Recontextualising Messiaen's Early Career

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This thesis independently re-examines Messiaen’s early career and development. It assesses his personal, professional and musical associations with early contemporaries – colleagues, teachers and critics – and places his aesthetic outlook in a wider context.

In his later life, a simplistic mythology of ‘difference’ grew up around Messiaen; he was perceived as a ‘visionary’ in a rational age and as a ‘simple man of faith’ in a complex and secular time. This mythology has given rise to an implicit misconception of Messiaen that places him apart from the main currents of the twentieth century. This misconception is encapsulated by the entry on Messiaen in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which begins: ‘He was a musician apart’.

In themed essays, I reassess Messiaen’s early career by considering in turn several contextual areas. After introducing the wider context, I consider how Messiaen positioned himself biographically and musically in his many writings, focussing on recurring themes (particularly those highlighted by Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz) and drawing on the composer’s writings, established or newly discovered, as my main source. Then I examine Messiaen’s relationship with his immediate contemporaries and, in particular, the group of fellow musicians with whom he forged his early career. I also discuss the role of Messiaen’s first wife, Louise Justine Delbos (better known by her pseudonym Claire Delbos). Subsequently, I go on to explore Messiaen’s relation to the French traditions of musical technique and history. Finally, I consider some French aesthetic disputes of the 1930s and examine Messiaen’s role in these debates.

Throughout, I challenge the image of the ‘musician apart’.


Original languageEnglish
TypeDoctoral Thesis
Media of outputText
Publication statusPublished or Performed - 2005