Vivaldi and Messiaen for the birds

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Thursday, October 11, 2018

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then composers must really have a thing about birds.

For centuries, composers have imitated bird song in their music: Vivaldi’s “Goldfinch” concerto for flute is one of the best-known examples from the18th century, and there are hundreds of other examples throughout music history.

On today’s date in 1953, at the Donaueschingen Music Festival in Germany, one of the most famous 20th century examples of “music for the birds” had its premiere performance. This was a piece by the French composer Olivier Messiaen for piano and orchestra, entitled “Le Réveil des Oiseaux,” or “The Awakening of the Birds.”

The musical themes for this work were all based on Messiaen’s precise notation of the songs of 38 different French birds. The piece’s structure progresses from midnight to midday, with the birds’ actual “awakening” occurring precisely at 4 a.m. at the first light of a spring day.

Messiaen’s interest in bird songs and nature was rooted in his deep religious faith. As he put it: "My faith is the grand drama of my life. I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith. I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none."