Most birders carry a notebook with them to jot down observations or to quickly sketch a bird they see—but one French bird watcher sketched the songs themselves, using his incredible ear to transcribe nature’s notes onto a musical staff. That man was Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), one of the great composers of the twentieth century.
Messiaen’s unique talent emerged early. As a boy, he honed his ear listening to and transcribing the songs of birds at his aunt’s farm in the French countryside. He first used birdsong in his work during the darkest period of his life: while imprisoned in a German prisoner- of-war camp during World War II, Messiaen composed and then conducted, with a prisoners’ quartet, Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time, 1941). One of his most celebrated and important compositions, the somber piece includes stylized songs from the Eurasian Blackbird and the Common Nightingale. The third movement, Messiaen later remarked, represents the “abyss of time, its sadness and weariness. But contrasting this theme are the birds, who are the opposite of time; they are our desire for light, for the stars, and for all things sublime.”
Although he was most familiar with the Old World birds of his home country, Messiaen included birds from all over the world in his works. When he wanted to include North American birds for Oiseaux Exotiques (Exotic Birds, 1956), he turned to recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. As part of his research, Messiaen used the first publicly available audio guide to North American birds, American Bird Songs, a set of 78-rpm phonograph records released by the Cornell Lab in 1942. Messiaen visited the Cornell Lab in the 1970s, shook hands with then-director Douglas Lancaster, and listened to recordings in what is now known as the Macaulay Library.
Messiaen’s keen ear lent a unique flavor to the field notes that were the building blocks of his compositions. In a 2005 biography, by Peter Hill and Nigel Simone, Messiaen said, “The voice of the Cardinal is brilliant and pearly. The oscillations resemble a Nightingale when quiet, and the drumming of a Great-spotted Woodpecker when loud.” He described a crow as, “raucous, powerful, sneering, sarcastic.”
When it came time to transcribe what he’d heard to the page, Messiaen took great care. His wife Yvonne Loriod tape-recorded many of their walks, helping Messiaen to double-check his transcriptions. Still, some adjustments were inevitable. Speaking with another biographer, Claude Samuel, Messiaen described some of the challenges: “A bird being much smaller than we are, with a heart that beats faster and nervous reactions that are much quicker, sings in extremely swift tempos, impossible for our instruments. Birds also sing in extremely high registers that cannot be reproduced.” To make bird songs playable on musical instruments, Messiaen slowed their cadences, transposed high pitches to lower octaves, and adjusted the birds’ tiny pitch differences. The result was a new kind of musical language, using new scales and structures.
Despite these alterations, Messiaen had a gift for evoking birds in their native habitats. In 1972, Messiaen was commissioned to compose a piece celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He traveled to Bryce Canyon, in Utah, and found inspiration for the resulting work, Des Canyons aux Étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars, 1974). In this ambitious piece, Messiaen captured the majestic quality of Utah’s canyonlands: the rich multicolored hues of the canyon walls, the dry desert wind, the sparkle of the nighttime stars, and the birds. The Northern Mockingbird, the Wood Thrush (even though it’s not traditionally a bird of Utah canyons), and the orioles each have entire movements devoted to them. The overall effect is colorful, mysterious, and ultimately, awe-inspiring.