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.