Oiseaux Exotiques

Année de composition
16 minutes
Piano and instrumental ensemble [18 musicians] : 2 flutes (also 1 piccolo), oboe, Eb clarinet, 2 Bb clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, C trumpet and 7 percussionists

The Exotic birds that sing in this score have wonderful colorful plumages. These very vivid colors are in the music: all the colors of the rainbow circulate in it, including red, the color of hot countries and the beautiful Cardinal of Virginia!


But there is also the Hindu Mainate (black with a yellow neck) which makes singular cries. The Golden-fronted Verdin (all green like a leaf in spring) which makes a varied chirping. The Baltimore’s Troupiale (orange and black plumage) which makes cheerful vocalizations. The Prairie Cupid Grouse has air sacs that allow it to make mysterious cackles (like a hunting horn) contrasted with high-pitched cries followed by long low-pitched phrases. The Polyglot Mockingbird (gray, pink, tawny brown with white stripes) makes brassy, staccato stanzas, rich in harmonics, of incantatory character. The Catbird (slate gray) begins its stanzas with a meow. The Indian Shama (bluish black, orange belly, long white and black tiered tail) is a marvelous singer whose repertoire is made of rhythmic percussions, drums on two disjointed sounds and brilliant brassy fanfares.


It is his voice that will dominate the final tutti. The white crested garrulax is a large bird living in the Himalayas. It is terrifying by its appearance and by its implacable vociferations. The migratory blackbird, entrusted to the two clarinets, enlivens the whole central tutti. Also singing: Swainson’s Blackbird, Hermit Thrush, Orpheus Bulbul and Wood Thrush, whose bright, sunny fanfare ends the first and opens the last cadenza of the solo piano.


The work also includes Greek and Hindu rhythms, entrusted to the percussion. Deçî-Tâlas from ancient India, Çârngadeva’s system: Nihçankalîla, Gajalîla, Laksmîça, Caccarî, Candrakâla, Dhenkî, Gajajhampa – and from the Karnatic theory: Matsya-Sankirna, Triputa-Mishra, Matsya-Tishra, Atatâla-Cundh.


Among the Greek rhythms, there are compound meter verses: Dactylo-Epitrite, then compound meter verses: Lambelégiaque, and finally logaedic verses: Asclepiade, Saphic, Glyconic, Aristophanian, Phalecian, Phebratian.
Here is a brief analysis of the form, which includes thirteen sections:


I] Introduction

II] Piano cadenza (on the Hindu Mainate and the Wood Thrush)

III] Interlude on 4 birds : Malayan Verdin, Baltimore Troupiale, Chinese Liothrix and California Thrush, played by woodwinds, glockenspiel and xylophone

IV] Short piano cadenza on the Cardinal of Virginia

V] Continuation of the interlude on the 4 birds

VI] Third piano cadenza on the Cardinal de Virginie

VII] Storm, thunder on the Amazonian forest, huge crescendo of the tam-tam. The Cupid’s Grouse inflates its aerial bags, then utters its terrifying cry, from high to low

VIII] A great central tutti. All the birds sing together a great counterpoint based on four rhythmic stanzas entrusted to the percussion and developing Hindu and Greek rhythms. Some of the Hindu rhythms diminish with each stanza by one sixteenth note per duration. The Tâla Nihçankalîla, for example, lines up with durations of 8-8-6-6-4 sixteenth notes, in the second stanza it will be 7-7-5-5-3, in the third stanza it will be 6-6-4-4-2, in the fourth stanza it will be 5-5-3-3-1.
The Greek rhythms, on the contrary, remain relentlessly the same. This rigorous obstinacy of the rhythms in the change or the similarity is continuously opposed to the extreme freedom of the melody of the songs of birds which are superimposed there.

IX] After the great tutti, four howls of the Grouse Cupid, followed by the storm

X] Fourth and very long cadenza of the piano solo on the Bobolink and the Catbird. Very brilliant writing in all registers of the instrument

XI] Great final tutti. The Indian Shama is the main soloist. Great counterpoint, extremely colorful, by all the instruments

XII] Short cadenza of the piano solo on the Wood thrush and the Cardinal of Virginia

XIII] Coda, which ends the work with the implacable vociferation of the Garrulaxe, evoking some Giant of the mountain, some mean and calm Asura of Hindu mythology.
 Note the dialogue between the Cardinal of Virginia (on piano) and the Polyglot Mockingbird (on horns and trumpet), in the central tutti. Note, in addition to the piano solo, the importance of the xylophone and the two clarinets in the central tutti. Note the use of the two horns in the final tutti – and again, throughout the work, the opposition of timbres between the dry and clear rhythms of the wood-block and the resonant rhythms of the gongs and tam-tams.


More than the form, more than the rhythms and more than all these timbres, one must hear and see in my work, color-sounds. In the horn parts of the second tutti there is orange, mixed with gold and red – in the first and last cadenza of the piano solo there is green and gold. The central tutti mixes in colored spirals, in twirls of intermingled rainbows: blues, reds, oranges, greens, violets and purples…


Les Oiseaux exotiques was composed between October 5, 1955 and January 3, 1956, and was performed in all the major cities of Europe and the Americas, in Scandinavia and Japan. In almost all these performances, Yvonne Loriod played the piano solo.


Olivier Messiaen

Création mondiale
Le 10 mars 1956 | Théâtre du Petit Marigny, Paris, France

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