With spring about to bust loose around us, it’s hard to get away from birdsong. Here’s another look at the subject, adapted from “Reading Nature at Pine Hollow,” a chapter in my forthcoming book about winter on the Great Lakes:
Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, Mahler, Ravel, and other classical composers were inspired to incorporate birdsong into their music, but usually it plays a minor role and amounts to little more than what music historian Christopher Dingle calls “stylized babbling.” Birds had a far more profound effect on the twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, whose life with birds was a true artistic partnership. Dingle notes in The Life of Messiaen that bird song forms a “sonic aviary” in the composer’s work, and was an ingredient in virtually everything he composed for forty years. His long and complex suites were based upon a lifetime of careful observations, audio recordings, and notations of avian songs he collected during much of his life, in many locations around the world. Among his major works, “Reveil des Oiseaux” (“Dawn Chorus,” 1953), “Oiseaux Exotiques” (“Exotic Birds,” 1955-56) and “Catalog D’Oseaux” (“Bird Catalog,” 1956-58) are notable for making bird songs prominent templates for his piano and orchestral flights.
But don’t assume that this is bluebird music. There is nothing sweet or innocent about it. Unlike the pastoral, lyrical melodies of his bird-inspired predecessors, Messiaen’s bird songs are the foundation of a powerful, dissonant, and deeply affecting response to the brutalities of the twentieth century. As a soldier in World War Two he was captured and held in a German prison camp and witnessed firsthand appalling violence and suffering. His music is bold, original, and unsentimental, modeled upon the structures of birdsong, but more reminiscent of the industrial clamor of steel mills and armament factories than of wood thrushes and nightingales. It is as if an army of Nietzschean warrior birds were on the march, keeping cadence by slamming their swords against their shields. Many of the compositions are for piano, but could be performed with hammers on trashcans. It jars us out of any lingering romance about songbirds and sunsets, and demonstrates that our usual emotional responses to nature are painfully limited. Once and for ever it obliterates the self-flattering fiction that birds sing for our enjoyment. Birds sing for their own reasons – as did Messiaen.
Go HERE for samples of the music. Click on the “right” button to listen to short songs of the prairie chicken, wood thrush, lazuli bunting, Baltimore oriole, and cardinal — then click on the “left” for Messiaen’s interpretations.
Finally, here is a glimpse into Messiaen’s creative process, or at least what he heard in birdsong (this and the music above are taken from a website that serves as a clearinghouse of Messiaen miscellany: http://www.oliviermessiaen.org):
18th March 1991
Dear Nicholas Armfelt,
Thank you with all my heart for your cassette of New Zealand birdsongs. I have listened to it several times, with joy. The Kokako is very original, with its sliding descending notes, and its deep note that swells in a cescendo up to a high shrill sound. I like the glissando trembling in a cascade, like cascading water, of the Kea. The Tui utters sounds that are sometimes flutelike, at other times grating, absolutely extraordinary. I also like the Bellbird, the Nototnis, the Riroriro, the strange and primitive calls of the North Island Kiwi, the cretic rhythms and cooings of the Yellowhead, the deep boom of the Kakapo. The cries of the seabirds are also very interesting.
Thank you again for this third present, which has given me great pleasure. I assure you of my warm and grateful best wishes.