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ClassicsOnline Home » MESSIAEN, O.: Catalogue d'Oiseaux (J. de Oliveira)
Messiaen and the Catalogue d’oiseaux
Olivier Messiaen created his own vast and highly original sound-world, making his works utterly unique. For him nature was the source of all the beauty to be found in art, and his love of God and of the natural world, birds in particular (“birds are the finest musicians on this planet”), were key influences on his musical language. The variety of sounds and rhythms to be found in his works give a sense of colours and perfumes transformed into music, the movements of nature that led him to create a cosmic temporality, a kind of timelessness—indeed, as he himself said, to reconsider the whole notion of time.
What is so fascinating about his music is the freedom with which he uses his materials and the complexity with which he elaborates his musical language. His work takes its unique, inimitable character from the range of techniques he employs in conjunction with the use of birdsong, including Greek metres and Indian rhythms (tâlas), non-retrogradable rhythms, polyrhythms, polymodality, “colour chords”, modes of limited transposition and added resonance.
Messiaen believed that rhythm was one of the most important elements of music, and his interest in Indian rhythms in particular is ever-present. He made much use of the table of 120 rhythms of the Indian provinces (deçi-tâlas) drawn up by the Hindu theorist Sharngadeva, having a special liking for No.93, Râgavardhana, and its retrograde derivations. It was from this that he derived his use of “added values”. The progressive augmentation or diminution of values was, for him, a way of manipulating living materials—what he called personnages rythmiques (rhythmic characters). The composer put a great deal of emphasis on the use of modes which can only be transposed a limited number of times before the original scale is reproduced, referring to this idea of inherent limitation as “the charm of impossibilities”. In rhythmic terms, this is applied to motifs that cannot be inverted because they are palindromic, or non-retrogradable.
Messiaen drew his harmonic vocabulary from a number of different sources. He referred in his writings to the fact that Debussy often used “notes foreign to a chord, without either preparation or resolution…transforming its colour…giving it a new perfume”. This is the principle of “added notes”, one of Messiaen’s favourite techniques. Others include the use of modes of limited transposition and of “added resonance”. The modes become the basis for melody and harmony, while the technique of added resonance had fascinating implications not only for Messiaen but also for the next generation of composers. The process generally involves having a note or chord played pianissimo in either the lower or upper register, sounding above or below the principal note or chord played forte. In Messiaen’s music it became an essential technique for modifying not just harmony but timbre: for him, harmony became a function of timbre.
While inspired by the legacy of Liszt and Debussy, the composer advanced piano technique yet further, requiring particular precision from performers with respect to attacks, dynamics and pedal technique. His soundworld, with its beauty and daring originality, its wealth of rhythms and timbres, is so captivating that it is easy to immerse oneself in its mysteries and devote years to its study, knowing there will always be new discoveries to be made. This is what happened to me when I began to study and perform his piano works in the early 1960s.
Messiaen dedicated Catalogue d’oiseaux to the birds, and to pianist Yvonne Loriod. He worked on the composition between October 1956 and 1 September 1958, although he had collected the ornithological source materials over a period of some years previous to this.
Catalogue d’oiseaux is undoubtedly his greatest cycle for solo piano. Without being descriptive, it recreates the sounds of nature, birdsong and birds’ habitats, conjuring up landscapes, colours and perfumes. It is made up of thirteen pieces divided between seven books. Of these, the first and last contain three pieces each, the second and sixth one long piece each, the third and fifth two pieces each and the fourth a single, extended central piece. Having spent years listening to birdsong and studying ornithology, Messiaen here catalogues 77 different birds. Each piece presents one main bird along with others from the same natural habitat, in a total of four different groups of birds.
Though Messiaen made no distinction between music and the sounds of nature, when it came to noting down birdsong he encountered the following difficulties: 1. birdsong is generally too quick to be reproduced by human beings; 2. it is often too high to be reproduced by either the human voice or acoustic musical instruments; 3. it uses microtones which cannot be reproduced by instruments tuned to the tempered scale. He therefore organised his versions of birdsong scientifically, transcribing them to a relative scale. In order to obtain a wide range of pianistic timbres, Messiaen uses the extremes of the instrument’s register along with a variety of attacks, dynamics, resonances, harmonics and pedal effects, asking for timbres resembling glockenspiel, gongs, xylophones, gamelan, tam tam, organ, and so on.
The pieces that form Catalogue d’oiseaux are organised in small structures or events (the birds and the sounds of their habitats), that succeed one another like a kaleidoscopic montage, but without any sense of predictability or uniformity. Other aspects that come into play here include the use of different modes, rhythms (Greek and Indian), motifs from the Turangalîla Symphony and colour or timbre chords. Each of these small structures, like living cells, has a life of their own in terms of tempo, character, expressiveness and dynamics. Listening to them is like being antiphonally enfolded by the sounds of nature itself. This impression of depth and spatial expansion has to be achieved by a solo instrument, which thus takes on orchestral proportions to convey a richly layered and extremely intricate texture. Each piece is imbued with a wealth of ideas inspired by different images, sounds, colours, impressions and perfumes.
1. Le Chocard des Alpes (Alpine Chough)
The opening piece is atonal and dissonant in nature. It unfolds within a relatively simple structure and uses an economy of means, presenting a strophe, antistrophe and epode, and between these, a pair of verses in which a lone alpine chough soars above the mountainous landscape uttering its strident cry.
2. Le Loriot (Golden Oriole)
A lyrical, summery scene that opens in late June, around 5.30am. The atmosphere is one of heat, gardens, forests symbolizing exotic colours, the song of the oriole evoking Asia and Africa. Formally, the piece is based principally on the alternation of slow parallel chords, reminiscent of Debussy and Satie; these are followed by rapid melodic song in complex counterpoint.
3. Le Merle bleu (Blue Rock Thrush)
Dazzling in character, this piece makes use of the lower register of the piano and all its resonances to form a contrast with the virtuosic arabesques of Thekla larks. The introduction is followed by four strophes interspersed with three refrains and then a coda.
4. Le Traquet Stapazin (Black-eared Wheatear)
The setting evoked here is the Roussillon region in June. The piece covers the hours from 5am, when “the red-gold disc of the sun rises above the sea”, to 10pm. The birds are to be found in terraced vineyards, whose peace is disturbed by the Wheatear’s song.
5. La Chouette Hulotte (Tawny Owl)
This piece is steeped in a sense of fear, and is set at 2am, in the forests close to Grenoble. The night is portrayed in a refrain-like, atonal passage. Messiaen uses series of different frequencies, durations and intensities. He makes a free selection of notes from the mode without approaching serialism. The form is made up of a refrain, first strophe, refrain and second strophe.
6. L’Alouette Lulu (Wood Lark)
This mysterious piece is set in a pinewood at midnight. Only two birds appear here: the Wood lark and the Nightingale, whose dialogue makes up the central strophes, which are framed by an introduction and a coda.
7. La Rousserolle Effarvatte (Reed Warbler)
According to Messiaen, this key section of the Catalogue is his finest ornithological work. It is monumental in scale, the longest of the 13, with a duration of around thirty minutes. It too is based around certain hours of the day, covering a period of 27 hours between midnight and 3am a day later. The introduction is followed by six strophes and seven refrains, an interlude and a coda.
8. L’Alouette Calandrelle (Short-toed Lark)
Here the composer depicts the different kinds of lark found in Provence, among the arid rocks, cypresses and the “monotonous percussion of the cicadas”. The setting is a July afternoon, between 2pm and 6pm. By contrast with its predecessor, this is the shortest in the cycle.
9. La Bouscarle (Cetti’s Warbler)
This takes place on a riverbank in the Charente region, in April. One of the modes of limited transposition, No.3, appears at different moments in the chords representing the flight of the Kingfisher and the tranquil flow of the river when the loud song of the Nightingale rings out.
10. Le Merle de roche (Rock Thrush)
The landscape portrayed here is that of the ruin-like rock formations of the “Cirque de Mourèze” near Montpellier. Set in May, the piece opens and closes in the dark of the night. Its atmosphere is impressive, dramatic, characterized by long, sustained sounds that create a contrast with the rapid figuration. Long silences create a sense of expectation and add to the impact of this episode.
11. La Buse Variable (Buzzard)
Mountains, lakes and meadows in the Dauphiné. We hear the tuneless, dissonant cry of the Buzzard as it flies to and fro. The introduction is followed by three strophes and refrains, interlude and code. There is a clear contrast drawn between the four groups of birds concerned.
12. Le Traquet Rieur (Black Wheatear)
This piece brings us back to a bright summer’s morning in the Roussillon. Messiaen seems to combine the rocky outcrops and the exuberant sonorities of Merle Bleu with the sunny lightheartedness of Traquet Stapazin.
13. Le Courlis Cendré (Curlew)
This final piece is dissonant and tragic in nature. At night, as the fog descends, we hear the sound of the sea and the boom of a lighthouse: the only man-made sound. The sad and desolate call of the Curlew is repeated seventeen times, followed by silence. In the distance, the sound of the surf on the beach, a final touch of white noise, brings the Catalogue to a close with a low, pianissimo echo.
Jocy de Oliveira
English translation: Susannah Howe
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MESSIAEN, O.: Catalogue d'Oiseaux (J. de Oliveira)