Messiaen and bird song

May 9, 2008

When writing up a recent brief tour through bird song in music, I began citing some examples of the music of Olivier Messiaen, but quickly found that YouTube had some really interesting material on him, enough to warrant giving him his own post. So here we are.

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a black sheep — or, better, a white sheep — of the twentieth-century avant-garde. He taught several of the most pitiless musical revolutionaries that that unfortunate movement produced, and it is true that his own music is seriously eccentric, but where his fellow travellers turned out bleak gnashings of teeth, his creations are full of light, colour, song, and joy. His music is perhaps daunting on first acquaintance — it is hard for me to remember, as I was long since won over — but familiarity breeds affection.

The primary elements of his musical language, as I understand it, are a unique harmonic system (the technical niceties of which are beyond me, but I can recognize it when I hear it), highly complex rhythms derived from Hindu music, and, what is most relevant for us today, bird song. Birds are forever flitting in and out of his musical textures, in the flutes, in the percussion, in the winds. Sometimes, as in his orchestral work Réveil des oiseaux, or in his massive piano compilation Catalogue d’oiseaux, bird songs constitute the essential musical material.

He was serious about birds. “They are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs,” he said, and he believed that their calls were a music that manifested the music inherent in creation. He wandered through the forest with his writing pad, notating the songs that he heard, and later transcribing them for instruments. This attentiveness had a result that was perhaps unexpected. We tend to think of birds as very melodious and easy on the ear, and they are, but they do not, for the most part, sing in Western musical modes. If you listen carefully, their songs frequently contain highly peculiar pitch combinations and highly complex rhythms. When they are played on musical instruments, they can sound quite bizarre. Sometimes Messiaen’s music sounds like chaos, until you remind yourself that it is bird song. Then it sounds like bird song.

What I propose to do today is simply to review some of the interesting background material that is available on YouTube, and then point interested listeners to a few relevant examples of Messiaen’s art.

First, let’s go straight to the horse’s mouth. Here are two short clips of Messiaen himself discussing birds and music. The first shows him describing the nightingale’s song, and his wife Yvonne Loriod imitating it on the piano. Did you know that this song includes a “victorious torculus”? Neither did I. The second clip shows Messiaen out in the woods, listening to bird calls. (Duration: 2 min. total)

This year is the centenary of Messiaen’s birth, and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London is marking the occasion with a special series of concerts and events. They have produced this short documentary about birdsong in Messiaen’s music, narrated by Peter Hill, a pianist who has been among the most eminent interpreters of Messiaen’s music. (Duration: 6 min.)

I like that they made a connection between Messiaen’s love of bird song and his religion. In many of his works, Messiaen gave creative and original expression to his Catholic faith, and bird song was one means that he used. I also found the question of Messiaen’s faithfulness to bird song to be interesting. He took great care to notate their songs carefully, but sometimes took liberties when integrating them into his music.

We can get a better idea of just how faithfully he reproduced bird calls by listening to this marvellous clip, which compares the call of the Song Thrush to Messiaen’s version of it. It also gives us our first chance to hear an extended passage of Messiaen’s music, in this case the section called “La grive musicienne” from Catalogue d’oiseaux. (Duration: 4 min.)

I find that completely fascinating.

With that general background under our belts, we can turn to a few more musical examples. Perhaps Messiaen’s most famous composition is Quatuor pour la fin du temps, written and first performed in a World War II POW camp. One of the movements, for solo clarinet, is called “Abime des oiseaux” (Abyss of the birds), and is written “in the style of the blackbird”. Here is a truncated performance (Duration: 2:40):

That, I think, takes considerable liberties with the blackbird’s original. A later piece, Le mèrle noir (The Blackbird), for flute and piano, is more faithful. I am told that this was one of the first pieces Messiaen wrote that was inspired through and through by bird song. The flute is a wonderfully agile instrument, better than most at reproducing the darting quickness of the bird call. (Duration: 6 min. [the piece begins at about 0:55 in this clip])

Hearing one bird at a time is all very well, but they can sound pretty wild when thrown together and given to an orchestra to play. Oiseaux exotiques was written to show off the sounds of many bird calls, using the broader palette of tonal colours that an orchestra permits. Here Pierre Boulez (at the podium) and Pierre Laurent-Aimard (at the piano), together with an unnamed orchestra, give it a good showing. It is interesting to hear how Messiaen uses percussion instruments to give voice to birds. (Duration: 15 min. total)

The apotheosis of bird song in Messiaen’s music comes in his great opera Saint-François d’Assise, following the scene in which St. Francis preaches to the birds. The orchestra explodes into a flurry of bird calls, notated in the score on over 70 staves! It is out of control, but worth hearing. There are no good samples that I can find online, so I’ll serve this one up myself. Hold onto your feathered-caps! (Duration: 2:35)


There is much more to learn and love about Messiaen’s music. I’ll leave interested parties with a few links.

London’s Southbank Center is holding a Messiaen festival this year, and they have produced a short film about his life and music. It can be viewed here.

As I mentioned earlier, the Philharmonia Orchestra is also staging a Messiaen festival, and the festival’s web site is here.

I must not overlook the visually affronting, but informative, Olivier Messiaen page.

Olivier Messiaen at Wikipedia.

33 Responses to “Messiaen and bird song”

  1. […] Birdsong in Messiaen (my favourite) […]

  2. Michele Says:

    Did you know that Olivier Messiaen has a song that images the heartbeat of Christ in the womb. Quite some time ago I did a post on it that you might find interesting.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thank you very much, Michele. I know that piece by Messiaen, but I had not realized exactly what he was portraying in the music. I will certainly listen to it again soon with this new understanding.

  4. Janet Says:

    This was one of the first posts I read on this website. It was the reason I kept coming back.


  5. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Janet. It was a lucky day when I snagged you as a visitor. The two posts I did on birdsong in music (the one above and this one) are among my favourites. It’s just an interesting topic.

    It seems that a fair number of people agree with us, because this post is one of the ten most popular I have written. It has been slow but steady.

    Tweet, tweet.

  6. Janet Says:

    As if it isn’t bad enough that my mailbox is full of MY spam, now I’m getting yours as well. 😉


  7. cburrell Says:

    I apologize, Janet. I got rid of it as fast as I could, but evidently not fast enough. If I knew how to unsubscribe you from this comment thread, I would do it.

  8. first signs of bone cancer Says:

    Great info. Lucky me I ran across your blog by chance (stumbleupon).
    I have book-marked it for later!

  9. Janet Says:

    Poor Craig, Maybe you should turn the comments off on this one.

  10. cburrell Says:

    Yes, it’s getting bad lately. I suppose the comment could have come from “Late stage bone cancer”. That would be worse.

  11. Ethel Says:

    Great write ups, Regards!

  12. signs of bladder cancer in women Says:

    I really like it whenever people get together and share opinions.
    Great website, keep it up!

  13. cburrell Says:

    From bone cancer to bladder cancer. Worse and worse.

  14. my cat probably has liver cancer Says:

    I can’t remember if I read this piece when it first came out, but I enjoyed it the second (or first) time. I bought that documentary you recommended on M – ‘The chrystal bowl’ (?)

  15. my cat probably has liver cancer but we are praying for a miracle Says:

    I love M in small doses but … We once had a Messaen week at Aberdeen and by day four I was done.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    You know, I am really sorry about your cat, but your name, there is hysterical.


  17. cburrell Says:

    Yes, much of Messiaen’s music is the aural equivalent of dark fudge: it is wonderful, but a little goes a long way. Every year I listen to his 4+ hour on St. Francis of Assisi, enjoying it thoroughly, but afterwards I am sated for at least a couple of months.

    I am also sorry for your cat, and for you. St. Gertrude, pray for Grumpy’s cat.

  18. my cat refuses to take his cancer meds Says:

    Yes, I laughed aloud as I typed it this morning.

  19. my cat refuses to take his cancer meds Says:

    I thought I would add to the cancer monickers

  20. cburrell Says:

    It’s funny that this post began with birds and has ended with cats. I’m sure there’s a morbid joke in there somewhere.

  21. Katrina Love Says:

    Back to birds…..did you know that Hooper Brewster-Jones from Adelaide, South Australia was notating Australian birdsong for piano compositions in the early 1930’s too?

  22. cburrell Says:

    I did not know that. In fact, I’ve not been aware of Brewster-Jones’ work. I’d like to hear some of it.

  23. Marc Says:

    This is a great post! Thanks for mentioning it over at The Music Salon.

    I have been doing St François d’Assise twice a year, ha, at Christmastide and Eastertide. It grows on me but I’m not sufficiently well-educated in the musical language to do more than enjoy the challenge of it, and be moved by and wonder at it, if that makes sense.

    (I used to own a CD of Vingt Regards and i t surely did not have the Maestro’s own notes included with it. I wonder if we can be expecting an edition of Messiaen’s collected notes etc etc? or do you know if one already exists? I suppose I should be not lazy and investigate myself.)

  24. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Marc. (And it’s nice to have Janet around to “answer my messages” until I find the time!)

    I listen to the Saint Francois opera every year on or around the feast day of St. Francis. It’s a nice tradition that I hope to keep up. For what it’s worth, I’ve written a bit about the opera here.

    The baby is crying…

  25. Marc Puckett Says:

    In case you missed it (crying baby, alas…), on the 7th at the Proms, they premiered a four minute piece of Messiaen, that he based on the call of the New Zealand tui, if I’ve understood rightly. It begins at about the1:50 mark:
    Apparently was destined for Éclairs sur l’au-delà but for some reason that didn’t happen; this was orchestrated by the Messiaen scholar Christopher Dingle.

  26. cburrell Says:

    I did miss that Messiaen premiere; thank you for the pointer. I’m listening to it now, and I quite like it.

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