Adieu to the devoted widow

Adieu to the devoted widow


norman lebrecht

May 18, 2010

Yvonne Loriod, second wife and longterm widow of the composer Olivier Messiaen, has died near Paris, aged 86. An intense and introspective pianist, she was only ever referred to as the wife or widow of a great man.

Loriod undertook that role with due humilty, appearing mostly in performances of her husband’s music. When one saw her in concert in the Turangalila symphony, Messiaen’s most popular work, it was a reminder was that she was the original object of his frustrated sexual desires during the long period of first wife’s physical and mental decline. Yvonne’s sister, Jeanne, often played the ondes martenot in the same work. It was a family show.

Yvonne married the devoutly Catholic Messiaen in 1961; he died in 1992. I never heard Yvonne utter a syllable of regret about her secondary status as wife and relict. On the contrary, like many widows, she devoted the years of mourning to securing posterity for her husband’s music. I did wonder whether in her heart of hearts she might not have hankered for a separate identity. There is a Youtube clip of her playing part of the Alban Berg piano sonata which suggests she had extensive interests beyond Messiaen.

Be that as it may, Loriod revelled in her role as relic, much as the good Veuve must have done when the great champagne maker Cliquot predeceased her. Sic transit gloria mundi.

A short obituary of Yvonne has appeared online in Le Monde. My more sceptical assessment of Messiaen can be read here.


  • One of the most astonishing and memorable concerts I have ever attended was in 1987 during the Messiaen Festival at the Royal Academy of Music. It was Turangalila Symphony (already one of my very favourite works), with the RAM Orchestra conducted by John Carewe, Yvonne Loriod the pianist, Tristan Muriel on Ondes, and Messiaen in the audience. I was at the time a student of George Benjamin, who had been Messiaen’s favourite pupil.
    The performance – as is so often the case with young players – was energetic, visceral, powerful. It blew our socks off. But the special moment was when Messiaen got up on stage at the end and hugged Loriod – after hearing one of the most extraordinary love-letters in art, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
    George took me to meet both Messiaen and Loriod afterwards and the composer signed the full score of Turangalila I had with me. I didn’t mention that it was, in fact, a library copy (from the splendid county library in Maidstone, Kent) – but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. I took it back to the library a few days later and the music librarian there was so impressed, she let me keep the score.
    It’s here with me now, one of my most treasured possessions.
    I really hope that when the LSO and Gergiev perform Turangalila again this week, they dedicate the performance to Loriod. The piece was hers in more ways than one.

  • Sakari Oramo says:

    Amazing timing from our perspective! Today a retrospective 3-cd album of my mother Liisa Pohjola was released. Included are Trois Poemes for Ondes and piano by André Jolivet.
    My mother is an amazing pianist and nobody has done more for music in Finland than her. I will send you the cd, it´s edge-of-the-seat stuff and really your kind of music every note of it!
    NL: I look forward to it, Sakari.

  • Luk Vaes says:

    I remember Yvonne from the lessons I had with her. She certainly did have a separate identity as a teacher and a pianist, e.g. she was an excellent Mozart performer. At one time, she played a dozen of Mozart’s concertos in one week in Paris with the national orchestra.
    As a performer of her husband, she could be a disapointment, though, as she was sometimes unable to answer basic questions outside of the piano-technical matters. And when I asked her why I was not allowed to play Messiaen the way she and her husband had performed on record, she replied ‘Oh, but we were young then’…

  • Eugene Gaub says:

    I first became acquainted with Yvonne Loriod’s piano playing not through her performances of Messiaen’s music, but on a wonderful recording of Debussy’s Douze Etudes. When I was an undergrad, I literally wore that LP out. Her playing was extraordinary: technically brilliant, colorful, and deeply expressive.

  • Lisa Whistlecroft says:

    I do not know what planet the author of this obituary has been living on for the past 40 years but in my circle Yvonne Loriod was known as a superb musician in her own right. I find this a sadly insulting ‘tribute’ to a great pianist.
    NL replies: Insulting, Lisa? Read it again.