour those who had died in World War II. Instead of the expected Requiem Mass, he composed a symphonic wind and percussion piece Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum (And I Look For The Resurrection of the Dead) taken from the Nicene Creed, again emphasising his strong and firm belief in the joy of the afterlife.
These are but a few examples of Messiaen’s numerous compositions. Though often hailed as a genius, he was not initially universally appreciated, as is often the case when someone breaks new ground. Yet Messiaen remained true to his own vision of music, harmony and rhythm throughout.
In 1978 he retired from teaching, allowing him more opportunities for travel, study and performance. Always a gentleman, he was described as kind and gentle, happy to talk to music lovers at his various concerts, and to sign autographs. The end of his life saw him finally heaped with honours in his native France and throughout the world. There is probably not a single composer in the second half of the 20th century and this century who has not been influenced by his work.
He died in Paris on 28th April, 1992. The United States chose to honour him by naming a mountain in Utah “Mount Messiaen”, where his beloved birds continue to make “the most beautiful music on the planet”.
Akron, Ohio 2003
Jamie Hitel is the Organist and Choirmaster at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio. He was born in 1967 in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England, where he received his early music education. At the age of 14 he became Director of Music at St Alban’s Church in Westcliff, Essex, a position which he held until 1985, whereupon he began studying for his degree at Cambridge University. He studied economics and theology, whilst undertaking an organ scholarship at Robinson College. During this time he studied organ with David Sanger and James O’Donnell (currently organist at Westminster Abbey). At Cambridge his other duties as organ scholar included directing the Chapel Choir, conducting orchestral concerts, and arranging annual choir tours throughout Europe.
Upon completion of his studies, Jamie moved to the west coast of Norway to work as a church organist in two different locations.
Following 3 years in Norway, Jamie returned to England to take up the position of Director of Music at Waltham Abbey, Essex - an ancient church dating back to 1060, where his predecessors included the eminent Thomas Tallis. He worked in Waltham Abbey for 8 years, during which time he studied organ with Peter Hurford and Kevin Bowyer, and developed and expanded the church’s music programme, making 3 CD recordings of the choir and organ, culminating in the disc For the Fallen, Music for Remembrance (Lammas, 1998), which received critical acclaim. In August 1999, Jamie reached the finals of the Franz Liszt International Organ Competition in Budapest, Hungary.
In 2000 Jamie accepted the position of Organist and Choirmaster at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio, home to the Royal School of Church Music in America. His duties here include directing the Choir of Men and Boys, The St Cecilia Girls’ Choir, St Paul’s Chorus, The Madrigal Singers, and the Chapel Choir (auditioned mixed voices). He is Artistic Director of St Paul’s Concert Series, showcase to some of the finest young musical talent in the world. Jamie maintains a full schedule of services, choral concerts, solo recitals, touring, and recording. His most recent choral CD, For “M” is Musick (Lammas 2002), features a selection of music sung by the choirs of St Paul’s, including Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and the world première recording of Paul Ayres’ Advent Fantasia for organ.
In his spare time, Jamie enjoys running, cookery and art.
For further information, please visit his website.
Produced by Alastair Stout
Recorded and edited by Lance Andrews
Photograph by 831 Photography