Yvonne Loriod's Influence on the Piano Works of Olivier Messiaen
by Tiantian Liang

Many scholars have written about the French composer Olivier Messiaen and his compositions, and many of them including Messiaen cite the French pianist and companion who would eventually become Messiaen’s second wife, Yvonne Loriod, as a significant source of inspiration for his compositions. However, there is still a dearth of information about her own career as a virtuoso concert pianist and just as important, her effect on Messiaen’s compositions, musical career, and life. If Messiaen had not met Loriod, his output for piano would look completely different today.

To understand the context into how Loriod influenced Messiaen, I will first discuss Loriod’s musical upbringing, her career as pianist and teacher, her pianistic style, and her general approach to Messiaen’s works. Next, I will show that as Loriod and Messiaen’s personal relationship evolved--from teacher and pupil--to musical partners--and finally as companions, so did their musical relationship. This article will briefly summarize their relationship and their collaboration, and I will focus especially on their collaboration as it relates to the piano works. I will compare Messiaen’s first piano work, Préludes, to his first work inspired by and dedicated to Loriod: Visions de l’Amen (1942). This piece for two pianos, which was composed while Loriod was studying harmony with Messiaen, will mark the pair’s relationship as teacher and pupil. Then, I will explore Messiaen’s first major piano cycle, Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (1944), to show how Loriod and Messiaen became musical partners.

Finally, I will show how their companionship relates to the inspiration of Messiaen’s major piano cycle, Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–1958). Loriod and Messiaen married on July 1, 1961.[1] As Messiaen’s second wife, Loriod became Messiaen’s permanent musical partner and lifelong companion. This article will make clear Loriod’s important contributions to one of the 20th century’s prominent composers.

Yvonne Loriod—Musical training and musicianship

Born in Houilles, Yvelines, France, Loriod began musical studies at the age of six with her godmother, Madame Nelle Eminger-Sivade.[2] By the time she reached age 14, she had studied all of the piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, all 32 piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, the entire Preludes and Fugues from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, and several other works from the standard repertoire.[3] Even at such a young age, Loriod was already an accomplished musician by the time she was admitted into the Paris Conservatory, where she would meet her harmony teacher Olivier Messiaen.

As a concert pianist, Loriod performed and recorded the premiere of several major works during the twentieth century.[4] She premiered Bartok Second Piano concerto and learned it in only eight days.[5] Like Messiaen, she also maintained an active teaching career as professor at the Paris Conservatory and at Darmstadt. Many of her piano students went on to become prominent pianists during the twentieth century.[6] One can see that she had an accomplished musical career.

Loriod was and is considered the authority on performing Messiaen’s piano works, as she understands the pieces “as though she had written it.”[7] The composer himself stated that “I could allow [myself] the greatest eccentricities because to her anything is possible. I knew I could invent very difficult, very extraordinary, and very new things: they would be played, and played very well.”[8] Her playing style, with her sense of timbre, clarity, rhythmic vitality, and rich sound was a perfect match with Messiaen’s compositions.[9] Although I am not advocating for an interpretation that slavishly copies Loriod’s recordings, her playing deserves analysis because of Messiaen’s words for her playing of his pieces.

Messiaen’s piano output before Loriod

Loriod’s own unique pianism affected Messiaen’ compositional approach to the piano. Messiaen himself stated in a note with Goléa describes Loriod as a “unique, sublime and brilliant pianist, whose existence transformed not only the composer’s way of writing for the piano, but his style, vision of the world, and modes of thought.”[10]

Messiaen wrote the Préludes as student at the Paris Conservatory. Already a pianist himself, Messiaen took inspiration from Jean-Phillipe Rameau and Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord compositions. He took his greatest inspiration from the piano works of Frédéric Chopin, especially for Chopin’s ability as a “great colorist.” [11] Messiaen’s love for the piano’s ability to create a wide variety of colors is evident because of his works for solo piano. In addition, he included the piano in several of his compositions for orchestra. The eight Préludes shows his admiration for Claude Debussy’s own two books of Préludes written only within two decades before Messiaen’s. One can see the influence of Debussy using descriptive titles, which Messiaen confirms in his conversations with Claude Samuel.[12] In addition, Messiaen uses harmonies such as parallel non-functional seventh chords to create color like Debussy and many French composers of the late 19th and early 20th century.

However, as a musician primarily studying organ and working as an organist, Messiaen’s earlier piano works such as the Préludes resemble the composer’s organ training with organ-like chordal textures resembling the mixture stops on the organ. The second prelude illustrates this style with the parallel chords in the upper register.

Example 2. “Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste.”

Teacher and Pupil: The Conservatory and Visions de l’Amen

Loriod started her musical studies at the Paris Conservatory during the early 1940s. She studied harmony with Messiaen, fugue, orchestration, composition, and piano. After hearing Loriod, Messiaen proceeded to write a trio of new works in two years that featured the piano and Loriod. The first of these pieces was Visions de l’amen, a work for two pianos with the composer himself, Loriod eventually debuted on May 10, 1943. Although she never collaborated with him during the compositional process, he wrote them with her technical prowess in mind and dedicated the piece to her. Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, already knew the singers he wanted to be in the cast before setting down to write an opera, Messiaen wrote knowing that Loriod would be the performer of his piano work. This would continue to be the case in his later works with piano.

The differences in Messiaen’s piano writing, according to Peter Hill, become apparent when studying the differences between the two piano parts in Visions de l’Amen.[13] Messiaen composed this work for two pianos to complement Loriod’s and his own musical strengths. Loriod played the Piano I part while Messiaen played Piano II. The Piano I part holds most of the virtuosic work, including the bells, and birdsong. While the Piano II played by Messiaen has less virtuosic elements than Loriod’s part, Messiaen gives himself the important themes that make up the work. As Hill notes, a pupil and teacher relationship exist here.[14] Although this major work marks a significant point in their musical collaboration, Messiaen and Loriod’s relationship had yet to develop into true musical partners until two later works.

Example 3. “Consummation of the Amen” from Visions of the Amen.


Musical Partners: Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus

The trio of works inspired by Loriod concludes with Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus in 1944. As Messiaen’s largest and most complex work up to that time, this two-hour piano cycle combines many of his compositional techniques found in earlier works such as limited modes of transposition, non retrogradable rhythms, complex textures, and extreme changes of register. Messiaen combines these techniques with many symbols from Christian theology expressing his Catholic faith in twenty movements focused on the infancy of Jesus Christ. Although Vingt regards does not have any new compositional techniques, Loriod’s influence transformed Messiaen’s approach to piano music. Compared with his last major work for solo piano, Préludes (1929), Vingt regards  has higher technical demands inspired by Loriod’s pianistic skills: complex contrapuntal textures such as layered rhythmic canons, use of extreme ranges of the piano, brilliant passagework of runs, arpeggiations, and rapid chords played in succession, and wide ranges of contrast and differing timbres. Equally significant is that Messiaen dedicated a work to Loriod expressing Messiaen’s deep Catholic spirituality.

Example 4. “I. Contemplation of the Father.” One of the primary themes, the “Theme of God” is found in the two bottom staves within a dense texture and wide range.


Example 5. “XIII. Bells.” Bell tones are in the top line, while the bottom line bass notes imitates a tam-tam. This requires the pianist to perform these lines with different techniques using arm weight and finger speed to create contrasting colors. Control of timbre was one of Loriod’s strengths.


Example 6. “Bells.” Messiaen’s demand for imitation of orchestral colors is evident with the indication “like a xylophone” in the right hand.

Lifelong Companions: Catalogue d’oiseaux

After a groundbreaking period of piano composition in the 1940s, Messiaen and Loriod’s musical and personal relationship would continue to develop. She would accompany him on his bird research trips to Sologne region and Petichet where she would help him record bird songs for his new compositions.[15] Once again, Loriod would continue to inspire Messiaen to explore new techniques for piano composition. This resulted in the work, Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–1958), another massive piano solo consisting of 13 movements on birds that takes two and a half hours to perform in its entirety. Messiaen devoted this work to Loriod, and she gave the premiere on April 15, 1959 at the Salle Gaveau in Paris[16]. The piece comes after a year of no composition, which was rare for Messiaen.[17]

The fact that Messiaen started asking Loriod to go with him on these trips is significant. The two collaborated during another period of compositional growth. She would help him with the everyday tasks needed such as recording the birdsongs with a tape recorder while he wrote them down. It was her aid and her musicianship that inspired Messiaen to another major piano cycle—one that was even larger than Vingt regards. Without Loriod, Messiaen’s compositional output during this time would be completely different.

One of the significant pieces of Catalog occurs in the movement, ‘Le Loriot’ (the Golden Oriole), which has been noted as a pun homage to Yvonne Loriod’s last name.[18]

Example 7. “Le loriot.”

There are symbols in this piece that unlock the nature of their relationship. First, the placement of the piece is significant. ‘Le Loriot’ is the second piece with central placement in Book One. It is the piece right after ‘La Chouette hulotte,’ which contains the quasi-serialism experiments of Messiaen’s 1950s works. The virtuosity of the piano part displays his admiration for Loriod’s musical gifts. However, another significant moment occurs where the music becomes quiet and meditative. In the left hand, the chords from Cinq Rechants accompany the words, ‘All the love potions have been drunk this evening.’ The fact that this occurs in this movement shows Messiaen’s love for Loriod.


Yvonne Loriod’s musicianship and her presence affected Messiaen’s creative output. Understanding their relationship is a critical key to interpreting Messiaen’s music. What started out as a teacher and pupil relationship, then transformed quickly into a musical partnership, and finally evolved into a love and lifelong companionship between two great musicians of the 20th century. As their personal relationship changed, so did their musical relationship. The piano works are evidence of Messiaen and Loriod’s shared love of music and their love for each other. It is the continued performance and recording of Messiaen’s works that keeps their story alive. 



Bernard, Jonathan W. "Colour." In Messiaen Companion, edited by Peter Hill, 203–19. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.

Bruhn, Siglind. Images and Ideas in Modern French Piano Music: The Extra-Musical Subtext in Piano Works by Ravel, Debussy, and Messiaen. Aesthetics in Music. Edited by Edward Lippman. Stuyvesant: Pendragon Press, 1997.

———. Messiaen’s Contemplations of Covenant and Incarnation: Musical Symbols of Faith in the Two Great Piano Cycles of the 1940s. Dimension and Diversity: Studies in 20th-Century Music. Vol. 7, Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2007.

Burger, Cole Philip. "Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant-Jésus: Analytical, Religious, and Literary Considerations." DMA diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 2009.

Dingle, Christopher. The Life of Messiaen. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Griffiths, Paul. "Catalogue De Couleurs: Notes on Messiaen's Tone Colours on His 70th Birthday." The Musical Times 119, no. 1630 (1978): 1035-37.

———. Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

———. "Loriod, Yvonne." In Grove Music Online, 2001.

———. "Messiaen, Oliver." In New Grove, 2011.

Hill, Peter. "Sacred Gift."  Tne Gaurdian (2005).https://www.theguardian.com/music/2005/nov/04/classicalmusicandopera.

Hill, Peter and Nigel Simeone. Messiaen. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.

Hsu, Madeleine. Olivier Messiaen, the Musical Mediator: A Study of the Influence of Liszt, Debussy, and Bartók. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.

Manceaux, François. "Olivier Messiaen Et Yvonne Loriod, Pianists and Teachers." In Private Music Lessons, 00:57, 2011.

Messiaen, Olivier. "Préludes Pour Piano." Paris: Durand and Cie, 1930.

———. "Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant-Jésus." Paris: Durand, 1947.

———. The Technique of My Musical Language. Paris: A. Leduc, 1956.

———. "Catalogue D’oiseaux." Paris: Alphonse Leduc and Cie, 1964.

———. Music and Color: Conversations with Claude Samuel. Translated by E. Thomas Glasow. Vol. 20, Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994.

Peter, Hill. "For the Birds. Peter Hill, Who Recently Finished Recording the Complete Piano Music of Messiaen, Talks About Performing the French Master's Music." The Musical Times 135, no. 1819 (1994): 552-55.

———. The Messiaen Companion. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1995.

Robin, Freeman. "Courtesy Towards the Things of Nature: Interpretations of Messiaen's 'Catalogue D'oiseaux'." Tempo, no. 192 (1995): 9-14.

Seifert, Charles Ernest. "Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant-Jésus:” a Historical and Pedagogical Study." DME diss., University of Illinois of Urbana-Champaign, 1989.

Shenton, Andrew. Composer as Performer, Recording as Text: Notes Towards a ‘Manner of Realization’ for Messiaen’s Music. Messiaen Studies. Edited by Robert Sholl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Simeone, Nigel. "Delbos [Messiaen], Claire." In Grove Music Online, 2001.

———. Messiaen in 1942: A Working Musician in Occupied Paris. Messiaen Studies. Edited by Robert Sholl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.



[1] Hill and Simeone, Messiaen, 240.

[2] Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen: The Olivier Messiaen Page, accessed March 11, 2019, http://www.oliviermessiaen.org/Loriod.htm.

[3] Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, accessed March 9, 2019, http://www.oliviermessiaen.org/Loriod.htm.

[4] These works include: Pierre Boulez’s Structures in 1961, Jean Barraqué’s Sonata, and Boulez’s Second Sonata.

[5] http://www.oliviermessiaen.org/Loriod.htm

[6] Griffiths, “Loriod,” New Grove.

[7] Messiaen, Music and Color, 202.

[8] Messiaen, Music and Color, 113.

[9] Loriod has recorded Messiaen’s works. There is also a documentary featuring Loriod’s playing.

Manceaux, François. "Olivier Messiaen Et Yvonne Loriod, Pianists and Teachers." In Private Music Lessons, 00:57, 2011.

[10] Hill and Simeone, Messiaen, 135.

[11] Messiaen, Music and Color, 114.

[12] Messiaen, Music and Color, 113.

[13] Hill and Simeone, Messiaen, 123.

[14] Hill and Simeone, Messiaen, 123.

[15] Dingle, The Life of Messiaen, 144–145.

[16] Hill and Simeone, Messaien, 226.

[17] Dingle, The Life of Messiaen, 142–143.

[18] Hill, Messiaen Companion, 333.