Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute, oboe, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, percussion (glockenspiel, 3 gongs, snare drum, tam-tam, temple blocks, woodblock, xylophone), and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 6, 1973, Zubin Mehta conducting, with pianist Peter Serkin
Where Beethoven, Wagner, and Mahler approached nature and birds as amateurs, in the affectionate sense of the word, Messiaen regarded birds from the point of view of an ornithologist and an ethnomusicologist. Certainly no composer knew more about them, or integrated their “music” so profoundly into his own, as did the revered and hugely influential French composer, teacher, and organist.
Aside from having bird song as an integral part of his musical thinking from the early 1950s onward, some of his compositions are about birds: their appearance, their flight patterns, above all the pitch and meter of their songs. Most notable among these compositions are Réveil des oiseaux (1953), for large orchestra; Catalogue des oiseaux, for solo piano (1956-1958); the opera dealing with the life of the most renowned bird-lover of them all, St. François d’Assise (1983); and Oiseaux exotiques, to a commission by Messiaen’s prize pupil, Pierre Boulez, for the latter’s Domaine Musical concert series in Paris. The premiere took place in March of 1956, with its dedicatee, Yvonne Loriod (Mme. Messiaen), as piano soloist. Messiaen’s credo, exemplified in Oiseaux exotiques, reads (in part): “Nature can be heard in different ways. Personally, I have a passion for ornithology. Just as Bartók scoured Hungary to collect folk songs, I have wandered at length in the different French provinces [later, throughout the world] to note down bird song. It is an immense and endless task, but it has renewed my birthright as a musician. What a way to discover a new style, a new landscape! The skylark in the wheat fields of Champagne, the woodlark at night....”
Of the present work, the composer writes: “In Oiseaux exotiques I have associated the percussion instruments with woodwinds, brass, xylophone, and piano. This percussion is obviously not part of the birds’ songs; it constitutes a strophic support established on rhymes, verses, meters, and Greek poetic feet as well as Hindu rhythms... There is a mixture of strictness [i.e., literal transcriptions of bird songs the composer collected] and liberty, and nevertheless a certain measure of composition in the ‘bird materials’ used, for I have quite arbitrarily placed side by side bird songs of China, of the [East] Indies, of Malaysia, of North and South America, that is to say songs of birds which never meet.”
In his extensive preface to the published edition of Oiseaux exotiques, the composer states, “In its cadenzas, the piano borrows especially from the following birds: Hindu grackle, Chinese liothrix, American wood thrush, Virginia cardinal, bobolink, Carolina mockingbird, Indian shama... The Hindu grackle is a big black bird with a yellow breast. It produces unusual cries, akin to the human voice... The Baltimore oriole... joyous vocalises....” And so on through a catalog of some 60 birds, the majority of them North American. The composer cautions his conductors and pianists – whom he gives pages of descriptive written notes to absorb – “not to forget that this work... contains all the colors of the rainbow, including particularly red, that color especially associated with hot countries….”
Oiseaux exotiques, which is as close as Messiaen ever came to writing a piano concerto, calls for 19 executants who form a richly varied, with the piano – whose material includes six cadenzas – as the binding element.
Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.