top of page

Sketch of a rapprochement between the painting of RAPHY and the music of Olivier MESSIAEN by Françoise Wolf

Olivier MESSIAEN(1908-1992), whose centenary of birth we celebrated throughout 2008, is one of the most important musicians of the 20th century and universally recognized in the musical world. He not only wrote many works for various instruments and constellations, but also taught at the Paris Conservatory for many years. Some of his students, such as Pierre Boulez, Jacques Casterède, Michael Levinas themselves became famous composers and performers.

I became acquainted with the music of Messiaen - I saw him for the first time on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris in the 1960s - when I was still a high school student and attended the concerts of the "Musigrains" of the time. Messiaen is therefore present in my musical culture since my youth and I have never stopped discovering his works by listening to records, radio broadcasts, also by reading works on this composer.


RAPHY is a contemporary painter born in France in 1926, of Armenian origin, whose self-taught practice of his art took place parallel to his professional life. Noticed by art critics from his first exhibition in Paris in 1972, since then he has exhibited regularly not only in the capital but also in the provinces. He has received numerous awards and distinctions, however his notoriety does not go beyond the framework of France.

The circumstances that led me to discover Raphy are quite different from those for Messiaen. It was possible, quite by chance, thanks to a poster that caught our attention, that of my husband and mine, during our annual holidays in La Baule in the early 1980s. This meeting determined a personal relationship with the artist whom we regularly visit in his studio, a relationship of friendship that has lasted for almost thirty years.

If the two artists belong almost to the same generation, they have never met, and if Raphy knows and appreciates the music of Messiaen, it is understood that Messiaen himself has probably never heard of Raphy, nor seen one of his paintings. Consequently, it may seem completely incongruous to want to compare them or at least to relate certain elements of their respective artistic creation. However, this idea came to me over the past five years by looking and observing Raphy's paintings (we have some of his paintings) and each time the association of the painting of one and the other's music imposed itself spontaneously. I will attempt below to explain and justify this purely personal impression.


The abundant musical work of Messiaen has, according to him, no other purpose than to praise creation and God its creator. Believing dazzled by the infinity of God, Messiaen therefore conceives all his music as a praise to creation. The musician is not only sensitive to the song of the birds in this nature that he loves intensely, but also to the beauty of the landscapes of the whole world (those of France, the Great American West or Japan, for example). He admires a nature where man is not necessarily present. Some of his work titles illustrate this fascination:

- “From the Canyons to the Stars” from 1937
- “Songs of Earth and Sky” from 1938
- “Awakening of the birds” from 1953-1988


As for Raphy, he says himself: “My painting is first, that is to say above all, a hymn to nature. Nature is of course the entire universe: light, matter, life. The central theme of Raphy's work is indeed the origin of life, the creation of the world to which he devoted atriptych:

- 1st canvas: "The light»
- 2nd canvas: "The particles»
- 3rd canvas: "The material, wonderful lace»

The theme of the cosmos with all its elements and all its forces is found in many of his paintings: for example, the light, the stars ("The Birth of the Stars" 1977-78), the moon (series of several paintings: "The moon told me one day..."), the sea (his work includes many seascapes), the wind, the storm ("Qu' erupte l'orage, et que gronde le tonner" from 1975-1976, etc).

These common motivations and themes reveal a cosmic dimension of Raphy's painting and Messiaen's music. Of course, a distinction must be made between Messiaen, who defines himself as a theological musician whose temperament is deeply rooted in a very strict and dogmatic catholicity, on the one hand, and Raphy, on the other hand, who considers religion in a much broader sense, I believe. However, it is undeniable that subjects relating to the Christian religion are present for both.
Raphy's paintings evoke the mystery of faith "man of little faith», the miracles « Saint Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds », «Saint Anthony of Padua preaching to the fish"- subject of a series of eight canvases -, healing "The song of healing", "Go, be healed, your sins will be forgiven you"of 1973-1974, of the resurrection, of paradise"paradise for my parents".

It is the same for Messiaen whose work abounds with biblical themes, to quote only:

- "Resurrection" (title identical to that of Raphy's canvas),
- "The Ascension" (1933-34),
- "The Nativity of the Lord",
- "Mass for Pentecost" (1950),
- “Quatuor pour la fin du Temps” (work written in 1940 in the prison camp of Görlitz),
- “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum” (work dating from 1964 and commissioned by A. Malraux in memory of those who died in the two world wars),
- “Lightnings on the Beyond” from 1988-91.

To continue to illustrate this relationship between the two artists, I would like to mention in this context the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi who inspired Messiaen his only opera and Raphy a canvas bearing the same title. There is of course no question of comparing the monumental work in 3 acts and 8 paintings by the musician with the only painting by Raphy on the same character. If Raphy produced his canvas in 1973-74 and Messiaen began his gigantic work in 1975 (which he finished in 1983), it is undoubtedly a coincidence of dates.
It is much more significant to point out that Messiaen was marked by several paintings during the genesis of his opera.
Here are three sources believed to have influenced him:

1 - "The Sermon to the Birds» by Ambrogio Bondone alias Giotto
The painting is in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi where Messiaen went to get to know the place before starting to compose. Once completed, the work includes 3/4 hour of music based on this subject.
2 - The engraving by Maurice Denis “Saint Francis in prayer and an angel playing the violinwhich impressed the musician. Indeed, the opera will culminate with the scene of the musical angel who makes Saint Francis hear celestial music.
3 - "TheAnnunciation» by Guido di Pietro known as Fra Angelico located in the Saint Mark's Museum in Florence. The angel in this painting served as a model for Messiaen for the costumes: the color of the angel's dress and the quinticolored wings are those adapted for the stage.

As for Raphy, it was Liszt's music ("Legend of Saint Francis of Assisi" - piece for piano) that inspired him to paint his canvas. We can therefore see that the link between music and painting is undeniable in both.


Since we have just spoken of birds with Saint Francis of Assisi, let us continue with the next point of our reflections, namely the presence of birds in the respective works of the two artists.

Music lovers close to Messiaen all know that he had the terms "ornithologist and rhythmician" placed on his business card, preceding the profession of composer! Messiaen, the avid ornithologist, spent much of his time listening to birds, describing them, and noting down (by hand) or recording (using a tape recorder) the cries and songs. of birds in all the countries that the musician discovered during his travels around the world.

For the 1950s, the introduction of birds was a total and unique novelty in the history of music. This was for Messiaen the way to renew the music "in crisis" in a very personal way. He not only reproduced the songs of birds in his scores, but he incorporated them as a constructive element of his music. Here are some evocative titles among the many pieces devoted to birds “Le Blackbird” from 1952, “Awakening of the birds” from 1953, “Exotic birds” from 1956, “Catalog of birds” from 1956-58.

When you look at a large number of Raphy's canvases, you realize that, whatever the subject, birds very often appear in them; they are also practically the only figurative elements and the only animal species (except fish) represented.
The paintings entitled: "Songs of birds" are presented in several versions. "Birdsong II: Spring Has Come Down to the Meadow", and "Birdsong IV: Heaven for My Parents".

It remains to wonder what particular meaning to give to this creation: is it a symbol of freedom? Would the king of the air be a messenger between heaven and earth, between God and men?

III— COLOR and its essential role for the two artists

From childhood, Messiaen was amazed by light, contrasts and color combinations. He was dazzled very early on - and remained so all his life - by the marvelous colors of the rose windows, windows and stained glass windows of churches and cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Messiaen would later say: "For a long time, when I hear or when I read music, I see color complexes in my head that walk and move with the sound complexes." “You have to hear in my works sound-colors.” There always exists for Messiaen a relationship between tonalities and colors (for example he associates A Major with the color azure blue) as well as a relationship between the pitch of the chords and the combinations of colours.

We cannot delve into these synesthetic correspondences and their scientific basis. The important thing for our subject is to know that the inner dazzling caused by sound-color constitutes for Messiaen the supreme degree of musical adoration and that color is a symbolic link between inspiration and realization.

Messiaen goes even further by stating that “there is no modal musician, no tonal musician, no serial musician. There are only colorful music and music that is not. (Interviews with Claude Samuel).

We know that for Messiaen, Claude Debussy, his great master, was the most colorful musician of all composers. Not only does Messiaen put all the elements used at the service of color (just like Kandinsky who, from the Baudelairian correspondence, establishes a fundamental postulate between sound and color) but also color becomes the primordial criterion for judging all music of n any era.

What is the impact of this vision on Messiaen's music? The attraction for color and for the metamorphosis of timbre are treated in his music by a very rich, very powerful orchestration (with brass and percussion), by a real explosion and a surge of flamboyant timbres where all the colors of the arc -rainbows are defined. Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a former pupil of Olivier Messiaen and a very committed interpreter of his music, compares the work "Les Oiseaux Exotiques" (for solo piano, Glockenspiel, xylophone, five percussion instruments and small wind orchestra) to a painting full of energetic gestures and very frank colors where everything is flamboyant, without the slightest ambiguity (interview heard on France Musique in December 2008).

Here we are, thanks to this pianist's commentary, back to painting, and in this case to Raphy. This painter works a lot while listening to music which is a great source of inspiration for him. He translates the sounds perceived by colored images on his canvas. And immediately what jumps out in front of a painting by Raphy is the color, of course, the liveliness, the variety, the intensity and the splendor of the colors. The abundance of brilliant colors is comparable to real fireworks.

For Raphy, music is both a source of inspiration and a central theme of his work; a large number of table titles refer directly to a musical work or a musician. Note:

- "In Saga, tribute to Sibelius»
- "Phantom Ship I and II», «kundry(Parsifal) to Wagner
- "La Belle Meunière" Schubert
- "Scherzo(allusion to the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony)
- A whole exhibition of 8 paintings on "St Anthony of Padua» inspired by the song cycle « Des Knaben Wunderhorn » by Mahler

The MESSIAEN/RAPHY parallel seems particularly obvious to me and highlights the correspondences and links between music and painting. There are, of course, many others;Schoenberg,Kandinsky,Paul Klee, who started out as a musician transposed all the musical structures into his pictorial work.

To move on to the next chapter, I would like to quote Raphy for whom “a canvas must speak for itself, through its rhythm, through the interplay of shapes and colors”. We are going to approach the last essential notion which makes the link between the two artists: rhythm.


What strikes first in Raphy's canvases, apart from the color, is the dynamism, the presence of movement resulting from the meeting of forms and colors which clash, the infinite play of various elements which provokes a kind of shock, and are susceptible to continual transformations.

If, for Raphy, the rhythm of a canvas is a fundamental notion “it gives it its style and its character”, Messiaen is able to answer him by giving rhythmic concepts a central dimension of his music. He declares: “Let us not forget that the first, essential element of music is rhythm”. Messiaen, who defined himself as an “ornithologist and rhythmician”, draws his inspiration from rhythmic concepts inherited from ancient times: he uses the notion of measures from plainsong, he uses Greek meters and introduces Hindu rhythms; he redesigns these existing elements, in view of his personal needs.

By studying these sources, he discovers that rhythm is not a regular measurement of time (what it had been assimilated to in Western culture), but that it is on the contrary based on the irregularity of movement, the infinite game of transformations. A fourth factor will complete his palette in terms of rhythm: these are the songs of birds (which we have already mentioned) where the musician finds confirmation of his initial conception of rhythm. The composer seeks another form of temporality in extra-European music and achieves a result that is, of course, completely heterodox: the juxtaposition of moments existing for themselves, the simultaneity of the presence of the most diverse events.

And I believe that precisely in their conception of rhythm, the two artists come together in their way of composing by superimposing several structures which coexist simultaneously, where there is nothing fixed, where everything is constantly changing, which gives a feeling of spontaneity, fullness and jubilation.

I would like to end my reflections on this characteristic feature which is unusual in our Western eyes and ears, but common to both artists open to other cultures, oriental, exotic.


Messiaen is above all a musician of joy, even when he deals with sin and suffering (he does not write disaster music during his captivity in Görlitz); Raphy adopts the same attitude. There emerges from his painting a great force, a powerful energy. A hymn to life in both of them, an impetus capable of giving vigor and happiness to any man, depressed or not. The luminous colors and vital momentum inherent in their respective works are the best remedy for depression and despair. I perceive a doping effect on the man. Messiaen, very religious, did in all his work only seek the evocation of eternal beatitude. Raphy sees in art a great source of comfort, of consolation in the face of the trials of the human condition. “To mortal anguish, to dark despair, I opposed Art. Have infinite distress, to morbid misery, the Art, the art which gives birth to the depths of the soul, the light which consoles, a star which smiles and restores hope and heals.”


What would life be without the beneficent and edifying effect of music, painting, literature, without the art that allows man to escape and rise to another world?

Francoise Wolf



For Raphy:
- Personal documents offered by the painter, interviews with him.

For Messiaen:
-The centenary book (Anik Lesure and Claude Samuel), Symmetry and France Musique, 2008
- broadcasts on France Musique in 2008.

bottom of page