Bird Songs in “Oiseaux Exotiques”

Ashgate publishing is releasing a series of single-work musical analyses, and a 2007 volume showed up at the school library recently. It’s an analysis of Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques, and it’s full of really well-done and well thought-out musical examples.

In particular I like the attached CD, which gives sample’s of Messiaen’s source material — recordings of actual birds — followed by his transcriptions of the same on the piano. The CD ends with a recording of the premiere of the work at the Domaine Musicale on March 10, 1956.

In some cases his transpositions of the bird songs aren’t entirely obvious. As he pointed out,

Birds are able to sing in extremely high registers that cannot be reproduced on our instruments … for the same reasons I’m obliged to eliminate any tiny intervals that our instruments cannot execute. I replace those intervals, which are of the order of one or two microtones, by semitones, but I respect the proportions of the different intervals, which is to say that if a few microtones correspond to a semitone, a whole tone, or a third will correspond to a real semitone; all are enlarged, but the proportions remain identical….on a more human scale.

And as for his sometimes inscrutable harmony,

…not a traditional chord but a complex of sounds intended to give the timbre of that note.

Here are a couple examples, cribbed from the CD, which I hope gives the flavor while remaining within the real of fair use.

The Bobolink

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And his transcription:

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And as realized in a piano cadenza in the finished work:

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The rather strange-sounding prairie chicken

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As notated for piano:

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and as orchestrated:

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The Baltimore Oriole

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and a less-obvious translation:

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Worked into a larger medley with the California thrasher:

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The list of birds used in this one piece runs nearly two pages long!

Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone have done a really nice job, exploring the background and genesis of the work, discussing the concert series and cultural milieux that it was a part of, and comparing a half-dozen or so different recordings. And the one-to-one linking of the birds with their songs really makes it much clearer to the listener.

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