Sunsets and Silences

Matthew Schellhorn discusses the notion of time in Messiaen's monumental Catalogue d'oiseaux.
It seems a hugely ironic and ambitious task to give a 20-minute talk – even limited to a single theme – on a work that when performed in its entirety lasts just under 3 hours!

But I want in this paper to examine the role of time in Messiaen’s great piano cycle Catalogue d’oiseaux, the extraordinary and monumental ‘bird catalogue’ composed in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Specifically, I want to explore how narratives are articulated through a representation of the passage of time. It is my hope that in this short talk we can identify specific chronologies and so start to gain an understanding of their musical role.

(I hope there will be time to hear some of this amazing music, but I am going to save any playing until the end in order to get through my observations.)


Many of Olivier Messiaen’s works testify to the fascination the composer had with temporal aspects of music – titles allude to such concepts as ‘eternity’, ‘immortality’, and indeed ‘the end of Time’.

In fact, we know that a preoccupation with time is at the forefront of Messiaen’s considerations in his ‘bird catalogue’. Messiaen himself says that while composing the Catalogue (between October 1956 and September 1958) he experienced a strange reaction to the passage of time. Even though ‘long periods of time went by between repeated travellings and stays in various parts of the world’, memories dating back several years were ‘easily awakened’ owing to the precision of his notation.

It is right, therefore, to see in Messiaen’s Catalogue an attempt to recreate the context of his travels. And this includes not only their repetitious and precision-tooled attitude toward detail, but also their luxuriant, extended nature. We are in no rush to hear the sounds of some 77 different birds contained within this massive work. But Messiaen wants our experience of time to be an authentic one.

(Of course, we must add that the great virtuosity entailed in this work was also partly inspired by Messiaen’s wife Yvonne Loriod – to her, Messiaen wrote, ‘anything was possible’.)

The ordering of ‘movements’

Figure 1 shows the ‘movements’ of the Catalogue. I hesitate to refer to ‘movements’ since every ‘movement’ is a piece in its own right. Each movement or piece focuses on one bird, the bird typical of a specific French province, although this bird is not alone: ‘he is surrounded by his neighbours in the same habitat who also sing, thus lending a greater variety to the language of the pieces’.

Figure 1
Fig. 1: ‘Movement’ list and approximate timings of Catalogue d’oiseaux

In the overall ordering of these pieces we can see a logic insofar as temporal considerations go. Because Messiaen’s metronome markings are so precise and he expected performers to honour his meticulously notated rhythms and silences it is possible to speak with some confidence about the lengths of the ‘movements’. So the outer movements of the first and last books (that’s pieces I and III and XI and XIII) are relatively longer works to play, sandwiching a more modest piece (numbers II and XII). Then, working in towards the centre, the movements on their own (No. IV, ‘Le Traquet stapazin, and No. X, ‘Le Merle de roche’) are even longer; these pieces, which have their ‘own’ books, are particularly long – some 15 to 20 minutes each. The shortest pieces are situated towards the middle of the cycle – the shortest being ‘L’Alouette calandrelle’, No. VIII, at just over 5 minutes. And all the pieces seeming to focus on the centre of the Catalogue, the seventh piece (‘Le Rousserolle effarvatte’, the ‘Reed Warbler’), which is the longest piece at over half an hour’s length.

Just as there is a symmetrical ordering of pieces in relation to the books (3-1-2-1-2-1-3), there is also a symmetrical ordering overall in relation to lengths. Another way of seeing that is to describe the overall form as a circle. This circular form is itself reflected in ‘Le Rousserolle effarvatte’ (the ‘Reed Warbler’), which connotes a time-range of midnight to 3 o’clock in the morning right round to midnight to 3 o’clock in the morning of the following day, ‘with all the sonorous events of a night, a day and the following night’. In a little while, we shall see how Messiaen’s treatment of form is influenced further by a sense of time.

‘Technical experiments’ and rhythm

So much for the structure of the Catalogue in terms of length and the time it takes to perform or to listen. Most of all, it is important to emphasise that the role of time is explored at the small-scale, technical level of the music.

Messiaen says that the music is ‘primarily that of birds’ but their environment – ‘the landscape with its colours, its shadows and light’ – enabled him to make certain technical experiments.

First, these ‘shadows and lights’ are reflected in Messiaen’s rhythms. The importance of the rhythmic domain in Messiaen’s ‘musical language’ need hardly be stated. But it could be said that of all Messiaen’s works, the Catalogue d’oiseaux represents his greatest achievement as a composer in the sense he preferred: for Messiaen called himself an ‘ornithologist and rhythmician’, and he said he had a ‘secret preference’ for rhythm, considering it as the ‘primordial and perhaps essential part of music’. If we understand rhythm correctly, ‘rhythmic music is music that scorns repetition, squareness, and equal divisions, and that is inspired by the movements of nature, movements of free and unequal durations’.

Messiaen acknowledges that the rhythms of the natural world are allied to the freedom and organicism in his music. We find this freedom at the start of ‘La Chouette hulotte’ (the ‘Tawny Owl’), where Messiaen represents ‘la nuit’ (‘the night’) – ‘the fear of night’ – by what he calls a ‘mode of durations and nuances (time-values and dynamics)’. You can see the opening of ‘The Tawny Owl’ in Figure 2.

Figure 2
Fig. 2: Opening of 'La Chouette hulotte' ('Tawny Owl')

Another ‘experiment’ is found is respect of silence. My title refers to the silences in Messiaen’s Catalogue but in a twist we find the notion of silence represented audibly in ‘Le Merle de roche’ (the ‘Rock Thrush’). Here, we see the same attitude as before to extremely precise time-values as Messiaen uses different chromatic durations, 1 to 32 demi-semiquavers, to represent ‘precisely notated moments of silence’. You can see these ‘silences’ in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Fig. 3, ‘Silences’ in ‘Le Merle de roche’ (‘Rock Thrush’)

The ‘role of the seasons’

This discussion of natural rhythms brings me to another area I want to comment on with regard to the technical means used by Messiaen to represent time: form. Messiaen acknowledges that his forms have ‘nothing traditional about them. He speaks of an ‘alternation of songs and silences, light and shadows’ present in all the pieces.

In the Catalogue, the notion of time is reflected in both the monthly-yearly sense and the minutes-hours, the daily sense. Messiaen described how the ‘best time’ to hear birdsong is spring, the season of love – thus we have movements set at ‘the end of April’, ‘May’, ‘the end of June’, and into ‘July’. This was the yearly rhythm well known in nature and perceived by Messiaen: the composer called it the ‘role of the seasons’: ‘summer is a time of silence because the birds are parenting and occupied with feeding their young. … They don’t have time to sing, material concerns prevail over art—Finally winter comes: for some it means the acceptance of very bitter cold, sometimes death; for others, it means migration with substantial traveling, amazing and unexplainable journeys of thousands of kilometres: no more singing’.

Figure 4 shows the distribution of months across the cycle.

Figure 4
Fig. 4: The ‘role of the seasons’ in Catalogue d’oiseaux

7 of the 13 pieces connote a specific time of year and the range is just as Messiaen spoke – the season of love. It will be seen from the movement numbers (in Roman numerals) that Messiaen does not respect the strict chronology of the year: we have June towards the ‘beginning’ of the cycle, but April and May towards the end. Rather, it is the tension between the order of movements and the flexibility towards the time of year they represent that is a defining feature. This contradiction is perhaps best explained by the fact that the individual pieces may be played out of context, that is to say that the Catalogue can be, and often is, performed not in its entirety. It is a catalogue, to be dipped in and dipped out of. In this sense, then, the seasons give a context to each piece, but they are not intended to contribute to a strict understanding of the passage of time throughout the work.

Times of day

On to the smaller scale, and we find natural rhythms taking on a stronger role. The score itself is littered with references to the time of day. That is perhaps not surprising since we know Messiaen notated his birdsongs in the form of a diary. But Messiaen writes that in each of the 13 movements the different times of day and night ‘are present’. I take this to mean not just indicated in the score but playing an active part in the music.

Again, we notice a preference of the composer with regard to time. When asked by Claude Samuel ‘How do you go about collecting bird songs?’, Messiaen replied: ‘The best time of day corresponds to the sun’s rising and setting, rising around six o’clock in the morning in the month of April or between four and five o’clock in June; and setting around seven o’clock in the evening in April, around nine o’clock and even nine-thirty in June. … Certain birds like the Blackcap sing in the morning and afternoon; but there is one hour when you hear absolutely nothing: that’s between noon and one o’clock’.

Messiaen seems at pains to contextualise many of the pieces in the Catalogue by the use of daily time. Of the 13 pieces in Catalogue d’oiseaux, 10 concern themselves with a representation of time in the daily sense as a ‘harness’ to the form. Of these, we identify several ‘types’ of time. Figure 5 shows the pieces of the Catalogue re-ordered according to this understanding of time.

Figure 5
Fig. 5: ‘Types’ of time in Catalogue d’oiseaux

1) First, where the composer does not mention a time in the day or night. Where the action proceeds in a linear way (as in ‘Le Chocard des Alpes’ and ‘La Buse variable’) or where events are presented as unconnected vignettes (‘Le Merle bleu’). I call this kind of time ‘abstract time’.

2) There is a second ‘kind’ of time, where times of day are used to contextualise events, to give a focus to certain activity or to ‘contain’ the drama within a limited timeframe. There is often a single time, like ‘morning’ (‘La Bouscarle’) or ‘the middle of the night’ (‘La Chouette hulotte’). I call this ‘locative time’ because it locates the action – it places it at a certain point in the day.

3) Finally, there is another ‘kind’ of time, where the passage of time is intrinsic to the musical narrative. Where the very passage of time itself narrates the drama. Though not the passage of our ‘real time’ as an audience, the passage of time is ‘felt’ throughout the work as Messiaen chooses to order the individual piece as a series of ‘movements’ and particularly according to a representation of the fall and rise of the sun. I call this kind of time ‘narrative time’.

Earlier, I spoke about the ‘alternation of … light and shadow’ present in all the pieces. In fact, it is the movement – the rise and fall – of the sun, and its changing colour and intensity, that provides one of the most remarkable ways in which Messiaen attempts to indicate the passage of time in his Catalogue d’oiseaux.

The representation of the sun is largely allied to a harmonic method. Messiaen uses shifting harmonic intensities to indicate the changing colour of the sun. This method is found in ‘Le Traquet stapazin’ (the ‘Black-eared Wheatear’; the colours of the chords of ‘transposed inversion’ or ‘contracted resonance’ represent the red and orange sunset) and in ‘La Rouserolle effarvatte’ (the ‘Reed Warbler’; the ‘death of the sun’ is represented by chords of the 4th mode of limited transposition (in their 5th inversion)). Messiaen also draws our attention to the technique in ‘La Bouscarle’ (‘Cetti’s Warbler’), where ‘the melodious phrase harmonised in coloured chords of mode 3 unwinds slowly’: ‘step by step’, Messiaen says, ‘minute by minute, the form follows the living march of the hours of day and night!’


So, to conclude, the manipulation and articulation of time in Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux is a complex, indeed clearly necessary, feature of a work on this scale.

Messiaen is preoccupied with the concept of time. This preoccupation is obvious at the small-scale technical level – rhythm, harmony and birdsong melody – but also extends to the large-scale formal level, not only in the individual pieces but in the overall cycle. Several ‘kinds’ of time appear to be used in order to articulate form. Sunsets and silences occupy a very special place in Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, not merely present as representations of realities or memories. Instead, they become truly musical, identifiable parameters by which to measure our sense of the passage of time.

Most importantly, the ‘technical experiments’ of the Catalogue d’oiseaux are felt in the choice of the birdsong itself. Messiaen identifies three kinds of bird song. The first, a ‘song of proprietorship’ (to assert territory); the second, a ‘song of seduction’ (the title is self-explanatory!); and finally the ‘salutation to daybreak or twilight’ – a song heard at sunrise or sunset. This final song, connected as it is to the time of day, Messiaen calls ‘the most beautiful of all!’ It is worth noting, then, that Messiaen acknowledges himself as drawn to the song that most closely relates to the time of day, and particularly the movement of the sun.


A final consideration comes with a passage not from the Catalogue d’oiseaux but from a later work of 1972 – La Fauvette des jardins (which translates as ‘Garden Warbler’). This is also a substantial piece, but in one movement: in fact, it is Messiaen’s longest single work for piano, at nearly 40 minutes. The piece might be described as a kind of ‘postscript’ to the Catalogue, and also in the sense that Messiaen chooses several of the most ‘successful’ techniques inherited from the Catalogue – namely the circular form described previously using a representation of the sun to connote daily time. Here, Messiaen weaves the rise and fall of the sun into the work, and so divides the form into appreciable sections while at the same time propelling the action toward an inevitable conclusion. In this passage (pages 47–9 of the score), we hear the piecing together of the separate strands of sun chords. The sun was first heard during the opening minutes of the piece; we now see the sun at its peak, reaching the top of its arc. Several birds chime in: the Yellowhammer, the Chaffinch, and the Goldfinch.

This article is adapted from a talk given at the London International Piano Symposium hosted by the Royal College of Music, London, UK, in February 2013