skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Oiseaux exotiques, for Piano and Small Orchestra

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Olivier Messiaen
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano Sat., Jan. 24, 2004, 8:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Messiaen, a figure of enormous importance in the music of the 20th century, profoundly influential as composer, pedagogue and musical thinker, was open to a huge range of influences from various cultures; he found much of his inspiration in his religious faith and much of his actual musical material in the songs of birds. More than a few composers since music first began to be notated have modeled works in part or in whole after birdsong or alluded to that source in some way, but none has been as productively bird-conscious as Messiaen, nearly all of whose compositions over a period of some 50 years or more either cite bird calls outright or contain some form of avian symbolism. This element, in fact, only grew more emphatic as his creative life continued, until most of his works came to be constructed entirely of motifs derived from bird calls.

According to Messiaen, it was his teacher Paul Dukas who told him, “Listen to the birds; they are great masters.” He did listen, so seriously and intently that his ornithological pursuits occasionally interrupted his other work. One of his most ambitious collections of piano pieces is a Catelogue d'oiseaux (composed 1956-58), each of whose 13 fairly elaborate numbers is based on the song of a different bird. His subsequent scores for Chronochromie (for large orchestra) and Couleurs de la cité céleste contain some exotic birdsongs from areas not represented in the Catelogue.

Oiseaux exotiques (“Exotic Birds”), for piano and small orchestra, is one of the compositions in which the title itself as well as the content has an ornithological base. It was completed in 1956, the year the Catelogue was begun, and it was preceded, in 1953, by a more extended work for piano and orchestra called Reveil des oiseaux (“Awakening of the Birds”) . Both, and in fact most of Messiaen's compositions for piano from the middle of his century onward, were written for Yvonne Loriod, who was one of his pupils in the immediate postwar years and whom he married in 1961, a few years after the death of his first wife.

While Oiseaux exotiques is a most evocative title, and the score is said to contain citations of no fewer than 40 different birdsongs or calls, the listener would be misled in being advised to expect anything in the way of musical picture-painting or story-telling in the work. The work, in a single continuous movement, may be regarded as a sort of avian fantasy, but it is, more to the point, a sound fantasy—an exploration of timbres and rhythms which happened to be suggested to the composer by his fascination with ornithology but which is not a direct expression of that fascination. The earlier Reveil des oiseaux is somewhat more graphically descriptive in this sense, but Oiseaux exotiques would enchant the ear just as surely if it were titled simply Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra.