OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Oiseaux exotiques (“Exotic birds”)

Olivier Messaien was born in Avignon, France, on December 10, 1908, and died in Paris on April 27, 1992. Oiseaux exotiques was commissioned by Pierre Boulez for the “Domaine Musical” concerts at the Petit Théâtre Marigny in Paris. It was composed between October 5, 1955, and January 23, 1956, and was first performed on March 10, 1956, with the composer’s wife Yvonne Loriod as piano soloist and Rudolf Albert conducting. The work is dedicated to Yvonne Loriod. The score calls for solo piano with an orchestra consisting of piccolo, flute, oboe, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, two horns, one trumpet, glockenspiel, xylophone, three temple blocks, wood block, snare drum, three gongs (high, medium, and low), and tam-tam (very low).

Born in Avignon in 1908, Olivier Messiaen has long been recognized as one of the most influential composers of this century. His taste for music was awakened by a Christmas gift he received in 1916—scores of The Damnation of Faust and Don Giovanni, a remarkable gift for an eight year old! Two years later his family moved to Nantes and he took formal instruction in harmony. His teacher, Jehan de Gibon, gave him the score of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Messiaen has described his encounter with this work as “a real bombshell . . . probably the most decisive influence of my life.” Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire at eleven. In 1926 he won the first prize in fugue, following that in 1928 with the prize in piano accompaniment. During the two successive years he was extremely successful in both music history and in composition. His teachers included Marcel Dupré for organ, Messiaen’s principal instrument, and Paul Dukas in composition.

Almost immediately after finishing his studies, Messiaen took up the position of organist at the church of La Trinité in Paris, remaining in the post from 1930 until the early 1970s. He began teaching in Paris at the École Normale de Musique and the Schola Cantorum. And, of course, he continued composing. The 1930s saw the completion of many organ compositions, as well as piano works, the elegant and expressive song cycle Poèmes pour Mi for voice and piano (later orchestrated), and a number of works for orchestra, mostly on religious themes. He continued to compose works inspired by his strongly mystical Catholic faith for the remainder of his life.

Messiaen was imprisoned in a Silesian military camp in 1940; there he composed one of his most powerful and moving compositions, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano; the instrumentation was determined by the fact that he knew three other professional musicians in the camp who had their instruments with them, and he wrote the piano part for himself. The first performance took place in those stark surroundings in 1941, with an audience consisting of 5,000 prisoners, who listened to the new piece, running well over a half hour, with rapt attention. The Quatuor was, incidentally, the first work in which Messiaen included an identifiable birdsong as part of the musical substance.

Soon after becoming professor of harmony at the Conservatoire in Paris, Messiaen began the series of lessons in the home of a friend that attracted the attention of the brightest young composers at the institution, especially including Pierre Boulez. After the war, his creative work moved in stages: first a group of pieces on poems of love, of which the largest and best-known is the Turangalîla symphonie (commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and premiered by the Boston Symphony under the direction of Leonard Bernstein). Then there was an experimental phase for a few years around 1950, during which he was making innovations in harmony and rhythm (particularly through studies of the rhythm of the Greeks and Hindus) that were to play a role in his work for years to come and to be a strong influence on others, notably Pierre Boulez. His investigations played a role in the extension of serial technique to all the parameters of music, not just pitch, an issue that was particularly vital right after the Second World War.

Early in the 1950s Messiaen began to concentrate on the songs of birds. A lifelong nature lover, he once told Claude Samuel in one of a series of published conversations, “Among the artistic hierarchy, the birds are probably the greatest musicians to inhabit the planet.” Of course many composers over the centuries have imitated some aspect of birdsong. What was different with Messiaen was not the stylized imitation of a bird (like the “cuckoo” in Mahler’s First Symphony), but rather transcriptions of actual birds singing—a new approach, one that he integrated quite remarkably into the normal structural demands of a modern composition. He had started notating birdsong from his early teens. No mean ornithologist, he continued to collect birdsongs all over the world. His major works of the 1950s and early 1960s derived their musical material largely—indeed, almost entirely—from his collection of transcriptions. Indeed, so conscious was he of his debt to these avian musicians that he occasionally listed them in acknowledgments, as in the Sept Haïkaï of 1963, which quotes no fewer than twenty-five different Japanese birds and is dedicated, in part, to “all the birds of JAPAN.”

In 1953 Messiaen composed his first true “birdsong piece” (Reveil des oiseaux) and the only one in which all of the musical material comes from his transcriptions. He chose for this piece to have all of the songs of birds that might actually be heard in a natural setting. Three years later he wrote Oiseaux exotiques with references to birds from North and South America and Asia as well, a collection of sounds that would never be heard simultaneously in the natural world.

This short work is shaped rather like a Baroque concerto, with sectional alternations of the ensemble of woodwinds, brass, and percussion (the strings are omitted presumably because they are less successful in the imitation of birdsong) with cadenzas for the solo piano. The orchestral introduction and coda are based on the same material, which thus frames the first and last (fifth) piano cadenza, also closely related in material. The long central tutti makes the most extensive use of material not drawn from the birds, namely Greek and Hindu rhythms presented in the percussion instruments and underlying the whole.

The following diagram (adapted from Robert Sherlaw Johnson’s Messiaen) lays out the structural shape with an indication of some musical recurrences.

1st CADENZA (piano)
1st ENSEMBLE (woodwinds, glockenspiel, xylophone)
2nd CADENZA (piano)
2nd ENSEMBLE (same timbre as previously)
3rd CADENZA (piano)
Main Section
4th CADENZA (piano)
5th CADENZA (piano, recalls 1st Cadenza)
CODAf (shortened version of Introduction)

During the first part of the work (up to the central tutti), the sections are relatively brief and lighter in texture; the second part is more complex and heavier in texture, and each of the sections is correspondingly longer. Within its brief span (just under fifteen minutes), Messiaen builds his structure, and avoids monotony, by means of these changes of texture and color, which contribute greatly to the cohesion and vivacity of the whole. —© Steven Ledbetter