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Le Réveil des Oiseaux

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Olivier Messiaen
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Oliver Knussen, conductor / Peter Serkin, piano, plays Messiaen & Benjamin Nov. 3 - 5, 2011
© Thomas May

"We are all in a profound night," Oliver Messiaen (1908-92) confessed to his composition students at the Paris Conservatory in the 1950s, "and I don't know where I am going." But the natural world of birdsong provided an inspiring source of illumination for a new series of works throughout that bleak decade. These include Oiseaux exotiques, also for piano and orchestra, the far-ranging Catalogue d'oiseaux for solo piano, and Chronochromie for large orchestra, which fuses Messiaen's celebration of birdsong with bold experiments in rhythm and timbre to suggest "the color of time." In fact, Messiaen had already singled out particular bird species in his music as early as The Quartet for the End of Time (1940-41).

That the avian inspiration would persist to the end of this devoutly Catholic composer's career is not surprising. As Robert Fallon has pointed out, Messiaen's approach to birdsong demonstrates a characteristic "use of sensible reality to intimate a higher, hidden reality" and can be seen to reflect theological ideas about the goodness of nature expressed by such figures as Saint Bonaventure, the medieval Franciscan who wrote that "all creatures of the sensible world lead us to God." At the same time, Messiaen marries this potent spiritual symbolism with an astonishing realism-the fruit of countless hours of observation in the field and painstaking experiments in transcription. From the 1950s until the end of his life, he amassed a collection of some 200 manuscript notebooks filled with transcribed birdsong and interspersed with musical sketches. The result is a far cry from the stylized, picturesque, often sentimental depictions of nature typically found with so many classical and romantic composers.

Similarly, Réveil des Oiseaux adapts the romantic paradigm of program music with a built-in "narrative" to incorporate musical material that consists entirely of imitated birdsong-a particularly striking feature of the score, which represents Messiaen's first attempt to organize his birdsong observations into a large-scale composition. The title might be translated "Awakening of the Birds," but the musical sequence also charts the vigil some of the tiny creatures keep throughout a night in spring. Messiaen lays out the chronological progression as follows: the nightingale's is the first of a total of 38 individual bird calls to appear in Réveil, which begins at midnight and proceeds through 4 a.m. through dawn and a series of morning songs, culminating at last at noon.

Overlapping this sequence are vestiges of the piano concerto format. In fact Réveil originated as a potential piano concerto to fulfill a commission for the Donaueschingen Festival, a famous incubator of contemporary music annually held in a small town in Germany's Black Forest. Performing the formidable role of soloist at the premiere in 1953 was Yvonne Loriod, a pianist who had been Messiaen's student and who would later become his second wife. His tripartite dedication of the score pays homage to Loriod's brilliance in devising a way to play the unprecedented solo part. (The other two dedicatees are ornithologist Jacques Delamain and "all the birds of our forests.")

Four solo piano cadenzas function as structural markers. The first one opens the piece and introduces the nightingale (who is soon joined by two companions), followed by a host of other birds spread across the orchestra. In contrast to the linear presentation of individual songs in the solo cadenzas, with his ensemble-including an occasionally gamelan-like array of percussion-Messiaen unfurls a glorious counterpoint of nearly two dozen simultaneous songs to represent the dawn chorus: this forms the score's climactic center, with particular prominence given to the golden oriole (horns and cellos) and the song thrush (trumpet, woodwinds, and strings). The dawn chorus abruptly breaks off "at sunrise," while another cadenza (now imitating the blackcap) launches the series of morning songs and yet another layering of calls.

Messiaen also draws attention to the pivotal silences that separate these sections. Following the final cadenza, in which the piano strings together fragments of 13 different bird songs and cries, ending with a duet between robin and blackbird, comes a "major silence" right before noon. Then, in a brief, subdued coda, we hear a pair of chaffinches, the great spotted woodpecker, and, from a distance, the cuckoo. For the program to be distributed at the premiere, Messiaen asked that no biography of the composer be included, declaring that "I'm anxious to disappear behind the birds."