Messiaen and the Freedom of Birdsong

Matthew Schellhorn answers questions about music in the natural world.
Deep connexions

Can animal sounds be considered music? Is bird song a display of creativity? Are there ways that human artists can benefit from the acoustic riches of nature? These considerations hardly matter to most contemporary composers. To Olivier Messiaen, however, they were among the key aspects of his oeuvre – to the point that he frequently referred to himself as an ornithologist rather than a composer. Messiaen's work may be more relevant today than ever, but it has remained fiendishly hard to categorise. We decided to speak to someone capable of gauging its meaning and importance for a new generation of musicians: Pianist Matthew Schellhorn studied with Messiaen's wife Yvonne Loriod and has recorded a widely applauded album of his chamber works. For his Wigmore Hall debut and subsequently, he has built several programmes around the theme of bird song. The most remarkable thing about these programmes is that they both confirm and contest Messiaen's position in the field of birdsong: “One of the things I wish to articulate in this programme is how dependent he was, perhaps, on those who had gone before him”, according to Schellhorn. It seems our love for birdsong is more universal than some may have thought.

What are the musical reason why we love birdsong so much?

I think there is a deep connexion between humans and the natural world, and particularly birds. The bird is an ever-present part of our human experience. It is also universally identifiable with freedom, with simplicity, with beauty. Birds have fascinated man from prehistory and they have developed symbolic and religious significance through the ages, from the Roman eagle of the Caesars to the dove of the Bible, from the fantastic phoenix to the griffin and the god-peacock of India. In its interaction with man, it is found in every cultural area, in music of course, in visual art, in poetry, even in heraldry.

As to the music of birdsong and why we love it, I should say that beautiful singing is enjoyed by humans and birdsong is understood as the most natural manifestation of song. We are interested by its familiarity and its unpredictability, its contrasts and its consistency. It is perhaps for this reason that in my exploration of works inspired by birds and birdsong I have found no detriment to good musical sense, in fact quite the opposite. There is no emotion, no musical satisfaction, no artistic integrity, lacking in a selection of works based on this subject.

In your “Birds and Birdsong” programmes, you examine the topic of birdsong in music from a historical perspective. It is astounding how far back that journey goes ...
Yes, these programmes span a very large period, and it is amazing to think that birdsong has been a constant inspiration to composers for hundreds of years! What is remarkable is the variety of ways in which birdsong can be woven through the music. So, we have in Daquin an almost ceaseless thread of the cuckoo's song, forming a backbone to the tonal and harmonic content; in Rameau and Ravel we have what might be described as “generic” song infused into a complex musical creation that explores natural fluctuations of mood. Birdsong, and the subject of the bird, is often a “way in”, therefore, to a deeper understanding of reality.

And then, there's Messiaen, of course ...
Messiaen's birdsong music obviously occupies a special place in the repertoire. He elevated this area to an art-form, perhaps even a science. Taking into consideration his early “La Colombe” (“Dove”; from the Préludes of 1929) and the monumental Catalogue d'oiseaux (1956–8), I would single out the stunning La Fauvette des jardins (“The Garden Warbler”; 1970) as an unparalleled masterpiece.

There's a quotation from Messiaen that reads: "I doubt that one can find in any human music, however inspired, melodies and rhythms that have the sovereign freedom of bird song."
While Messiaen found birds to be “sovereign” in their creative capacity, he also said they are “the closest to us, and the easiest to reproduce”. I should assert that the only man-made music ever, perhaps, to come close to birdsong is Gregorian chant. This music, the music proper to the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, manifests the same flexibility of both melody and rhythm. There is even evidence to suggest that the Gregorian melodies we have written down were the basis, in fact, of improvisation – which of course further reminds us of the sounds of the natural world.

Again, we note that in music inspired by birds we find an opportunity to explore the natural sounds around us, which is another reason why there is such vitality and depth in all this music.

From your point of view, which of the two aspects – the ornithological or the musical – is more prevalent in Messiaen's style?
I referred earlier to Messiaen's “science” in this area. It is true that some of the birds, most of them in fact, are astonishingly similar to their inspiration. But if it possible to divide our subject, I have to say that I find the musical, not the replicative, to be the predominant faculty in his works. In simpler terms, birdsong seems put to the service of the music. Although there are episodes of “freedom” and “improvisation” - some of them fiendishly difficult! - it is the way the whole is arranged in every case that enables the works to become pieces of music in the way we would understand it in performance. Messiaen can be very free in his musical forms, but there is balance and proportion in every compositional choice.

Some works, such as “Le Traquet stapazin” ("The Black-eared wheatear"), “Le Courlis cendré” (“The Curlew”) (both from Catalogue d'oiseaux) and La Fauvette des jardins, explore the notion of time: here, although our sense of time is rooted by apparently extra-musical subjects – like the movement of the sun – the musical material is used in logical and “accepted” ways in order to articulate the action.

I find that, in spite of – perhaps because of – being inspired by birds and birdsong, these works are some of the most traditional as any in the piano repertoire.

Open to development

Catalogue d'oiseaux is a cornerstone of 20th-century music, but it never created a school in the true meaning of the word. What's the importance of the piece for 20th-century composition from your point of view?
It is correct to say that the importance of this music is felt now in the least obvious ways. I think there is a need to look back to the natural world for its own inspiration, particularly in the technological age. I am hoping for more new works in this vein.

It is notable that all of these bird-related works, by all composers, are extremely creative and exploratory. And what we learn mostly is that musical forms, melodic and rhythmic possibilities, piano timbre and technique are still open to development – often in radical ways. Messiaen's piano writing here is incredibly pianistic. For this, we have his wife, Yvonne Loriod, to thank in large part. Her extraordinary capabilities opened up Messiaen's language to embrace this field of music and to enable its sounds to be heard in our concert halls. And the possibilities of piano writing are still being explored, having been developed in the 20th century in such ways.

In terms of performance for you as a pianist, what are some of the challenges of the catalogue's pieces?
The basic challenge of rendering birdsong on the piano is to try to match the unbridled freedom of the bird in its performance. For that, one needs a great familiarity with the patterns of the song and a solid methodology in preparing for the technical difficulties. The biggest challenge is the same as with all music, though perhaps more necessary here: “ars est celare artem” – it is art to conceal art. The pianist has to find ways to bridge the divide between the natural and the unnatural: that is perhaps the artistic “meaning” of this music, and why birdsong is the perfect subject matter.

So did you study the "originals" in any form?
Yes, I have made a study of birdsong, and I have several ornithological books and recordings about the subject. I have also experimented with trying to mimic birdsong at the piano. This ongoing study has grown out of a fascination with birds and birdsong inherited from my mother, who shares my passion. I do not think it makes sense to play a piece without understanding its background. I like to keep a handle on the extra-musical programme as I play it. But I have also said before that it is what Messiaen and other composers “do” with the song that is the most fascinating thing. It is possible, I assert, to appreciate this music without any reference to titles, programmes, labels.

In particular, I have visited the areas of France that inspired the Catalogue d'oiseaux and also La Fauvette – the Meije Glacier and the Dauphiné (Isère), for instance. Here, I have got a feel for the landscape; I have seen – and heard! – the environment that has inspired this music. Perhaps I have heard some descendants of the birds Messiaen himself heard.

Has working with Messiaen's music changed your perception of what constitutes "music"?
Messiaen himself said that he made “no distinction between noise and sound” – the sounds of wind and water, or mountain streams and waterfalls, all constituted music. So, I have understood that view from an early age. I should mention the wonderful non-bird sounds found in Messiaen's music: abstract colour-chords, cicadas, water, wind, the movement of trees – even lighthouse foghorns! In this music we find ourselves constantly surprised by the inventiveness on offer and our expectations are never disappointed. I find something new every time I play this music.

This interview was published in December 2012 on