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Concerts Explore How One Composer Found Inspiration In Birdsong

Many composers have made music out of birdsong over the centuries. Pictured: A Eurasian golden oriole. (Srihari Kulkarni/Flickr)
Many composers have made music out of birdsong over the centuries. Pictured: A Eurasian golden oriole. (Srihari Kulkarni/Flickr)

This weekend, Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts is featuring concerts of the music of French composer Olivier Messiaen and bird walks. Classical music critic Jeremy Eichler says Messiaen’s love and study of birds is unmatched, but he’s one of many composers who have made music out of birdsong over the centuries.

Eichler (@Jeremy_Eichler) joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to take a listen to some examples.

Interview Highlights

On composers inspired by birdsong

“Well there’s most famously Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony.’ There’s a scene by the brook that has some very famous bird songs. Opera lovers, I’m sure, will remember, from [Richard] Wagner’s ‘Siegfried,’ there’s the forest bird singing out to the hero. [Ottorino] Respighi, in the ‘Pines of Rome,’ actually plays a recording in the middle of the orchestral climax, a recording of a bird.”


On Messiaen’s appreciation for the sounds of birds

“So, it’s interesting when you go back to the 1700s, we had human beings teaching birds the music of humans. You know, the sense that the human beings were the teachers. And then with Messiaen he goes and it’s completely inverted. He calls birds his teachers, and this was a moment in the 1950s when music was coming out of the second world war and there was this real kind of quest, certainly felt by Messiaen and many others, for new sources of creative, kind of, grounding and spiritual meaning for music.


“You know, these young firebrand, avant garde art students in the Conservatoire at the time would sit around the table with Messiaen and they would literally argue with their teacher to the point that Messiaen would be reduced to tears. And Messiaen would say, ‘Gentlemen let us not argue like this. We are all in a profound night, and I don’t know where I am going. I’m as lost as you.’


“So, you know, to me, it just captures, that moment captures a sense of Messiaen’s searching for this, kind of, new source of values, new sources of beauty. And I think birds, for Messiaen, were a source of music and beauty that were particularly appealing precisely because they were completely separate from human history and human music.”

On Messiaen’s use of birdsong in ‘Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps – 3. Abime Des Oiseaux’ (‘Abyss of the Birds’)

“In the ‘Abyss of the Birds,’ I think we get the sense of Messiaen’s use of the bird song in this way that was with more attention to the actual details of how birds sounded. You know, composers had this abstract-inspired relationship to bird song before that, but Messiaen took this far more seriously than any other composer before him. You know, filled thousands of pages of notebooks with precise notation about what he was hearing and then tried to bring these all into his music.”


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