Catalogue d'oiseaux (in 7 books), for piano, I/42 (1956-1958)
I. Le chocard des alpes
II. Le loriot
III. Le merle bleu
IV. Le traquet stapazin
V. La chouette hulotte
VII. Le rousserolle effarvatte
VIII. L'alouette calandrelle
IX. La bouscarle
X. Le merle de roche
XI. La buse variable
XII. La traquet rieur
XIII. Le courlis cendré
Håkon Austbø, piano
Not until French composer Olivier Messiaen was in his mid-40s did his lifelong passion for ornithology manifest itself in his compositions with startling originality. Over the course of the mammoth, seven-book cycle Catalogue d'oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds), the songs of 77 distinct birds unfold in a series of 13 movements totaling nearly three hours of solo piano music.
Messiaen's love of nature, as displayed in the cycle (each movement not only has a title bird but also an actual French geographic region assigned to it), is nearly matched by his love of musical arch form. Both within movements and across books, Messiaen inscribes a rough symmetry: occasionally passages reoccur palindromically; more often blocks of sound mirror one another over a central axis. The first and last books both contain three movements, the third and fifth two apiece, and the second, fourth, and six books a single movement each.
Catalogue d'oiseaux begins with "Le chocard des alpes" (the Alpine chough), not only depicting the bird, but also its mountainous surrounding, in several lengthy sections of colorfully dissonant chords. The call of the raven is juxtaposed with the chough, and long silences, a favorite tool of Messiaen, abound. "Le loriot" (the golden oriole) follows with a marked contrast to "Le chocard"; indeed, contrast characterizes the succession of movements throughout the work. The oriole's repetitive song takes on virtuosic extremes, homage (along with the title pun) to the work's premiere performer, Messiaen's second wife, Yvonne Loriod. The homage is one of love as Messiaen's harmonies recall harmonies from his earlier Cinq Rechants. The final piece of the book, "Le merle bleu" (the blue rock thrush), is a forceful and jubilant setting.
The tranquil "Le traquet stapazin" (the black-eared wheatear) comprises the second book; the movement programmatically moves from sunrise to sunset. The third book contains two shorter pieces: "La chouette hulotte" (the tawny owl) and "L'alouette lulu" (the woodlark). Each piece depicts night, the former as terrifying, the latter as peaceful.
The fourth book contains the seventh and central movement, "La rousserolle effarvatte" (the reed warbler), at over half an hour the longest movement. Like the fourth movement and like Messiaen's earlier Reveil des oiseaux, it outlines more than a day of birdsong, with dozens of birds heard.
The shortest movement, "L'alouette calandrelle" (the short-toed lark) follows, recalling "Le loriot" with its simple evocation of the songs of larks. "La bouscarle" (Cetti's warbler) closes the fifth book with an evocation of a river as well as the bird.
"Le merle de roche" (the rock thrush), another nocturnal setting, comprises the sixth book; Messiaen literally renders the elusive bird with silences, disguising the bird's motive. Book VII concludes the cycle, recapitulating birdsongs similar to earlier movements, with the dodecaphonic "La buse variable" (the buzzard), the playful "Le traquet rieur" (the black wheatear), and "Le courlis cendre" (the curlew), a stark depiction of the French coastline.
Messiaen's richly intricate music demands to be listened to actively; by extension the composer subtly requires a more active audience for birds and their songs. [Allmusic.com]
Art by Shoko Uemura