As composer, organist, teacher and theorist, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was the most influential European musician of the second half of the twentieth century–and yet he was in many ways far removed from his time and place. His religious beliefs were those of a pious medieval Catholic; his musical style ignored just about everything that had happened in European music between the troubadours and Wagner. He cobbled together a personal idiom out of bits and pieces of musical techniques and sources from around the world, forging them into a system he hawked with the ardent self-confidence of a traveling Bible salesman. His combination of naïve fervor, pedantry and self-made originality made him seem more like a misplaced American maverick–like Charles Ives, Henry Cowell or John Cage–than a product of French culture. And yet scarcely any Western European composers of the past sixty years have been untouched by his ideas.

Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, the co-authors of this handsomely produced new biography, have a long association with Messiaen’s music, as a performer and a writer, respectively. For their devotion they were granted access to a huge private archive of papers, photographs and memorabilia still controlled by the composer’s widow, Yvonne Loriod. This relationship yields predictable strengths and weaknesses. The book fills out our knowledge of Messiaen’s career and reception (Loriod must have saved every review he received in his life), but it also tends to frame controversies in a defensive manner and fails to deal forthrightly with some of the touchiest and most interesting aspects of his career; Claude Samuel’s book of conversations with Messiaen, Music and Color, and Rebecca Rischin’s recent history of the Quartet for the End of Time–a work for violin, cello, piano and clarinet famously composed and premiered at a German prisoner-of-war camp in January 1941 before an audience of fellow prisoners–convey a much more vivid sense of Messiaen’s private side. But the public “and then he wrote” story told here has its own fascination.

The facts of Messiaen’s childhood are already familiar. His father was a professor of English (though Messiaen never learned the language). His mother, Cécile Sauvage, was an important poet; her ode to motherhood, L’Âme en bourgeon (The Flowering Soul), was written while she was pregnant with the future composer. Throughout his career Messiaen, who wrote his own texts for three song cycles and for the epic opera Saint François d’Assise, lauded his mother’s influence on his music and poetry. Her death when he was 19 was one of two tragic personal losses that shadowed his career.

In his intellectual family, Messiaen was a much appreciated prodigy, exhibiting early signs of extraordinary ability as a pianist and composer. Although his parents were not especially religious, he discovered his defining religious worldview (if not a calling) very early in life. Not surprisingly, Messiaen’s early works–like the piano Préludes, written (and published) when he was just 21–were rooted in French music, particularly that of Debussy and (more ambivalently) Ravel. A piano teacher gave him the score of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which became a musical bible. From Debussy he derived the use of rich chords, modal scales, medieval parallelisms and exotic echoes of East Asian music. But Debussy’s music is all about evanescence; it is written on the wind and water. Messiaen dehydrated Debussy’s style, draining out its temporal instability. His music is made of stone.

Messiaen also rejected those even more transient elements in both Debussy and Ravel that stemmed from jazz or from Erik Satie, the anarchic presiding spirit of French music in Messiaen’s student years. He moved French music out of the cafes and back to the cathedrals. The one non-French influence on Messiaen’s style was Stravinsky of the Russian period, particularly The Rite of Spring and Les Noces. Messiaen appropriated the Fauvist colors, asymmetric rhythms and Cubist construction of these works, along with their antirationalist subtext. His questionable analysis of Stravinsky’s rhythm, a mainstay of his teaching, became the basis for his own rhythmic innovations. Stravinsky never found Messiaen’s imitation flattering; “rubbish” was one of the kinder words he used for it. His antipathy mirrored Messiaen’s strong revulsion to the neoclassical direction Stravinsky took in 1918, beginning with L’Histoire du Soldat. By his early 20s Messiaen, after receiving every possible honor at the Paris Conservatory, became the organist at the church of Sainte-Trinité, a huge Second Empire pile tellingly located midway between the Opera Garnier and Place Pigalle. His daring improvisations at the midday mass soon achieved notoriety and evolved into several masterly cycles of sacred organ music: La Nativité du Seigneur and Les Corps glorieux. (These remain the best introduction to his music, especially heard in his own performances on the four-CD set Messiaen par lui-même.)

In these organ works Messiaen developed most of the techniques he later codified in the treatise Technique of My Musical Language, particularly his systematic use of nontonal scales and rhythmic devices derived from Greek prosody, Hindu musical theory and medieval European music. All these techniques served to move his compositions out of the world familiar to most European music, with its steady pulse and recurring metrical accents. Messiaen slowed the tempos of his music almost to a standstill in order to achieve his singular expressive domain: religious ecstasy. Although Messiaen grounded these innovations in Catholic theology, other equally devout Catholics, like Nadia Boulanger and Francis Poulenc, found them perplexing. (“Messiaen and I do not genuflect in the same way,” Poulenc put it charitably.) Catholic theology is many-sided; to understand Messiaen we would have to know more about how his religious vision fit into the theological teachings and debates of the time. Messiaen’s faith, however, shielded him in a number of important ways. He never had to go through the crisis of ideology and social function that upended the musical careers of composers like Shostakovich, Copland or Weill during the 1930s. As organist at one of the grandest churches in Paris, his social function was as clear as his ideology. Furthermore, it might be said that ideology gave Messiaen a cover for musical experimentation. Radical rhythms and harmonies were harder to criticize when attached to the depiction of the nativity or of the glorious hereafter.

Hill and Simeone tell us more than we have heard before about Messiaen’s first wife, Claire Delbos, known familiarly as Mi. A violinist and composer, she married Messiaen in 1932. Her role as both wife and muse is clear in the two ecstatically lyrical song cycles he wrote in the 1930s; Poèmes pour Mi compared their marriage with that of Christ and His Church, while Chants de terre et de ciel celebrates the birth of their son, Pascal, in an idiom close to the recent organ cycle La Nativité. (The American soprano Dawn Upshaw’s recordings of some of these songs are heart-stopping.) At some point, however, Delbos began to show symptoms of dementia. By the early 1950s she was institutionalized; she died in 1959. Messiaen never spoke publicly of her illness, perhaps out of reticence, perhaps because its onset coincided with the arrival of his second muse, Yvonne Loriod, who was his student at the Paris Conservatory, where he had begun working in 1941. We can get some sense of Loriod’s prowess as a young pianist by the fact that she learned Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto–still the hardest in the literature–in eight days. Messiaen soon dedicated a series of pieces to her, beginning with the monumental and frighteningly difficult solo piano work Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus in 1944, and the two began to concertize and travel together.

Whether Delbos’s deteriorating condition and Loriod’s ascendancy brought on a crisis of faith in the conspicuously pious composer we do not know, but he did dedicate much of the mid-1940s to composing a trilogy of works (Harawi, Turangalîla, Cinq Rechants) based on the legend of Tristan and Isolde, which Messiaen believed celebrated a perfect love in no way conflicting with Catholic belief. Even Wagner never painted forbidden love so rosily. Perhaps to assuage their source of information, Hill and Simeone interpret these works as possibly reflecting on the loss of Delbos (who was still very much alive) rather than the appearance of Loriod.

To what if any extent was Delbos’s deterioration hastened by Messiaen’s involvement with his student? Unfortunately Hill and Simeone leave much of this situation in shadow. They never give us a medical diagnosis of Delbos’s condition, and their timeline is confusing. They do print a revealing photograph of Messiaen’s and Loriod’s interlaced fingers, taken in 1947–though without comment. They argue, too, that the demands of Messiaen’s career distanced him further and further from Delbos. The day of her funeral he attended a rehearsal of his music without mentioning her death to anyone. He married Loriod two years later.

From June 1940 to March 1941 Messiaen, who served in the French army, was a prisoner of war. The story of the creation and premiere of his Quartet for the End of Time at Stalag VIIIA has recently been well retold and demythologized by Rebecca Rischin; over the years Messiaen had grandly orchestrated the details of the birth of his most famous piece. Several things are now clear: The Quartet was immediately recognized as a classic even by listeners who resisted the sermons on Revelation that Messiaen delivered before each of its eight movements. And it has remained a classic of the chamber music repertory ever since. The conditions of its creation gave the Quartet an economy and focus rare in Messiaen’s oeuvre, as well as a historical poignancy. Although it may depict the end of time, it is the only work by Messiaen that really seems incarnated in the here and now. Interestingly, its early reception suffered from the lack of an obvious political statement while, until very recently, its political content had been distorted by the often repeated claim that it was written in a concentration camp. But the Quartet, which summarizes Messiaen’s compositional style of the 1930s and forecasts his more adventurous works to come, survives such rough treatment.

In the chapter titled (perhaps ironically) “Messiaen’s war: 1940-1944,” Hill and Simeone fail to clarify the politics of Messiaen’s rise to prominence during the occupation. The surprisingly rich cultural life of Paris under Nazi rule remains enigmatic: Who was using whom? After the war, of course, many claimed their art was a form of protest, but the appearance of cultural vitality in Paris while Jews and others were being deported to the east was as cynical a Nazi propaganda tool as the showcasing of art in the camp at Theresienstadt. Hill and Simeone provide no evidence that Messiaen was involved with the Resistance, or that he was even aware of the atrocities around him, but they make it clear that his career came first even in such dark times. On release from POW camp Messiaen headed to Vichy to seek some kind of employment; his job application included the required statement that he had no Jewish ancestry. Messiaen soon landed a position at the Paris Conservatory; there were recent openings because Jewish faculty had been dismissed. The conservatory provided Messiaen a prime venue for major new pieces, like Visions de l’Amen, Vingt Regards and Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine–all featuring Loriod as performer.

The controversy surrounding the premiere of the exotically scored Trois petites Liturgies on April 21, 1945, gave Messiaen the succès de scandale expected of a modern genius. Messiaen draped the radiantly tonal harmonies of a women’s chorus with an exotic instrumentation, including celesta, vibraphone, maracas and the eerie electronic whine of the Ondes Martenot. Critics either felt they had glimpsed the future or been dragged through a Technicolor travesty. Although it is never clearly articulated, it would appear that much of the controversy over the music centered on its yoking of musical experiment with orthodox belief. Some Catholics were offended by the sensual exuberance of the music, while secular intellectuals resisted its religious message.

Meanwhile, Messiaen’s novel approaches to teaching harmony attracted many of the best students at an institution notorious for its deadly academicism. In April 1945 some of these students made the headlines. Led by the young firebrand Pierre Boulez, they protested the first performances in Paris of two recent works by Stravinsky: Danses concertantes and Four Norwegian Moods. Given everything that was going on in the world in the spring of 1945, these lightweight bonbons by the Russian master would seem like an unlikely, even unseemly, focus for student revolt–and yet the ideological consequences of this scandal would shape music, including Stravinsky’s, for twenty years to come. Suddenly, Messiaen was not just a hot young Modernist but the father figure for an even younger avant-garde. After the riot he defended their action in a transparently self-serving article: What the world needed, he wrote, was not the specious neoclassicism of Stravinsky but a truly classic music, a music of love. He wrote this as he began work on his own Tristan cycle.

At a distance of sixty years, it is hard to disentangle elements of careerism and politics from these events. Why, for instance, did Messiaen’s students so vehemently reject Schoenberg’s music–almost as viciously as the Nazis had recently done–while at the same time basing their plan for the musical future on his twelve-tone technique? We should remind ourselves that most of the major figures of European modern music–Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Weill–spent the war years in America and that Parisian musical life before and during the occupation was parochial. Messiaen led his students in analyses of Schoenberg works he had never heard and didn’t like. The cultural milieu of Schoenberg’s music–the writings of Karl Kraus and the paintings of Klimt–was about as far from Messiaen’s sensibility as could be imagined. Not surprisingly, then, the music was studied in terms of its techniques rather than its meaning. Messiaen’s short-lived serialism was as far from Schoenberg’s music as his use of Hindu rhythms, derived from a musical dictionary, was from actual Indian music. The reductive nature of Messiaen’s teaching, however, proved to be productive; the misreading of Schoenberg became a new musical gospel for the burgeoning vanguard–most of whose music, unlike Messiaen’s, has vanished without a trace.

Ironically, Messiaen’s disciples served to heighten his standing in the musical world because most of them were secular. Boulez in particular appropriated and expanded the otherworldly techniques Messiaen had developed to express Catholic theology as he formulated a general theory of musical progress. Although Boulez sometimes depicted his cher maître with condescension (“He does not compose; he juxtaposes”), Messiaen could no longer be seen, as he often had been, merely as an eccentric product of the French organ tradition. Even America took notice: Virgil Thomson hailed Messiaen as the “atomic bomb of contemporary music” and the young Leonard Bernstein conducted the ten-movement Turangalîla symphony at Boston’s Symphony Hall in the winter of 1949.

Messiaen’s American reputation took some time to develop, however; recordings by Peter Serkin and the ensemble Tashi in the 1970s finally won over both the public and the musical establishment. American musical taste to a very large extent was formed by students of Messiaen’s archrival Nadia Boulanger, whose musical ideal was the refined, restrained style of Gabriel Fauré. Our leading Francophile composers, Copland, Thomson and Rorem, came from religious backgrounds far from Messiaen’s gaudy Catholicism. For Thomson (and also for Cage) the crucial figure in French music was Erik Satie, a composer Messiaen despised. Even after hailing Messiaen as the next big thing, the Kansas City-born, Baptist-raised Thomson withdrew his support with a vengeance: The Trois petites Liturgies, he wrote, “reduces a pietistic conception of some grandeur to the level of the late Aimee Semple McPherson.”

Around 1950 Messiaen was writing his most experimental music: the Quatre Études de rythme for piano, the Messe de la Pentecôte (despite the name, an organ composition) and the Livre d’orgue, even a stab at musique concrète. One of the piano pieces, Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, is considered the breakthrough into the total serialism that dominated European music in the 1950s. Hill and Simeone don’t offer much insight into Messiaen’s relationship with students who were quickly becoming leaders of the avant-garde: Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. He was at once their teacher and rival. Did they provoke him into these experimental works or, as this book implies, was Messiaen simply pursuing his own interests? After 1951, however, Messiaen abandoned serialism and devoted himself almost entirely to music based on bird song, an element that had been present in his music since the 1930s. For Loriod he composed a long series of solo piano works, each based on a different bird, as well as two works for piano and orchestra: Réveil des oiseaux and Oiseaux exotiques. Loriod also accompanied him on bird-watching trips around the globe, aiding him in recording and transcribing bird song. The birds offered Messiaen an escape from both the increasingly doctrinal disputes of the avant-garde and the last phases of Delbos’s suffering. Though it may have appeared that Messiaen spent a decade without writing religious music, his opera on St. Francis would later make clear that the composer’s ornithological researches were spiritual meditations; bird song was another manifestation of the miraculous.

Messiaen and Loriod prudently waited two years after Delbos’s death to get married, and even then kept their marriage secret for several years “if all possibility of gossip was to be avoided.” The regularization of his life had two immediate consequences: He completed a series of monumental orchestral works–Chronochromie, Couleurs de la Cité céleste and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum–and he finally received national recognition. Et exspecto was commissioned by Minister of Culture André Malraux to commemorate the casualties of the two world wars; it premiered in the Sainte-Chapelle. As he had done in the Quartet for the End of Time Messiaen chose to address a political situation in religious terms. But Messiaen shared with his Gaullist commissioner an old French appreciation for la gloire, and Et exspecto filled the Gothic space with a majestic din unmatched since Berlioz’s Requiem.

With these grand projects Messiaen returned in many ways to the lush, lyrical style of the 1930s, to which he added an aviary of bird calls often played on instruments that suggested the sound of a Balinese gamelan. His late style blossomed in four even more gigantic works: La Transfiguration, Des Canyons aux étoiles (written for Lincoln Center), the Livre du Saint Sacrement for organ and Saint François d’Assise, Messiaen’s summa, commissioned by the Paris Opera. These works demonstrate a final, blissful irony. As Messiaen’s music grew ever vaster and ever more impractical, it also became much more popular in its appeal. Des Canyons aux étoiles, inspired by a bird-watching visit to Bryce Canyon, could serve as a soundtrack for a National Geographic special. Saint François is a kind of lollipop Parsifal, the grandest Sunday school pageant ever conceived. Amazingly, coming from a composer with no prior theatrical experience except in the theater of the church, every moment in Saint François seems perfectly calculated and executed, without either sanctimony or longueurs. If, as Picasso said, one had to grow old to paint like a child, Messiaen had to grow old to capture the unquestioning, palpable faith he acquired on his own in childhood and that guided him so constantly through eighty-four years in a dark, uncertain century.