George Benjamin celebrates his former teacher Olivier Messiaen

As his centenary celebrations draw to a close, George Benjamin celebrates the passion, craftsmanship and humour of his former teacher, Olivier Messiaen

In his later life, during interviews - especially when a camera was present - Olivier Messiaen adopted a rather serious, even solemn demeanour. This, added to the fact that deep religiosity can be associated with austerity, may have led to an erroneous image of him as a reclusive and somewhat remote figure. But this was far from the whole truth.

I recall a man whose usually immaculately delivered speech could almost run out of control due to a surfeit of enthusiasm, and where the word "extraordinaire" cropped up literally dozens of times in a brief conversation. And this "extraordinaire" could refer to chords, rhythms, organ stops, orchestral colours, birdsong, landscapes, stained-glass windows, even food. He was a man who, despite having experienced earlier periods of intense hardship, found great joy in life and was gifted with an immensely positive and exuberant personality.

Above all, he never lost a child's sense of wonder at the world. Ever curious - whether regarding a novel contrabass clarinet performance technique, the song of a species of bird he had never heard before, or the stress patterns of an unfamiliar language - the various compartments of his creative life were akin to a collection of exalted childhood hobbies.

As a teenager, I studied with him at the Paris Conservatoire during the 1970s and we remained in close touch until he died, in 1992. Throughout the entire time I knew him, I never once saw him engage in an argument; he was never combative. He was totally without malice and possessed an exquisite degree of courtesy. He was immensely determined, deeply serious about his mission in life, and discreet - even secretive - by nature. Only once did I witness the uncontrollable temper which, on the very rare occasions that it erupted, was irrational, like a child's wild tantrum. But otherwise he was sweet, kind and considerate, surprisingly worldly-wise and also very funny.

Something that could reduce him to uncontrollable laughter within a matter of seconds was my ability to imitate animal sounds. "George, fais le chien," his wife, Yvonne Loriod, would say in rare moments when he might need cheering up - and it never failed to work. I recall him entering the classroom in the Conservatoire jauntily whistling the Rigaudon from Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin. I can also recall a certain mischievous young student early one morning, just before the Christmas break, playing Jingle Bells harmonised in the style of the main theme from Messiaen's Vingt Regards (the two are similar to a startling degree), and his benign, quizzical smile on entering; not a word was said.

He loved teaching that class, and relished the contact with his students. I was with him in the two final years of his Conservatoire career, and we were indeed fortunate to receive a grand retrospective of his discoveries and techniques going back almost a half-century. And how fresh he made it all seem ... there was birdsong, plainchant, Indian rhythms, Japanese court music, Claude le Jeune, Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Berg, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Dutilleux and Boulez. We journeyed halfway across Paris in the snow to investigate the most up-to-date percussion instruments. Young composers - most of them previous pupils of his - visited the class to play and explain their newest works. Then there was the analysis of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, note by note, over six enthralling weeks - which meant three classes a week, each lasting well over four hours. Pelléas probably mattered more to him than any other single piece in the history of music. During sleepless, freezing nights as a prisoner of war during the early 1940s, he would go though whole acts of the opera in his head to keep his spirits up - so the subjectivity and sensitivity of his comments were deeply affecting.

Beyond looking at student scores whenever we had something to show him - and his comments were encouraging and generous - he was also eager to take us through his own music in detail. Although a few pieces were out of bounds (Turangalîla in particular), almost all of his major works were covered, often linked to performances in Paris. I can remember Des Canyons aux Etoiles at the Théâtre de la Ville (where two elderly ladies noisily exited as soon as the wind machine began to play), and Jessye Norman singing Poèmes pour Mi, and Giulini conducting the early Les Offrandes Oubliées, where a player in the second violins, to Messiaen's intense irritation, repeatedly played the same wrong note.

That a composer should be able to spot wrong notes in the performance of his music was almost an obsession with Messiaen. He reiterated incessantly how you should be able to imagine your music to the highest degree of precision in the inner ear; his harshest critique of a composer he disliked was simply, "Il n'entend pas". Even Brahms and Schoenberg had this accusation levelled at them (unfairly, in my view).

But perhaps his greatest lesson was by example, and his attention to detail and pride in craftsmanship has remained a benchmark for me ever since. He taught as much by osmosis as by intention, acting almost unconsciously as a model for the maximum degree of daring, sincerity and imagination in his students.

Another attribute that made him such an outstanding teacher, for more than three generations of students from across the world, was his capacity for tolerance. In his contact with students, he displayed a rare mixture of passionate engagement coupled with a genuine and profound acceptance of difference in others. He tried with all his might not to impose his own views or tastes on his students, though with the degree of enthusiasm he displayed, this wasn't always easy. But he sincerely valued other aesthetics, other philosophies and indeed other faiths - there was not a trace of dogma about him, despite his own fervent Catholicism.

Thirty years on, my studies in Paris with Messiaen remain the revelatory experience of my life. In my own creative work, I believe I have moved a long way away from that of my maître, both technically and expressively, and that is what he would have wanted. But I have become closer to him in the intervening years through a different route - by conducting his works, and this year in particular Messiaen has featured very frequently in my concert programmes.

The challenges in conducting his works are numerous - the countless sudden shifts in metre and tempo, as well as the immensely swift pace of the transcribed birdsong that dominates his later output. The structures are usually assembled from widely heterogenous materials, with no transition and no ambiguity; every fragment miraculously sounds like Messiaen, and yet there are no conventionally organic or thematic links between them. This can be a problem if the music isn't projected with sufficient passion - I'd almost say devotion. And then there is the sound itself: his music, whether tender or awe-inspiring, makes a truly joyful noise, but to achieve this, harmonic and instrumental colours have to be precisely balanced and tuned.

Sometimes in recent years, when hearing his works as a member of the audience, I have found myself becoming troubled by the mosaic-like nature of their construction, perceiving the borders and gaps instead of the glories of the invention. The fault lies with me - probably a question of mood and receptiveness - though the experience can be alarming. Another reason may be that the singularity and intensity of emotion of these pieces should only be experienced infrequently in order to achieve their true impact. And then, often unexpectedly, I'm suddenly swept along by his visionary cathedrals in sound and find them overwhelmingly moving. Some of this may have something to do with my personal memories of the teacher I loved so deeply. But beyond that, there is a simple and passionately urgent humanity in his music. It speaks directly to the heart, and, as this centenary year has emphatically demonstrated, it has found innumerable ardent devotees here in Britain and across the world.

George Benjamin

The GuardianTramp

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