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8.553532-34 - MESSIAEN: Catalogue d'oiseaux / Petites esquisses d'oiseaux

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Catalogue d’oiseaux • Petites esquisses d’oiseaux


Throughout the length of his work, Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) confirms his status as a key figure in twentieth century music. He was a brilliant teacher, who nurtured the talents of composers as diverse as Boulez, Xenakis and Stockhausen in his famous analysis class at the Paris Conservatoire. Yet five years after his death he appears as a marginal composer who, because of the profound originality of his creative impulse, stands isolated amidst the very musical currents he himself had often set in motion. This originality rests mainly on his religious conviction: “I have tried to be a Christian musician and to put my faith into a song which always eludes me,” he said. Messiaen believed that artistic expression should be used for the noblest purpose, and the first aspect of his work was to “illuminate the theological truths of the Catholic faith.” Music is better able to do this than any other art form since it is first and foremost concerned with time. This “time” is the very opposite of “One Who is eternal by nature…Who Is without beginning, without end, without succession”. Nonetheless, music is able, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas, “to transport us to God by an absence of truth” until the day when we shall be dazzled by “an excess of truth. The musician, a rhythmist before all else, has the great power to understand time better (and to make It understood), by dividing it, chopping it up, reversing it and altering it. These considerations led Messiaen to use ancient Greek and Hindu rhythms in his compositions (notably decî-tâlas, the 120 regional rhythms of India cited in a thirteenth century treatise he came across as a student at the Conservatoire), and to develop the principles of added values (lengthening of notes) and non-retrogradable rhythms (palindromic rhythms that read the same backwards and forwards). But if music is mainly about time, equally for Messiaen it was about colour. Thus he built his theory of sound-colour, seeking always to approach the divine, and elaborated the system of modes of limited transpositions are possible before the original mode is reproduced). These lend his work a certain “tonal ubiquity”. Music is a perpetual dialogue between space and time, between sound and colour said Messiaen, “a dialogue which ends in a unification: time is space, sound is colour; space is a complex of superimposed times, and sound complexes exist simultaneously with colour complexes. The musician who understands, sees, hears and speaks through these fundamental notions can begin to approach the unknown”.

Equally, one can grasp the divine by contemplating its manifestation; Nature, “An inexhaustible treasure of sounds and colours, shapes and rhythms; a peerless model of total evolution and endless variety. Nature is the supreme resource,” declared Messiaen.

This love of nature and in particular song-birds, those “small servants of immaterial joy”, added a further dimension to the composer’s language. He first used a stylized form of bird-song in the Quatuor la fin du temps (1941) and in further works over the next decade. Scores written after 1950 notate the bird-song precisely and places are given the name of the song-bird as their title. As he turned what had been an absorbing interest since the age of fifteen into an exhaustive, in-depth study, Messiaen became a well-respected ornithological expert. In the field at all hours of the day and night he, he took dictation from his winged masters, whom he liked to call “the greatest musicians on our planet”. The birds’ physical characteristics—rapid heartbeats calling for extremely swift tempi, their often shrill, high-pitched notes and tiny intervals smaller than a semitone—obliged Messiaen to adopt slower tempi, make transpositions down one, two or three octaves and widen intervals. “All are enlarged but the proportions remain identical. It is an exact transportation of what I heard, but on a more human scale”. But as the composer explains, “Melodic line and rhythm is not all. One must reproduce the timbres and that is very complicated because birds have very characteristics timbres with many harmonies and you may know that the timbre depends on the number of harmonics…Ultimately one is obliged to provide each note with a chord to reproduce the timbre. And then, of course, there are orchestral combinations.”

The Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–58) is the second monumental cycle for piano after Vingt regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus (1944) and the first ornothological work for this solo instrument. It was followed by La fauvette des jardins (1970) and by Petites esquisse d’oiseaux (1985). One may wonder that for a work of such breadth Messiaen should have limited himself to the piano and its relatively poor timbre, but what he loses in sonority is largely made up for in suppleness: “The piano, with its extensive range and immediacy of attack, was the only instrument able to compete with certain great virtuosi for speed, tempo and leaps,” explains Messiaen.

The Catalogue d’oiseaux consists of thirteen pieces divided into seven books, with each piece given the name of a song-bird. The intention of portraying the bird in its natural environment is made clear in the subtitle: “Bird-songs of the French provinces. Each soloist is presented in its habitat, surrounded by its landscape and by the songs of other birds (77 in all) from the region”. Messiaen was very proud of the exactness of his musical descriptions: “All here is truth, even the countryside with all its accompanying sights, sounds, smells and thermal currents”. Each piece has a brief introductory poem which depicts the scene for the performer or listener. As a further guide, vivid descriptions abound throughout the score (“Acrobatic flight of choughs above the abyss”, “Reflections of willows and poplars in the waters). The quest for authenticity also led the composer to innovations in form: “Instead of referring to an antique or classical mould or even to some mould I might have invented (with the exception of the Chocard des Alpes, which takes its form from the Greek triad with inserted couplets), I sought to reproduce in a condensed form the vivid course of the hours of day and night (Conversations with Claude Samuel).

Whilst La fauvette des jardins, the second bird-piece for solo piano, shares the same preoccupations as the Catalogue d’oiseaux (the sun’s course, descriptions of birds in their natural habitat surrounded by their neighbours), the Petites esquisses d’oiseaux, which were his last pieces for solo piano, break away from this programme.

In this work, composed for the Bosendorfer, Imperial grand piano, the keyboard of which extends to the very bottom C, adding an extra sixth (which we can admire in No. 2, La merle noir) Messiaen selects his favourite French song-birds and takes them out of context in order to give us idealised portraits of their peculiar beauty. Each piece is concerned only with the song, plumage and flight of the bird in the title. More restrained than the Catalogue d’oiseaux, the score also bears no literary indications. The composer describes the work in the preface: “These are six very short pieces. They are very alike and at the same time very different. Very alike in harmonic styles, with sound complexes of changing colours. Most in evidence are the blues, reds, oranges and violets of the chords of transposed inversions (chords on the same bass note with changing upper notes). More vivid, distinctive colours are added by the chords of contracted resonance (chords in the closest position possible) and the chords of total chromaticism. On the other hand, as each bird has its own aesthetic, the melodic and rhythmic contours differ from piece to piece. The three pieces devoted to the robin have rippling, descending arpeggios, almost like glissandi, followed by long notes and more subtle patterns. The blackbird (No 2) sings a few sunny, almost victorious stanzas. The song-thrush (No 4) is notable for its chant-like repetitions. Finally the skylark (No 6) has a chirping volubility, revolving around an augmented fifth which is punctuated from time to time by two long, loud notes, the whole corresponding to phases of the bird’s flight”.

In these few words, the elements of Messiaen’s musical language are united: a rigorous and complex technique at the service of beauty true and simple, whether of an earthly or heavenly order. Sustained as he was by his faith, the composer never mistakes the means for the end. His music has a universality which makes Messiaen one of the most popular and approach composers of our century.

“If the general public has always followed Messiaen even in his boldest innovations, is it not because his music rejects sheer abstraction, preferring instead to reflect a living experience: fruit of the most refined ear, it is the most recognisable music possible” (Harry Halbreich: Olivier Messiaen).

Patricia Althaparro-Minck
English translation by Rosemary Barnes

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