Category Archives: Feature Articles

Andrey Popov

born Dobrich, Bulgaria February 1961              

died Perth, Western Australia June 2009                          


Andrey Popov grew up in a home filled with music. On both sides of the family there were many steeped in the music tradition. As many as fifteen cousins on his mother’s side were instrumentalists, some on violin, others on guitar or mandolin. A grandfather played the harmonium at weddings and public gatherings. Both Mr Popov’s mother Mrs Ljuba Popova and her brother became skilled accordionists.


Andrey Popov

Andrey Popov


On the paternal side of the family were many gifted singers. A great-grandfather sang in the choir of the Alexander Nevsky church in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.  Priests, too, figure prominently on the family tree, including the so-called Red Priest described as a modern Bulgarian Robin Hood who ended his life on the gallows. He is not be confused with that even more famous Red Priest, the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi.


As a child, little Andrey would accompany a neighbourhood friend to the latter’s piano lessons during which the little boy would pay the closest attention to what his friend’s teacher was saying, soaking up what he heard via a form of musical osmosis. Real piano lessons followed with a local who had made good in the outside world. Little Andrey thrived. Later, his progress at Varna Specialist Secondary Music School was so impressive that he was offered a scholarship to study in Poland – but his parents declined this offer to their gifted son.


As the boy’s well educated and relatively well-off parents were considered “unreliable” by the Bulgarian communist regime, the young man was obliged to serve his compulsory military service at one of the harshest training camps in Bulgaria. And it was there that two fingers were broken while being trained to use a Kalashnikov firearm. This injury, surely as devastating psychologically as painful physically, effectively blocked his admission to the Sofia Conservatorium of Music. This was a huge blow for a young man nurturing hopes of a concert career. Instead, he enrolled in the Plovdiv Institute of Musical Pedagogy and after graduation he returned to his home town to head the Children’s School of Music.


Hugely successful as a teacher in Dobrich, many of his students went on to become laureates of competitions at home and further afield, some going on to distinguished careers as performers. All the while, Andrey maintained a career as a concert pianist, often giving recitals with his violinist wife at hotels and piano bars in the Black Sea resort town of Albena. Both in Bulgaria and, later in Australia, he would receive letters from former students telling of their many successes.


Political and economic upheavals from 1988 resulted in the Dobrich school closing due to lack of funding, and Popov was out of a job. Opening a private teaching practice did not appeal so he came to Australia alone, his wife choosing to remain in Bulgaria.


A very new kind of musical life began for Andrey Popov in Western Australia where, for the first time, he ventured into the world of dance as a rehearsal pianist, a calling to which he shaped like fine wine to a goblet.


Leading ballet teacher and examiner, Diana de Vos, recalled her first meeting with Popov in 1997 when, with that other fine ballet instructor Leslie Hutchinson, she auditioned Popov for a post accompanying classes at the Terpsichore Dance Centre. “His piano skills were first class; he was a brilliant addition to our staff”, she recalled. “His music was quite inspirational, affecting us all emotionally. He knew, almost instinctively, what was required.”


Serendipitously, Popov had found a new, hitherto unexplored, path in music, going on to work at the Graduate College of Dance and the W.A.Academy of Performing Arts. Heather Baskerville, regional co-ordinator Royal Academy of Dance, recalls the pleasure his playing gave to so many, working, inter alia, for the Cecchetti Ballet Society and the many activities of the Royal Academy of Dance. She also remarked how, on more formal ballet occasions, Popov would routinely dress “in a black dinner suit to help lift the mood of the occasion and in doing so elevated, yet calmed, the otherwise nervous candidates.”


One of many amusing anecdotes concerned the intense nervousness of a student about to go on stage. She asked for something to calm her to which Popov responded by giving her two small white tablets which she was told to suck very slowly as she played. The performance was brilliant and the student, gushing in her thanks for the pills which had soothed her nerves, asked her teacher: “What were those marvellous tranquillisers?” Pokerfaced, he told her “Tic Tac, peppermint flavour”.


His was an idiosyncratic sense of humour, his responses invariably delivered dead-pan. Heather Baskerville recalls seeing Popov clutching a number of coloured pencils. She enquired what they were for. “You’ve heard of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony?”, he asked. “Well, I am writing Popov’s Unstarted Symphony”.


Yet another anecdote gleefully recounted concerned a fellow dance repetiteur who routinely used generous amounts of hand cream before playing the piano. The class was followed by one Popov was to play for. He seated himself at the keyboard, played for a moment or two on the now-slippery keys before exclaiming: “Look how lucky I am. I am playing in yogurt”.


Many of Popov’s friends in the dance world talk of his enterprising cooking skills.

Parties hosted by Popov and his mother Ljuba were, by all accounts, memorable events – and for all the right reasons. Fascinated by Asian spices, he would often experiment with this or that combination of flavours to tempt dinner guests.


The last years were blighted by increasingly serious illness, much of it the result of heavy smoking, an addiction he was unable to overcome. There were stays in hospital and long periods when work was impossible. Friends rallied around the household in Bedford. There seemed a visible improvement. Then, unexpectedly, there was a heart seizure that proved fatal. The good die far too young.


At the funeral service, there was a touching reminder of Andrey Popov’s artistry as mourners listened to a recording he had made of selections from the ballet repertoire.


Andrey Popov is survived by his mother Mrs Ljuba Popova and a brother in Sofia.


Neville Cohn Copyright 2009

Eileen Joyce 1908 – 1991




A Centenary Tribute


by Neville Cohn



Her dirt poor parents in Boulder were so short of money, that her clothes were made from old flour sacks – and her  shoes were hand-me-downs two sizes too big for her. It’s almost certain that these slights and embarrassments made the little girl long to be famous and rich. And that is what happened to Eileen Joyce – or little Ellie as she was known in Boulder where her parents settled not long after Ellie was born in Tasmania in 1908.


One hundred years on, there will be many a commemorative recital in her honour around the world. So, too, in Perth which loomed large in Joyce’s affections, so much so that towards the end of her life, she donated significant monies for the building of the Eileen Joyce Studio on UWA campus in memory of her parents.


During the 1940s and into the 1950s, Eileen Joyce was arguably the second most famous of living Australians, second only to Don Bradman – and she earned buckets of money in the process.


She was glamorous, she was feted wherever she went – and the clothes she wore were almost as a big a talking point as her performances. Eileen Joyce would say that, in her mind, certain colours suited certain composers: lilac for Liszt, yellow for Schumann, blue for Grieg, red for Tchaikowsky and so on. And she would frequently give recitals in which she would wear a different concert gown for each work on the program, a habit that would surely have been sweet compensation after her poverty-stricken youth. And these were not gowns made by some anonymous suburban dressmaker. On the contrary, they sported the labels of some of the priciest couturiers in the world, such as Worth and Norman Hartnell, the Queens’ dress designer.


For years, she was very frequently written about in women’s magazines which informed their avid readers that even Joyce’s hairstyles were dictated by the music she played: hair piled high for Beethoven, drawn back tight for Mozart and let down for Debussy!


Some critics blasted her for these “tasteless distractions”, “prostitution of her art” and “cheap tricks”. Eileen laughed all the way to the bank.


As a child, Ellie liked to play the harmonica but when an aunt moved in with the family, she brought an item of furniture that would change Ellie’s life forever – a battered old upright piano to which the little girl took like the proverbial duck to water.


Ellie was taught the piano at the convent school she attended in Boulder. Enter one Charles Schilsky who would by now be totally forgotten if not for being the first senior musician to spot Ellie’s extraordinary potential and do something about it. Schilsky had come to Boulder as an examiner for Trinity College of Music, London.


After hearing young Ellie, he approached the local priest and told him the little girl had a giant talent and needed top tuition. The Catholic church came to Ellie’s musical rescue. Monies were raised in improbable ways. Hats were passed around in Boulder taverns – and more than a few of the winnings from games of two-up found their way to the growing fund. Ellie went to Perth as a boarder at Loreto Convent where Sister John gave Ellie the music guidance she needed.


Enter Charles Schilsky yet again. Invited back to Perth to adjudicate at an eisteddfod, he immediately recognised that Ellie was moving forward by leaps and bounds, put in a good word or two and before long young Eileen was on her way to Europe for lessons in Leipzig, Germany from Robert Teichmuller. Here, too, she flourished, absorbing her teacher’s wise counsel like blotting paper. Then she went to England. Sir Henry Wood, founder of the famous London Proms, conducted her debut concerto performance; it was a huge success. Eileen Joyce was on her way to justifying Percy Grainger’s comment that “she was the most transcendentally gifted pianist I have ever encountered.”


Her big break came in London. She’d decided to make a piano recording privately which she intended to use as a sort of musical calling card when looking for concert opportunities. But when she returned to the studio to pay for the recording she had made days earlier, she was told, to her pleasant surprise, that her playing was so impressive that, not only did she not have to pay for the recording, she was instead offered a contract to make further recordings on the Parlophone label – and that was the beginning of a career during which many of her records became best sellers, making a fortune for both the recording company and Eileen.


This was also about the time that Eileen, a compulsive liar for most of her life, began manufacturing fanciful fictions about her life and career – and these fabrications became increasingly complicated until, later in life, she had difficulty herself in remembering what was true and what was not. Early on, she claimed to have been born in 1912 – but then, many movie actresses also hid their year of birth.


In 1937, Eileen married stockbroker Douglas Barratt by whom she fell pregnant. It was not a happy union – and their son John was born sixteen hours after Britain declared war on Germany. Not long after, Douglas was killed on active service.


Later, Joyce met  Christopher Mann – and although presenting themselves as a married couple, there are still doubts whether they were legally married or not: another one of Joyce’s lies?


Whatever the state of their union, Mann proved a brilliant agent; his connections and shrewd business acumen transformed Eileen into a superstar and earned them a fortune. Her son, though, was to have a traumatic youth and adolescence at Eileen’s and Christopher’s hands. He was packed off to boarding school at the earliest possible moment. And Mann’s attitude towards the little boy would make David Copperfield’s stepfather seem a paragon of enlightenment and compassion by comparison.


For the rest of his life, Mann treated John appallingly, at best treating him like some barely tolerated house guest and insisting on the most detailed accounting, literally to the very penny, of the parsimonious allowance he so grudgingly gave the child who was more often than not dumped like some unwanted parcel at boarding school. To her eternal discredit, Eileen never intervened, passively allowing Mann to wreck John’s childhood and adolescence. This indifference to her only child became ever more obvious towards the end of life when Eileen lavished far more affection on her dogs than her only child.


When she died, she left money for guide dogs for the blind. Would that she had been equally caring about her son John to whom she left nothing – nothing! – so that, to acquire some dearly loved childhood artefacts, he had to engage an agent to purchase these at an auction sale of his mother’s possessions. But Joyce did leave money to John’s young son, to be held in trust until he turned 25 years old. John did not attend his mother’s funeral.


Mean and neglectful she may have been towards her son but in other ways Joyce was generous with her time and abilities. She rarely turned down an appeal to play to raise funds for this or that charity. And in wartime England she worked unceasingly, as did, say, Yehudi Menuhin, to play for the troops in hospitals and munitions factories up and down the land. This, too, brought record crowds to her performances whether as recitalist or concerto soloist.


Joyce’s success on the concert platform or the recording studio was based on a very shrewd self assessment. A superb technical facility allowed her to play, with ease, any work she attempted at the piano. But she lacked interpretative depth – and she knew it. So she avoided music like the late sonatas of Beethoven, for instance, with which she could not identify compellingly. Hers was essentially a superficial gift – and she  exploited it brilliantly. It won over a huge international audience.


Much later in life, she developed an interest in the harpsichord and this at a time when

baroque performance practice was almost unknown – and she is rightly credited with doing valuable pioneering work drawing attention to often neglected early music.


In old age, Joyce very much wanted to honour the memory of her parents and she did so, on the advice of the late Sir Frank Callaway, founding professor of  UWA’s School of Music, by donating significant monies to the university to purpose-build a small auditorium on campus. And it is widely agreed that the Eileen Joyce Studio is one of the most beautiful appointed and situated venues of its kind in the world. It houses a collection of historic pianos as well as water colour paintings of Joyce as concerto soloist at London’s Royal Festival Hall. There is also a fine Augustus John portrait of Joyce when young. There’s also an oil paining of her in doctoral robes (she was awarded an honorary doctorate in music by UWA).


To mark the centenary, Piers Lane who stood in for Joyce years earlier when her hands were not up to the job, will give a recital of works close to Joyce’s heart at the Octagon on Sunday March 16th at 5pm: the program includes the 24 Preludes, opus 28 by Chopin and Grainger’s arrangement of the first movement of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.   Perhaps the recital organisers will arrange to have the paintings and drawings of Eileen Joyce displayed in the Octagon foyer on the day of the recital.


Neville Cohn

overview of 2008 music in Perth




by Neville Cohn




Perth, in world terms, may be a small city remote from the main highways of the international concert circuit but it certainly punches above its weight insofar as the range and vitality of its music life is concerned.


Many a much larger city would have been proud to host the equivalent of Perth’s tribute to the music of Olivier Messiaen, the centenary of whose birth in 1908 has been celebrated worldwide. Early in the year, Michael Kieran Harvey devoted three recitals over two days to the master’s complete Catalogue of the Birds based on the composer’s vast understanding of birdsong – with linking commentary by conservationist Martin Copley. Later in the year, we heard a first rate account of Messiaen’s youthful Les Offrandes oubliees  played by an on-form West Australian Symphony Orchestra. As well, Simone Young presided over an unforgettably magnificent interpretation of L’Ascension.


It was good year for pianists, especially Yefim  Bronfman, that prince of the piano, in turn magisterial and scintillating in Rachmaninv’s Concerto No3 in D minor – and Piers Lane marked the centenary of the birth of famed Oz pianist Eileen Joyce with a program of music that often featured in Joyce’s recitals. Sydney International Piano Competition winner Konstantin Shamray did a lap of honour around the country. His Perth recital was memorable for a profoundly meaningful account of Liszt’s  arrangement of the Liebestod  from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.


Victor Sangiorgio brought refined musicianship and impeccable fingerwork to sonatas by Cimarosa  as did Angela Hewitt to Bach’s massive 48 Preludes and Fugues over two recitals.


Joseph Nolan brought impressive virtuosity to two organ programs at St George’s Cathedral.


Dimitri Ashkenazy (son of the more famous Vladimir) was a matchless soloist with the WASO in Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto. Brahms’ Double Concerto was given a thrillingly passionate reading by the ACO with soloists Richard Tognetti (violin) and Tino-Veikko Valve (cello). Youthful soloists – Rebecca White (violin), Rachel Silver (cello) and Zen Zeng  (piano) – were impressive in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Kossov. James Ehness’  artistry on the violin was wasted on Bernstein’s rubbishy Serenade. Natalie Clein’s account of Elgar’s Cello Concerto set the loftiest of standards by which all other performances of this concerto should now be judged.


Easily the most satisfying accounts of  symphonies in 2008 were Alex Briger’s direction of Tchaikowsky’s Fifth, taking the WASO through a reading that brought one face to face with the composer. Another work by the Russian master – the Manfred Symphony – was tailor-made for Vladimir Verbitsky who seemed positively to revel in its massive sonic onslaughts. And in Sibelius’ Symphony no 1, Paul Daniel sounded in his element; it augurs well for his tenure as principal conductor of the WASO. Tadaaki Otaka’s direction of the overture to Wagner’s Tannhauser and the Venusberg Music, on the other hand, was a disappointment, one of the WASO’s few dull patches this year.


Graeme Murphy’s production of Verdi’s Aida was lavishly mounted at His Majesty’s Theatre. I cannot recall a more visually spectacular offering at this venue in 25 years – although the stage was simply not big enough to comfortably accommodate the vast cast. Aivale Cole was memorable in the eponymous role – and hardly less impressive earlier in the year as Helmwige in a concert version of Act I II of  Wagner’s  The Valkyries. Here, among others, Lisa Gasteen as Brunnhilde and Fiona Campbell as Grimgerde  cumulatively generated the decibel levels necessary to blast a way through a huge orchestra at the Concert Hall. In The Magic Flute, Aldo di Toro was splendidly cast as Prince Tamino – it was one of the year’s best opera portrayals. At the other end of the size scale was the WAAPA production of Robert Ward’s The Crucible. This Australian premier season revealed a work almost entirely devoid of catchy melody, a challenging opus which brought out the best in a cast of student singers who, with very few exceptions, succeeded in articulating the opera’s often intricate vocal lines.


Margaret Pride’s Collegium Symphonic Chorus was stunningly impressive in Rachmaninov’s Vespers, sung in Russian for an audience that thronged St Joseph’s Church, Subiaco. The Giovanni Consort’s program at St Paul’s Chapel, Mirrabooka was one of the year’s most finely considered offerings, enhanced by an exquisite contribution by harpist Marshall McGuire. Tony Maydwell’s Summa Musica choir provided fascinating insights into sacred music resurrected after centuries lying on dusty library shelves in Bolivia. And the Soweto Gospel Singers from South Africa brought us earthy, powerfully atavistic song and dance at His Majesty’s Theatre,.


Of a deal of chamber music, Pekka Kuusisto (violin) and  Simon Crawford-Philips (piano) presented a program that ranged from the zany to the profound. It was far and away the most novel and satisfying chamber offering in 2008. The Jerusalem Quartet, too, weighed in with a profoundly insightful account of Smetana’s Quartet No 1 – and Nick Parnell (vibraphone) and Leigh Harrold (piano) brought new life to classical favourites. Arnold Bax’s very rarely heard Quintet for string quartet and harp was given a charm-laden reading by the Australian Quartet and harpist Marshall McGuire.


Monday morning recitals in January look set to become a valued feature of the city’s musical life. One of the best of these featured Jonathan Paget and Stewart Smith in an arrangement for guitar and harpsichord of Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre. Paget’s CD – Midsummer’s Night – is one of the most promising debut recordings I’ve heard in some time.) Craig Lake is that rarity: a virtuoso of the theorbo, a guitar-like instrument with a very long neck. His account of  Kapsberger’s Toccata was one of the year’s delights.


Cathie Travers, who is as versatile as she is gifted, was both composer and performer in The Healing Garden, gentle, meditative musings which were a response in sound to living on some hectares of tranquil bushland. One of the worst offerings of the year was Arvo Part’s hideously ugly re-working for piano trio of a movement from one of Mozart’s early piano sonatas; this was a grotesque and repellent piece. James Ledger’s Inscriptions, also for the same medium, brimmed  with imaginative, attractive ideas.


Coughing, nose blowing and throat clearing blighted many a concert in 2008 with WASO concerts a major exception where outbursts of coughing have been blessedly fewer than at other events. This might well have been due to cough lozenges available free to anyone who calls at the WASO desk in the Concert Hall foyer. But there have also been the maddening irritations of compulsive keyring jinglers, lolly-wrapper cracklers and noisy program-page turners. Mercifully, there were no snorers this year.

Interview with Robert Ward, composer of opera The Crucible




by Neville Cohn





Robert Ward may be 91 years old but his mind is as alert and his wit as sharp as someone a third of his age.  It would have been a unique experience for the WAAPA opera students taking part in Ward’s opera The Crucible to ask one of America’s Grand Old Men of opera about interpretative and technical nuances in the roles they are to sing in a season commencing Friday 10th.


With great patience and good humour, Ward gave his views on this or that nuance to students listening raptly to his words as he spoke from his home in the USA’s North Carolina about his collaboration with that most celebrated of American playwrights Arthur Miller as well as librettist  Bernard Stambler.


“I wrote the opera around the time the movie The Misfits was being filmed and Miller and Marilyn Monroe’s marriage was falling apart,” he recalled.


Marvin pointed out that, unlike the operas of Verdi and Puccini, his setting of The Crucible deliberately avoids set-piece arias that can be sung as stand-alone items in, say, an orchestral concert featuring a vocal soloist as this usually results in audience applause at aria’s conclusion. This, Marvin feels, would interrupt the narrative flow and weaken the emotional impact of the work as a whole. He talked, too, of composers who influenced his development as a musician, among them one of his teachers Aaron Copland as well as musical giants such as Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith.


Marvin has never been to Australia. “Some years ago, my wife and I were planning to visit Australia and New Zealand but my wife suffered a stroke and that effectively brought an end to our overseas travel”, said Ward whose opera won not only the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1962 but also the New York Music Critics Circle Citation. 


Miller’s play, about the Salem, Massachusetts witchcraft trials in the 1690s and the judicial murder of blameless citizens who were found guilty of dabbling in the black arts and hanged en masse, was written in the 1950s as a response to the machinations of Senator McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities which branded many quite innocent people as communists, effectively ruining their reputations and ability to earn a living.


Ward’s setting of The Crucible is much vaunted as an icon of 20th century

American, yet , unlike, say, The Medium or The Telephone by Gian Carlo Menotti,  that other American composer, The Crucible is difficult to find on CD. And although, it has been around for decades, the WAAPA production will be the first ever in Australia. It’s a production which should not be missed by anyone interested in the evolution of American opera or the history of Senator McCarthy’s crusade against often quite innocent people.


Also present at the conference phone call was Justin Bischof, the Canadian-born musician now based in New York. Bischof has the pivotal role of conductor of the opera season. This will be the first time he has conducted Ward’s opera. A musician

who is as versatile as he is gifted, Bischof is unusual  in that he came to conducting via a career as an organist. “I began the organ when I was 14 and by 17, I decided that I really loved it – but I’ve always maintained an active career as pianist because I like the repertoire very much.”


Bischof got off to an early start, beginning piano lessons at the age of three years. “I also played the flute for about seven years and was in the school band when I lived in Toronto. Sadly, I haven’t kept up the flute but I’m about to start lessons on the cello as it is vital for a conductor who is not originally a string player to have a tactile sense of playing a stringed instrument.”


Bischof, a graduate of New York’s Manhattan School of Music, is Director of Music at the Church of St James the Less in New York State. “I’ve had Episcopalian church positions since university days – and as well as that, I’ve been pianist, organist and choral conductor at Westchester Reform Temple for 14 years.” 


Bischof’s opera conducting includes performances of Menotti’s The Telephone and The Medium at the Hawaii Opera Theatre in Honolulu as well as productions of Mozart operas such as The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. He has also made a number of recordings as organist and is well known for his brilliant improvisations at the organ console.


The Crucible opens at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre (WAAPA) on Friday at 7:30pm.

Leith Taylor directs.




Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992)

A centenary tribute

by Neville Cohn






Many composers have been inspired by birds, whether through their song or flight. The latter is typified by Vaughan Williams’ sublimely beautiful The Lark Ascending. And the call of the cuckoo is instantly recognisable in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Think, too, of Schubert’s ecstatic song “Hark, hark the Lark” to words by Shakespeare. But it was Olivier Messiaen above all who found often white hot inspiration in bird song. He was an amateur ornithologist with a huge knowledge of bird life.


His excruciatingly difficult Catalogue d’Oiseaux (which Michael Kieran Harvey will play for PIAF in February) is testament to the finesse he brought to the job of painstakingly notating birdsong from many regions in France. He wrote it while his first wife, seriously ill, languished in hospital for 12 years before dying in 1959.

Messiaen  said that during this time, birdsong was a refuge to which he turned again and again, “in my darkest hours, when my uselessness is brutally revealed to me”.


Happier times were to come when he and his second wife Yvonne Loriod (for whom Messiaen wrote some of his greatest works) became a familiar site around France – and to a much lesser extent in Japan, Israel, North and South America.


Loriod, Messiaen’s muse, with tape recorder at the ready, the composer with paper and pencil, erasers and note books as well as binoculars, worked indefatigably to capture on paper the subtlest nuances of each bird’s cry and call.


More often than not, Messiaen’s piano music is excruciatingly  difficult. And while the composer was a fair pianist, he knew his technique was simply not up to the demands of his own compositions. Little Olivier taught himself to play on a broken down instrument belonging to an uncle. Then and throughout his life, he said, that he “knew, instinctively, that anything he might ever compose needed to be interesting (and) beautiful to listen to, to touch the listener”.


Instead of toys as gifts at Xmas, little Olivier preferred by far, presents of orchestral scores which he would read in bed with as much enthusiasm and focus as another child might read a Superman or Bugs Bunny comic. In this, he was similar to Benjamin Britten as a child.


On his 10th birthday, one of little Olivier’s teachers gave the child a score of Debussy’s opera Pelleas and Melisande which was, the composer recalled, “a revelation  – probably the most decisive influence of my life – it had never been listened to with such attention.”


“I didn’t get a piano prize at the Conservatoire (Paris)”, he once said. “I knew I would never have the virtuosity and the absolutely amazing technical possibilities of Yvonne Loriod” who premiered many of his works for piano.


In their painstaking gathering of birdsong, Messiaen and his wife were walking in the footsteps of Bartok and Vaughan Williams who had both had spent considerable amounts of time trekking through remote areas to notate and record the folk melodies of rapidly disappearing rural communities.


For most  birdwatchers, the thrill is seeing this bird or that and making a note of it. For Messiaen, though, that was only the beginning of capturing the essence of the bird’s song by notating it meticulously and then working it into whatever composition Messsiaen required it for.


The composer, in awe of birdsong, once said that “it is probable that in the artistic hierarchy, birds are the greatest musicians existing on our planet”.


Although it was the birdlife of his native France that received most of Messiaen’s attention, he was no less fastidious in notating the calls and cries of winged creatures across the world, as in, say, Malaysia and China. One of the earliest examples of Messiaen making use of bird calls in his own music is La Merle Noir (The Blackbird) for flute and piano. As he became more skilled in using birdsong in his music, he would, from time to time, use bird calls which he would weave together in fugal style – and these are marvels of contrapuntal intricacy. 


But if the songs of birdlife were a prime pre-occupation, there were any number of other factors which triggered his imagination: stalactites, bell chimes, galaxies and photons – and landscapes in general and mountains in particular. The music he wrote as a result of a visit to southern Utah in the USA resulted in a  feature of the area being rechristened Mount Messiaen. This may well be the only mountain anywhere in the world named after a composer. Messiaen’s imagination  was often triggered, too, by paintings, one, for instance,  showing the Virgin kneeling in contemplation, worshipping her unborn Child – or by a tapestry representing Christ on a horse, wielding a sword; these keyboard responses are found in Messiaen’s Twenty Contemplations of the Christ Child.


Creative juices almost invariably flowed at the sight of light shining through stained glass windows. This, the composer once enthused, “is one of the most wonderful creations of man. You are overwhelmed. For me, it is the beginning of Paradise”.


His fascination with stained glass was a natural result of his ability, noted when he was still a child, of associating different colours with different tonalities ie he would see colours when listening to sound. There was another youthful epiphany: “I noticed an extraordinary thing (when aged six year). I was reading, and I could HEAR what I was reading in my head”. These were pointers to a rare musical gift.


Since his childhood, Messiaen was profoundly religious; a devout Catholic his entire life. This was somewhat surprising in that he was brought up in a home that was conspicuously agnostic and irreligious.


Messiaen, incidentally, was organist at La Trinite, Paris for 60 years from the age of 22 years until his death at 83.