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Birds - Messiaen on birds

Birds are perhaps the earth’s original musicians. As such, their songs have long been employed by composers. Examples abound in the Western tradition, and can be found in works by Couperin, Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky, to name a few. Despite this, Messiaen’s use of birdcall is exceptional both for its rigor and its importance to his music. The Quatuor is one of the early manifestations of this importance. The opening material for the clarinet and violin is marked, “like a bird,” and the third movement, for solo clarinet, is titled, “Abime des oiseaux,” or “Abyss of the birds.” In addition to the composer’s commentary below, it is perhaps important for the Quatuor to remember the importance of birds in prison literature. It is the birds alone who can pass freely over the walls of the prison.

The following are examples of Messiaen’s use of birdcalls in the Quatuor from the clarinet and violin parts. These excerpts are based on two birdsongs, those of the blackbird and the nightingale.
1. From Liturgy of Crystal, opening measures. Marked, “like a bird.” Download
2. From Abyss of the Birds, first Presque vif. Marked, “sunny, like a bird, very free in movement.” Download
3. From Abyss of the birds, second Presque vif. Download
Clarinet excerpts performed by Christopher Cullen.
4. From Liturgy of Crystal, opening measures. Marked, “like a bird.” Download
5. From Liturgy of Crystal, fourth measure of rehearsal E. Download
Violin excerpts performed by Sarah Schwartz.

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