Olivier Messiaen: Boulez and I are not really French

Olivier Messiaen: Boulez and I are not really French


norman lebrecht

January 18, 2015

In a fascinating 1977 documentary unearthed by Meloclassic, the man who taught Boulez harmony declares that there’s no such thing as a French composer. Every one as far back as Berlioz, he proclaims, is affected by external influences – either German or Oriental.

Watch (en francais).

And see how many of his students you can name.






  • Brian Pidgeon says:

    Priceless footage. Brought back memories of Messiaen’s visit to a performance of Turangalila with the RLPO in the 1960s. At the end of rehearsal in response to Charles Groves request for any comments, his reply: ‘Could it be a little more purple’!!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Turangalila: an awful piece, pretentious, overblown kitsch, … really the worst possible abberation of ‘french taste’ if we count Messiaen as a typical french composer. I remember a visit of M to Amsterdam where he coached a performance of one of his bird pieces with his wife at the piano who carried a very long rainbow-coloured trail attached to her dress… It was quite ridiculous. For people, getting wrapped-up in sixties modernism, it was a breath of fresh air, but if you see where they were coming from, not quite a recommendation. The best of Messiaen is, in my opinion, his prewar organ music, which will probably be the only music of his that will endure.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        I really like Messiaen’s “Éclairs sur l’au-delà…” and “Des canyons aux étoiles…”. I don’t necessarily “get” his music, but I find it fascinating to listen to.

      • RW2013 says:

        Rather one bar (any bar) of Turangalila than the entire Borstlapian oeuvre…

  • william osborne says:

    Is there any country whose art music didn’t reflect outside influences? The French just did it better than any one else. The greatest 20th century American composer was Ravel.

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    Well….. all members of the (French) Messiaen-family have very old Flemish roots (just look at the familyname!)

    • John Borstlap says:

      Interestingly, you can CHOOSE a cultural tradition, which is not bound to ethnicity and nationality. Cesar Franck was born in Berlgium, Beethoven’s grandfather was Belgian as well, Ravel was half-Basque, Stravinsky’s ancesters came from Poland, as Messiaen’s family tree goes back to the birds.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Interesting. How can you tell that from the name?

    • debussyste says:

      You have french people of all origins. It’s not a race ! And his mother was REALLY “french” in your opinion. Her name was Cécile Sauvage and she was a poetess …

  • bob priest says:

    What a wonderful surprise to see this footage after all these years. I remember the class being filmed upon occasion but never thought I’d actually see any of the results.

    So, yes, I can identify a few of my friends from that absolutely unique year chez Messiaen:

    + Thomas Daniel Schlee
    + Detlev Muller-Siemens
    + Fabian Watkinson
    + Sharon Kanach
    + Bob Priest (me)

    Unfortunately, two of my other good amis from the class were absent the day these clips were taken:

    + George Benjamin
    + Vlastimir Trakovic

    My, oh my, what memories . . . “Le Maitre” ran those marathon sessions for 12 hours per week (4 hours on Monday, Wednesday & Thursday) with absolutely unflagging energy & enthusiasm. As a matter of fact, Messiaen never took a break once the class got underway!

    Seems like yesterday . . .

  • debussyste says:

    Well, Monsieur Boulez, I don’t see that your music is so much played 60 years after the musical world took notice of it ( Marteau sans maitre, 1954 ) while the Turangalila symphony (1949) is loved and played everywhere ! Frankly we are tired of you and of your intolerance. You will be soon completely forgotten as Stockhausen or Berio are today and for good reasons .

    • Zack says:

      Debussysyste, have you been living under a rock for the past sixty years? And unless you are double-headed please do not say “we”!

  • Kaprielian says:

    Stockhausen and Berio completely forgotten ? Is it a joke ?

    • Hilary says:

      Towering composers, along with the likes of Xenakis, Ligeti and Feldman. Truth be told I wouldn’t put Boulez alongside them, but a great man for sure. There’s a blistering live account of the 2nd Sonata from Pollini which is a better introduction to that piece than the commercial recording.