Olivier Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques

  • for piano and small orchestra
  • 2 1 4 1 - 2 1 0 0 - perc(7)
  • Duration: 16’
  • Soloists:
  • Instrumentation details:
    clarinet in Eb
    1st clarinet in Bb
    2nd clarinet in Bb
    bass clarinet in Bb
    1st horn in F
    2nd horn in F
    trumpet in C
    percussion: xylophone, glockenspiel, gongs, temple block, woodblock, tam-tam
    snare drum
  • Composer: Olivier Messiaen
  • Preface: Olivier Messiaen
  • Dedication: Yvonne Loriod gewidmet

Work introduction

The work, commissioned by Pierre Boulez for his Domaine musical concerts, is based on the songs of exotic birds of India, China, Malaysia and North and South America.

The exotic birds singing in this score have wonderfully coloured feathers, reflected in the music; all the colours of the rainbow wheel about, including red, the colour of hot countries and the beautiful cardinal of Virginia, the Hindu mynah (black with a yellow neck) and its unique cries, as well as the rich variety of the gold-browed verdin’s twittering, the Baltimore oriole (orange and black) with its happy coloraturas and the tetras cupido of the Prairies with its air sacs allowing it to emit mysterious glugging sounds (somewhat like a hunting horn) contrasting with sharp cries followed by “codas” descending ever lower. The polyglot mockingbird (grey, pink, pale brown and fluted white) produces sonorous strophes, staccato, harmonically rich and with a magical, charming character. The catbird (slate grey) begins its strophes with a meow. The shama of India (blue-black, orange belly, long tail, graduated in white and black) is an excellent singer, its repertoire comprised of rhythmical beats over two independent pitches, as well as richly sonorous blaring fanfares; its voice will dominate the tutti in the finale. The white-crested laughing thrush is a large Himalayan bird, fearsome to look at and hear its pitiless clamour. The wandering blackbird enlivens the central tutti, its song entrusted to two clarinets. Other songs are provided by the Swainson’s hawk, the hermit thrush and the wood thrush; its sunny fanfare closes the first piano solo cadenza and opens its final one.

The piece also contains Hindu and Greek rhythms, executed by the percussion.

A short analysis of the form, which is comprised of 13 groups: 1. Introduction – 2. Piano cadenza (on the Hindu mynah and the wood thrush) – 3. Intermezzo on four birds: Malaysian verdin, Baltimore oriole, Chinese leiothrix and Californian thrush (woodwinds, glockenspiel, xylophone) – 4. Short piano cadenza on the Virginia cardinal – 5. Continuation of the intermezzo on the four aforementioned birds – 6. Third piano cadenza on the Virginia cardinal – 7. Storm, thunder over the Amazon jungle: tam-tam crescendo – the tetras cupido inflates is air sacs and emits a fearsome cry, first clear, then dark – 8. Central tutti: all birds sing together in large-scale counterpoint based on four rhythmical strophes, led by the percussion instruments developing Hindu and Greek rhythms. Some of the Hindu rhythms decrease with each strophe by one sixteenth-note (semiquaver) per time unit, whereas the Greek rhythms remain inexorably the same. This stubborn intractability of the rhythms – both in the changes and the immutability – continually contrasts with the extreme freedom of the birdsongs superposing them. – 9. After the tutti, fourfold roaring of the tetras cupido, followed by the storm. – 10. Fourth, very long piano cadenza on the catbird and bobolink, radiantly played in all the instrument’s registers. – 11. Great final tutti. The Indian shama is the main soloist: highly colourful counterpoint through all the instruments. – 12. Short piano cadenza on the wood thrush and the Virginia cardinal. – 13. Coda, closing the piece with the clamour of the white-crested laughing thrush, conjuring up the notion of a mountain giant.

However, even more than the form and the rhythms, it is important to hear the colours of the sounds and see them internally. In the second tutti, orange mixed with gold and red are in the horn part; green and gold are found in the first and last piano cadenzas; the central tutti mixes engulfed rainbows in spirals of colour: blue and red tones, orange and green, violet and purple …

Olivier Messiaen

Translated by Grant Chorley


Sample pages

World première

Paris (FR)
Albert Rudolf
Main soloists:
Loriod Yvonne (Klavier)

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