Messiaen’s Muse

“Messiaen” (Peter Hill, Nigel Simeone)

I have recently been reading Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone’s splendid new biography of French composer/organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Messiaen wrote voluminously about his own music, and his works have been dissected in any number of other books, but he was stubbornly private about his own life and there is no previous biography of Messiaen that discusses the details of his personal life, especially the tragic mental decline of his first wife, Claire Delbos, also a talented composer and performer, who slid into a kind of Alzheimer’s-like stupor and was institutionalized for years before her death. Peter Hill is a respected pianist and notable exponent of Messiaen’s piano works. The authors have had full access to Messiaen’s diaries, notebooks and calendars, thanks to his widow, the pianist Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, who was also Messiaen’s muse and most brilliant performer. She assisted in the preparation of the materials for this book. In twentieth-century music, perhaps only the personal and professional partnership of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears comes close to matching that of Messiaen and Loriod.

The real heroine of this story is Yvonne Loriod (b.1924) who has devoted her entire life to performing Messiaen’s works, copying scores and parts, taking care of Messiaen (including driving him around in a car that she bought herself, cooking and cleaning his house long before they married in 1961, several years after Messiaen’s first wife died). Loriod became Messiaen’s pupil at the age of 18 and quickly became indispensable. She is deserving of her own book-length biography. Her performances (which continued into her 70s) were legendary; for example, performing twenty-two Mozart concertos in a period of one week; giving the first performance of Pierre Boulez’s second piano sonata (It has been said that the score was so difficult and dense and even Loriod—no slouch with modern music—broke into tears when she saw it.); performing Messaien’s three-hour Catalogue d’oiseaux from memory with one interval. Loriod’s piano students include Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who is the leading interpreter of Messiaen and Boulez of this generation.

The Hill/Simeone book is full of never-before-published photos of Messiaen and Loriod, their friends and associates, and illustrations of Messiaen’s manuscripts and notebooks. (Especially interesting are the cahiers in which Messiaen notated on manuscript paper birdsongs out in the field.) This volume stands to be the standard biography of Messiaen for the foreseeable future.

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