Listening to the Birds: Reflections on Cardiff’s three-day celebration of Messiaen – Part One

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen, Stravinsky, Boden: Royal Welsh College Chamber Winds, Catherine Milledge (piano), Mei Yi Foo (piano), Pascal Gallois (conductor); The Gould Piano Trio: Lucy Gould (violin), Benjamin Frith (piano), Alice Neary (cello), Robert Plane (clarinet), Dora Stoutzker Hall, RWCMD, Cardiff, 16.11.2016. (GPu)

Gould Piano Trio.
Gould Piano Trio

Concert 1:
Messiaen – Oiseau exotiques
Stravinsky – Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments

Concert 2:
Messiaen – Theme and Variations for violin and piano
Boden – Between Waking and Dreams
Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

In 1956, Ezra Pound (a poet whose work is spiritually richer than is generally recognised – a quality most obvious in the way he writes about the classical Greek divinities) put together a small anthology of ‘Quotations from Richard of St. Victor’, both in their original Latin and in Pound’s own translation thereof. One of them reads as follows:

In avibus intellige studia spiritualia, in animalibus exercitia corporalia.
Watch birds to understand how spiritual things move, animals to understand physical motion.

I was repeatedly reminded of this quotation from Richard (d.1173), one of the great mystical theologians of the early Middle Ages, as I listened to this glorious three day banquet of music by Olivier Messiaen.

Messiaen certainly watched the birds, but (more famously) he also listened to them. Birdsong was a fundamental element in Messiaen’s musical language and in his imaginative and spiritual world. He began notating bird song at least as early as 1923, when still in his teens; but it was in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps of 1941 that he seems to have made his first substantial and explicit use of birdsong in one of his compositions. Messiaen was fascinated by birds for themselves, as it were, their songs, their behaviour, their habitats, etc. But he also found in birds, as Richard of St. Victor clearly did, evidence of the spirit and its movements.

In the mediaeval Christian tradition to which Messiaen was heir, the soul was frequently represented as a bird. So, for example, the art of the Roman catacombs sometimes represents the heavenward aspirations of the human soul, especially as it leaves the body, in terms of the upward flight of a bird. It was a common belief that on St. Valentine’s Day the birds sang “with the voice of the angels” (see Beryl Rowlands, Birds with Human Souls, 1978). Messiaen himself spoke of birds as “our little servants of joy” and as “among the artistic hierarchy…probably the greatest musicians to inhabit our planet.” He declared that “the bird is the symbol of freedom. We walk, he flies. We make war, he sings”.

In the music of the five concerts which made up this short festival, we heard with great frequency the birds that were so important to Messiaen’s mind (as well as to his eyes and ears) and which played so meaningful a role in his musico-imaginative world. They were there in abundance in the very first work played, his Oiseaux exotiques (1955/6). The work’s date of composition places it firmly in the very centre of that span of ten years, beginning with the writing of Le merle noir in 1951, “during which birdsong became Messiaen’s exclusive concern” (Peter Hill, in The Messiaen Companion, ed. P.Hill, 1994, p.8). The most obvious predecessor of Oiseaux exotiques, Réveil des oiseaux of 1953, which also uses piano and tuned percussion, was, for all the necessary stylisation of Messiaen’s ‘translation’ of bird song into the language of Western musical notation, a work with an essentially ‘naturalistic’ quality. It ‘represents’ a dawn chorus in France with pretty fair ornithological accuracy. The listener hears in the music the very birds he or she might hear (if lucky or sufficiently patient) on just such a ‘real’ occasion. Oiseaux exotiques, however, is more obviously ‘artificial’ (i.e. full of art). Its avian materials are drawn from the songs of a great many birds, from several continents, birds which, in nature, could never be heard singing together in interaction with one another. They could only ever be in the same place, at the same time, in a specialist and richly-stocked aviary (itself a kind of man-made work of art, after all).

In the performance we heard, the overwhelming sense was of the intense richness of the sound, as if this ‘choir’ of birds was singing the praises of their creator and articulating their sense of wonder at the world(s) they occupied. In medieval French poetry there is a form known as the bird mass (‘La messe des oiseaux’) in which a poet, wandering alone in the woods or meadows, hears, or imagines he hears (sometimes in a dream) a gathering of birds singing the Mass. Here in Messiaen’s music we had a gathering of birds from all across the world singing, in terms more comprehensible to the normal human mind, a hymn to the plenitude of God and His creation; a hymn with a strong sense of ritual performance. But this was, of course, no French woodland, rather a dense landscape rich in an all kinds of natural abundance. Messiaen may have heard quite a few of the birds represented in Oiseaux exotiques in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris (others he probably knew only from recordings), but he presents them in an implied setting yet more paradisal and simultaneously more turbulent because less ‘neatly’ human. Catherine Milledge was the excellent solo pianist in this performance and she, along with the student forces of the Royal Welsh College Chamber Winds, all under the sensitive and intelligent guidance of Pascal Gallois, created a fine and powerful interpretation of this beautiful and extraordinary work. Admirer as I am of Stravinsky, I found the performance of his Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments which formed the second half of this lunchtime concert rather less exciting. I hasten to add, however, that the student wind players were, at the very least, thoroughly competent and that Mei Yi Foo, who had taken over at the piano stool, was very impressive, dashing off fast, fluent runs and percussive explosions as required. If I found it slightly disappointing it was perhaps because my musical antennae were too exclusively tuned to Messian’s distinctive sound world and this left me ‘deaf’ to some of the qualities of Stravinsky’s concerto which, on this occasion, left me unusually unmoved, despite the quasi-ritualistic power of some of Stravinsky’s writing.

The evening concert on this first of the three ‘Messiaen’ days began with an early (and not wholly successful) work and ended with one of his best (and best-known) compositions. Messiaen’s Theme and Variations for Violin and Piano, consisting of a theme and five variations, was written as a wedding gift for Messiaen’s first wife, Claire Delbos, in June 1932 and was premiered by the new husband and wife in November of the same year. It is clearly well-constructed and the theme itself is beautiful and somewhat plaintive, dominated by a kind of aspirational yearning (perhaps for a kind of transcendence, a way of recognising human love as essentially divine in nature). If any degree of such transcendence is achieved in the work, it is in the final variation. But Messiaen’s distinctive harmonic sense, even if not yet fully developed, doesn’t lend itself very easily or comfortably to the kind of thematic transformations which traditional variation form demands. Indeed, the rhythmic variety of the variations is more striking than any harmonic development. When we have heard all five of the variations we are perhaps not much wider about important aspects of the original theme’s potential. Lucy Gould and Benjamin Frith brought out very well the lyricism of the theme in its initial statement. With hindsight one can recognise that both the strengths and the weaknesses of this early composition are very much Messiaen’s, but by the standards of his fully mature work it is a relative failure.

There is, surely, no need to make any kind of qualifications when it comes to the Quatuor, which closed the concert. This, to my mind (and ears!) is one of the very greatest and most affecting works of chamber music written in the Twentieth Century. And, of course, it is also important in terms of Messiaen’s use of bird song! Of its first movement, Messiaen himself wrote in his preface to the score: “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of heaven.” Of Part III, ‘Abîme des oiseaux’, he wrote “Clarinet solo. The abyss in Time, with its sorrows and the weariness. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and joyful songs”. In this Cardiff performance, the violin of Lucy Gould and the clarinet of Robert Plane produced sounds of quite astonishing beauty in the opening, and Plane played the clarinet solo of the ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ with authoritative cogency, exploiting quite marvellously the extremes of the instrument’s dynamic range. Elsewhere, Alice Neary played the solo cello of Part V, ‘Louange à l’Eternit de Jésus’ with persuasive tonal beauty, though not so absolutely slowly as in some interpretations I have heard. The ensemble playing was of the highest imaginable order in Part VI, the ‘Danse de la fureur’, as it was in the final section, with Lucy Gould doing full justice to Messiaen’s ravishingly beautiful (but wholly unsentimental) writing for the violin and Benjamin Frith’s work at the piano playing a full role in creating a wonderful sense of stasis, of absolute stillness. Messiaen’s marking of this movement as “Extremely slow and tender, ecstatic” was fulfilled to something like perfection.

This was an exceptionally fine reading of Messiaen’s remarkable and beautiful quartet, communicative, both delicate and powerful as the score dictated.

Sandwiched between these two works by Messiaen was a performance of Mark Boden’s Between Waking and Dreams. Boden graduated from the RWCMD in 2008, and has taught at the College in various capacities since 2007. This particular work was premiered in 2012 by the Hebrides Ensemble in Perth, in a programme which also included Messiaen’s Quatuor – the two works being written for identical instrumental forces. It takes its starting point from a poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, with its imagery of the tranquil experience of travelling on an aeroplane above the clouds. Boden’s work, like Zagajewski’s poem, juxtaposes that tranquillity (most often felt in the solo passages) with the turbulence of life on Earth (largely located in the more vigorous and percussive ensemble passages). The contrast has something in common with Messiaen’s contrasting of the lives lived within and outside time, making Boden’s piece a fitting companion. The result is full of intriguing and striking contrasts, with many subtle textures and a lyrical sense of quiet and repose – these, at least, were the moments I found most compelling and memorable in this, my first hearing of the piece.

Glyn Pursglove

Leave a Comment