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Oiseaux exotiques

Oiseaux exotiques

Messiaen as an orchestrator, inherited some of the opulence of his teacher, Paul Dukas, as found in Dukas’ opera ‘Ariane et Barbe-bleue and in his poème dansé, La Péri. But increasingly he allowed himself only doses of this opulence, interspersed with harder, grittier materials. In this he was undoubtedly influenced by Stravinsky, who had dethroned the strings from their 19th Century pre-eminence, and proposed by example the notion that every work should determine its own chamber or orchestral forces; and in whose Sacre du printemps tenderness and violence lived almost symbiotically. For Messiaen, the Sacre always remained one of the great works of our time. The period of his earlier orchestral works, such as L’ascension (1933) and the Trois petites liturgies (1944) for female choir and orchestra, was closed by the enormous and colourful Turangalîla-Symphony, finished in 1948. There followed a time of experiment (not always successful as he later admitted), both in the field of language and, concurrently, of instrumentation.

In 1953 he turned to a source of material which he had used, on and off, as musical decoration for nearly twenty years, and wrote Réveil des oiseaux, a work for piano and orchestra which uses nothing but the songs of 38 birds, noted down in the forests of France. After a three-year gap to digest the ramifications of this piece, he next wrote Oiseaux exotiques, also for piano and orchestra, but demonstrating a number of changes from its predecessor. For one thing, the 48 ‘exotic’ birds do not belong to any one place, but are found there are now no strings in the orchestra. At various points the percussion play a number of Greek and Hindu rhythmic patterns, expanding the exotic shape. The form of the work is of six orchestral tuttis (in the last three of which the piano joins), enclosing five piano solos. The end is achieved through the repeated notes of the White-Crested Laughing Thrush which has, says the composer, ‘a tremendous voice, with a very powerful refrain and implacable busts of sound that suggest some mountain giant’.

© Roger Nichols

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