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Olivier Messiaen and the Birds

I think I am not alone in having found solace during lockdown in the sky, the clouds, the trees and, in particular, the birds. Here in the SE of the UK we enjoyed a particularly mild and dry spring and the absence of noise from traffic both on the ground and in the skies seemed to encourage the birds to fill the aural space. As a musician, every time during those strange months that I was cheered by the birds, my thoughts would turn to the composer, Olivier Messiaen, who translated his love of birdsong into some of the most unusual and haunting music of the 20th c.

Olivier Messiaen was born in 1908 in Avignon to an English teacher and a poetess. Gifted with an aptitude for music, he taught himself how to play the piano before receiving any formal tuition; at the age of 11 he was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire. From an early age Messiaen experienced sounds as colours. For him, creating the movement of musical sounds was almost a visual act which he likened to chasing rainbows that shifted from one hue to the next. Two other early passions irrevocably changed the course of his life. One was his pull toward and early conversion to the Catholic faith. The other was his fascination with bird song which led him throughout his life to collect and attempt to notate the calls of birds.

Messiaen was drafted into the French army at the beginning of World War II but because of his poor eyesight served as a medical auxiliary. Within the first year of his duties he was captured at Verdun and taken to the prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag VIII – A, in the Neisse valley of Lower Silesia. The conditions were grim: 30,000 French and Belgian soldiers were crowded into facilities intended for half that capacity. Here the 32 year old Messiaen, separated from his young wife and 3 year old son, isolated, starving and terrified, perhaps found comfort in the natural world, his music and his faith. I am reminded of a passage from Viktor Frankl's 1946 book, 'Man's Search for Meaning'. In his 'Tribute to hope from the Holocaust', Frankl recounts his experience digging a trench at Auschwitz one cold grey gloomy dawn . Violently protesting 'the hopelessness of imminent death' he suddenly and unaccountably felt his 'spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom' and heard a 'victorious 'Yes' ' in answer to his questioning of the existence of an ultimate purpose. 'At that moment,' he writes, 'a light was lit in a distant farmhouse which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. Et lux in tenebris lucet – and the light shineth in the darkness... Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me on the heap of soil which I had dug from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.'

In those first months of spring 2020 when the world had shut down and we woke each morning to a sense of disorientation and claustrophobia as if trapped in a strange dream, the fruity calls of blackbirds and nightingales always pulled me back to a sense of what was truly important. Messiaen also must have listened to their calls in his first miserable months at the camp. Later he recalled that the deprivation, the cold and the hunger seemed to 'heighten his coloured dreams'. He also became aware that his fellow prisoners included a clarinettist, cellist and violinist and that he could make use of a old, rickety and out-of-tune piano at the back of one of the barracks. A German officer took on his cause and found him some pencils, a rubber and some manuscript paper. And so the birds, the dreams and the possibility of making music led him to begin the creation of one of the most beautiful, if one of the strangest, pieces of music ever written.

'The Quartet for the End of Time' drew its title from the Book of Revelation, chapter 10: 1-7:

And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow on his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.... Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land...and, standing on the sea and on the land, he raised his right hand toward Heaven and swore by He who lives forever and ever... saying: “There will be no more Time; but in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God will be fulfilled”

It is not too difficult to imagine Messiaen and his fellow inmates wishing to be released from the horror of their circumstances, to have faith that

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and empty desolation... (TS Eliot East Coker)

But how was Messiaen to evoke this timeless moment, this perfection, through his music? Of course the notion of time has a particular meaning for musicians and composers. We, in the West, in the last several hundred years, usually think in terms of pulse, meter and tempo. In other words, we are aware of the regular beating that underpins the sounds we make. We create structure out of that beating by dividing it into cycles of, for instance, 3 beats (think waltz time) or 2 or 4. We designate a tempo or speed for those beats. Will our pulse be rapid or languorous or somewhere in-between? We then make sure that we are precise about the sounds we make, holding them for 2 or 3 or 4 or sometimes a ½ or ¼ of those beats. Or we refrain, with equal precision, from producing a sound for a specific number of beats.

Messiaen turned that thinking on its head. He saw rhythm not as a division of time but as a duration of sound. Looking to the rhythmic theories of the ancient Greeks and Hindu talas or rhythmic patterns, he subverts our expectations of regular division and repetition with a seeming, but carefully planned randomness, and our notions of past and future with a sense of eternity and endlessness. He both banishes time and extends it indefinitely. We are led to contemplate the abyss.

But we are not left entirely in this strange and sublime world. 'The birds are the opposite of Time;' Messiaen wrote. 'They are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song!' Of the 8 movements of the quartet (“Seven is the perfect number, the Creation in six days sanctified by the divine Sabbath, the seventh day of this repose extends into eternity and becomes the eighth day of eternal light, of unalterable peace”), two of them represent the composer's first attempt to evoke birdsong. Messiaen tells us that the first movement, Liturgie de cristal is an evocation of the dawn chorus. The clarinet is a blackbird or nightingale improvising 'a halo of lost trills high in the trees”, while the violin comments with a gossamer of insistent staccato. The cello with its icy harmonics seems to provide the poussières sonores (literally 'sound dust') that Messiaen refers to in his notes and the piano, with its inexorable but unpredictable harmonies, is surely sounding the march of time.

In the third movement, Abyss of the Birds, the clarinet is all alone and must convey in haunting breaths and then in unrestrained darting wavers of sound and trills, both the terror of the abyss and the energy and gaiety of the birds.

Imagine the first performance of this monumental and daring work. On a frigid evening in the middle of January, 1941, 400 prisoners and German officers of Stalag VIII-A gathered to hear the premiere of the Quartet performed by fellow prisoners violinist Jean le Boulaire, cellist Etienne Pasquier , clarinettist Henri Akoka and Messiaen himself playing on the old, clangorous piano. Although many in the audience had never heard chamber music before, Messiaen subsequently reported that never had his music been received with such attention. He said: 'My music is not 'nice' – it is certain...' but 'joy exists... the invisible exists more than the visible, joy is beyond sorrow, beauty is beyond horror.'

As the last movement of the nearly hour-long work, a movement for violin and piano entitled Louange à l'immortalité de Jésus (Praise to the eternity of Jesus) began, the prisoners sitting on hard chairs in the freezing barracks must have been growing restless. And yet one can equally imagine them having fallen into a sort of revery, transfixed by the tremulous, almost heavenly long tones of the violin supported by a thrumming of repeated chords in the piano that do truly suggest eternity.

'Joy exists,' Messiaen said. 'Joy is beyond sorrow.' Perhaps it was joy that I heard in the song of birds in those first months of lockdown. Perhaps it was his quest for joy that compelled Messiaen to notate birdsong through a long musical life.

When Messiaen was released from captivity in March 1941 he returned to Paris. There he taught and lectured at the Conservatoire and composed prolifically. Loved by his students and eventually seen as a seminal force in 20th c musical thinking, he never abandoned his faith nor his love of birds. He had happily remarried after the tragic loss of his first wife, had secured fulfilling work and a valued place in the musical life of Paris but he continued to record and catalogue bird song; as late as the year before his death in 1992 he was finishing a short piece for solo piano entitled Petites esquisses d'oiseaux, little sketches in which he tries to evoke the call of the robin, blackbird, song thrush and Eurasian skylark.

I hope that we too, amidst the freneticism of our return to a more normal life, will not abandon the birds, nor the sense of peace that the trees and the sky and the clouds afforded during our strange year and a half. Many of us feel as if we have emerged from a dream or have, like Rip Van Winkle, begun to venture back into a world that is the same, yet different. The streets are full of cars again and the pavements are now often crowded. Planes and helicopters roar overhead. But the parks are strangely empty. Maybe some of us have felt we have spent far too much of the past months walking through them and would now prefer other pleasures. And yet the trees are still there, their leaves shimmering in the wind. And if we listen through all the din of life being lived we can still hear the joyful song of the birds.


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