Birdsongs: Olivier Messiaen


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When I was still a student in Paris, a friend sent me on a quest. He wanted me to get the autograph of a composer named Olivier Messiaen.
He told me that Messiaen was a genius, that he used birdsongs to compose some of his music.

He told me it should not be such a hard task because the composer was an organist at the Trinite Church. He played the organ for mass every Sunday so if I could find the church, I could also find the composer.

I discovered the hardest thing about finding Monsieur Messaien would be trying to pronounce his name. Luckily for a beginning French student, La Trinite is a lot easier to pronounce. Once I arrived at the church and the services had finished – it also wasn’t too hard to find M. Messaien. Already a number of people had begun to line up beside the door that led to the choir loft.

In time, the organist/composer emerged. He was white-haired and wore glasses. He seemed to have plenty of time for every one of us who waited in turn to greet him. When it was my turn, I handed him the composition my friend had written and had asked for him to autograph. Messiaen took some time to look at the compostion and then jotted down his wishes to the fellow musician – my friend way back in Brooklyn.

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I also had brought a few poems which I asked him to autograph. Luckily, I didn’t know at the time how he was about as accomplished in the literary field as he was in music. The poems were paltry next to his autograph – so in my photo album I covered the poems with a photo and just left the signature in view.

It wasn’t until many years later that I attended a Messiaen concert in the Bastille Opera House. He had already passed away but his wife played the piano and Rostropovich played. We had second row seats and could see Rostropovitich’s animated facial expressions throughout the concert – he was elated.

I admit – Messiaen’s tonal works are hard for me to grasp. He has been called one of the greatest composers of our era. (My friend from Brooklyn said that if I had grown up listening to atonal music rather than Beethoven and Mozart, it would be a different story). However, I’m glad that I had the opportunity to hear him play the organ at the Trinite church. That was a concert that I did understand – as well as his kindness to a stranger.

Many concerts will be held in Paris and throughout the world during 2008 to celebrate the Messiaen centenniel – and no, I never did learn how to pronounce his name properly.

Trinite Church
Metro: Trinite
9th Arrondissement

This year (2008) Trinite Church will be sponsoring 18 free Messiaen concerts. Check out the Trinite Church website for the program.