In 1955, at the request of conductor Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen used birdsongs, contrasted with strict Greek and Hindu rhythms, to compose Oiseaux exotiques, or Exotic Birds. Incorporating orchestral sections and keyboard cadenzas, the work resembles a piano concerto and was appropriately dedicated to and premiered by virtuoso pianist Yvonne Loriod. In Oiseaux exotiques, Messiaen “established that it was possible to create a successful musical work using birdsong.”1 Within both the orchestral sections and piano cadenzas, Messiaen constructs traditional phrase structures using transcriptions of forty-eight non-European birdsongs. I shall concentrate on his use of just four of these songs in that portion of Exotic Birds defined by rehearsal marks 4-5.

According to Christopher Dingle, in Messiaen’s compositions, “Birds and their songs are used as soloists, as decoration, as malleable musical material, as dramatic protagonists, and as symbols of divine purpose.”2 To Messiaen, birds held the secrets of heaven, and, through birdsong, man could learn the mysteries of God. Messiaen once said, “Like Saint Paul, I see in nature [a] manifestation of one of the aspects of divinity.”3 The Apostle Paul voiced the doctrine of exemplarism in his epistle to the Christians in Rome: “For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that [those who do not believe] are without excuse.”4 From Messiaen’s exemplarist statements, Robert Fallon concluded that Messiaen endeavored to illuminate the soul in its quest to fathom the nature of God through instrumental adaptations of birdsong.5

In order to communicate spiritual truths through birdsong, however, one must first comprehend the structures and patterns within birdsong. In recent years, scholars from many disciplines have begun unraveling the problem of animal songs and a new academic field—zoomusicology—has emerged. Zoomusicologists attempt to understand the role animal-made sound plays in non-human societies as well as the structures behind acquisition and construction of animal calls and “songs.” In his playfully titled book Of Birds, Whales, and Other Musicians, Dario Martinelli summarizes the work and premises of zoomusicologists while introducing the reader to the idea that art may be created independent of humanity. Martinelli includes the research of Olavi Sotavalta, who has identified six divisions of the Sprosser Nightingale’s songs: Introductory, Antecedent, Characteristic, Postcedent, Finale, and Cadence. The Introductory sound is a repeated call, often at multiple pitches. The Antecedent consists of a low repeated pitch but is an optional category that an individual bird may skip entirely. The Characteristic section is the most song-like and varied. Like the Antecedent, the Postcedent is a repeated, lower-pitched sound. The Finale is often uniform and filled with repeated chords, while the Cadence is more percussive.6

From Sotavalta’s study, one may conclude that birdsongs consist of specific sounds that function at specific times. However, these units do not necessarily begin at the same pitch every time. Rather, individual birds recognize each unit by its melodic contour, and the overall contour or shape of the unit becomes the primary feature of Messiaen’s transcriptions.7 This focus on melodic contour enables Messiaen to accommodate orchestral instruments by augmenting the rhythm of the birdsongs, transposing octaves, and proportionally widening the pitch spectrum to eliminate quartertones and smaller divisions of pitch.8 Additionally, Messiaen characteristically emphasizes visual colors (i.e., the actual hues of birds) and their relationships to tone colors or timbres. In the preface to Oiseaux exotiques, he writes, “[The musicians] should not forget that this work is highly coloured; it contains all the colours of the rainbow, including red, the colour especially associated with hot countries—the colour of the American bird known as the ‘Cardinal.’”9 In Oiseaux exotiques, Messiaen tries for the first time to capture the timbres rather than simply the shapes of birdsongs by using his new “harmony whose ‘function’ is to realize the upper partials of the fundamental note of a song.”10 In terms of timbral intensities, he also attempts at least to suggest the hues of living birds. In Example 1 the spectrogram of a Cardinal is paired with Messiaen’s transcriptions in a piano cadenza of Oiseaux exotiques. Thus, rather than simply representing the shape of the Cardinal’s song, Messiaen uses abstract musical note clusters to portray simultaneously the timbre of the Cardinal’s song and suggest the vivid red of its plumage.

Robert Fallon, “The Record of Realism in Messiaen’s Bird Style,” in Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art, and Literature, eds. Christopher Dingle and Nigel Simeone, 136 (Burlington, UK: Ashgate, 2007)

Robert Fallon, “The Record of Realism in Messiaen’s Bird Style,” in Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art, and Literature, eds. Christopher Dingle and Nigel Simeone, 136 (Burlington, UK: Ashgate, 2007),

At rehearsal mark 4 (see Example 2), Messiaen divides the orchestra into four groups, each presenting and developing a different birdsong. The piccolo plays the song of the Lesser Green Leaf Bird, the glockenspiel represents the Red-billed Mesia, the xylophone portrays the California Thrasher, and the flute, oboe, clarinets, bass clarinet, and bassoon share the vocabulary of the Baltimore Oriole. These groups converse with each other as the birds they represent might. In the first measure after rehearsal mark 4, the piccolo and glockenspiel introduce a grace note figure that is common to all four birds’ songs. The Oriole and California Thrasher instrumental groups imitate the figure and continue their respective songs, which gradually become a single, more rhythmically dense motive. The Lesser Green Leaf Bird’s song moves faster, bringing the other three birds’ songs with it, and then has a brief solo statement. The conversation, layered in a way that allows each song to be heard clearly, continues. Eventually, the birds interrupt each other more frequently, increasing the sound density and energy until the final fortissimo leading into the piano cadenza at rehearsal mark 5. By layering the birdsongs to increase rhythmic density and the overall dynamic, Messiaen creates energy that propels the music forward.

Messiaen also creates and releases tension through the layering of birdsongs and the interaction between the birdsong motives to create traditional and non-traditional musical structures. “Individual birdsongs co-operate as never before to project an overall textural or melodic shape.”11 In Example 2 from rehearsal mark 4 of Oiseaux exotiques, dynamic and orchestral density increases for the first two measures, relaxes for one, grows for two measures, then relaxes and builds steadily into the piano cadenza.

Photograph of sheet music
Photograph of sheet music

This musical structure permeates Western music from the works of Bach to Mozart piano concertos to modern big-band compositions. Messiaen’s layering also provides textural shifts and interest in the form of non-traditional musical structures. “The interweaving of various birdsongs … forms a complex network of rhythmic and melodic material.… Messiaen avoids potential monotony in these works, which depend heavily on birdsong, but contrasts timbre and texture.”12 An extension of the impressionist works of Debussy and Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie, or tone-color melody, Messiaen’s birdsong motives weave in and out of their compositional framework, resulting to a considerable extent in development through timbral changes. In Example 1, measure 3, the clarinets, oboe, and flute drop out, and the remaining instruments, the piccolo, glockenspiel, and xylophone establish a brighter sound. This tone color is enriched and darkened with the entrance of the clarinets, oboe, and flute in the next measure; it is further darkened when the timbres of the flute and oboe are replaced by those of the bassoon and bass clarinet. Messiaen uses the birdsongs to create musical phrases and larger structures while manipulating the instrumentation and harmonic content to create a rainbow of actual and suggested (or symbolic) colors.

Photograph of sheet music

* non-discursive elements, the tremolo figures, are highlighted.

The idea of color is central to the compositional technique and aesthetic of Messiaen, and the intense symbolic color of the Cardinal is central to this work. In addition to providing color, the non-discursive tremolos “[have] the effect of making room for the listener by opening up a broad indeterminate space for creative contemplation...

If the orchestral section discussed above can be considered a conversation, then the brief piano cadenza following it can be considered a soliloquy presented by the brilliant red Virginia Cardinal. In this passage, the Cardinal’s song is non-syntactical, but Messiaen communicates meaning through the blending of discursive and non-discursive elements. According to Edward Pearsall in his essay “Anti-Teleological Art: Articulating Meaning Through Silence,” “Discursive elements in music are those that manifest themselves primarily as functional or purposeful transactions, whereas non-discursive events are those whose aesthetic impression is their prominent feature.”13 Pearsall adds that musical elements can only be defined as discursive or nondiscursive by their function and interaction with each other.14 In the piano cadenza that follows (see Example 3), Messiaen manipulates the song of the Cardinal, dividing it into three sections: a tremolo, a series of rising figures, and a series of falling figures. The rising and falling figures constitute fundamental antecedent and consequent phrases that establish an overall periodic shape or structure. These phrases and the period they establish can therefore be classified as discursive when compared with the non-discursive tremolos (highlighted in Example 3), which function as points of repose and provide color rather than structure.

The discursive elements, the rising and falling figures, not only create a periodic statement but function semantically by providing affective information. The rising figure is itself repetitious and persistent. The intervals between repetitions become increasingly small, and the sounds more clustered, creating a sense of and communicating urgency. This event functions as an antecedent phrase to the consequent falling figures, which function as a consequent phrase. The event overall conveys balance and symmetry, a common feature of Messiaen’s music.15 In this example, Messiaen uses a structure his audience can understand, because his listeners recognize its familiar shape.16

The non-discursive tremolos, however, are not devoid of significance. They do not communicate specifically recognizable musical ideas or provide structural coherence, referencing traditional phrasing like the rising and falling figures. Instead, the tremolos exist as sound itself, as timbral color; they communicate sensation more than information. The idea of color is central to the compositional technique and aesthetic of Messiaen, and the intense symbolic color of the Cardinal is central to this work. In addition to providing color, the non-discursive tremolos “[have] the effect of making room for the listener by opening up a broad indeterminate space for creative contemplation … inviting the listener to participate more fully in the creative process.”17 The tremolos in the piano cadenza engage the audience emotionally, connecting them to the music and creating an affective environment in which structural information is more effectively communicated. This non-discursive material aids in the understanding of the discursive elements, further demonstrating how both must necessarily coexist in order to communicate meaning.

Messiaen once said, “I do not believe one can find in any human music, however inspired, melodies and rhythms which have the sovereign liberty of birdsong.”18 The primary musical material of Oiseaux exotiques is transcribed birdsong, but Messiaen also uses several human compositional techniques to organize these free melodies and rhythms for his audience’s benefit. He begins by transcribing birdsong to reflect two forms of reality—actual imitation of birdsongs and representation of spiritual truths19—resulting in musical material that is purely Messiaen’s.20 By crafting harmonies designed to capture the timbre of the birdsong and layering those songs, Messiaen creates orchestral energy and motion. In the piano cadenzas, he juxtaposes discursive and non-discursive elements to achieve structure, suggest symbolic color, and establish timbral color. And, more importantly to Messiaen, his use of birdsong allowed him to communicate purer and nobler feelings than he thought a man-made melody could. In Oiseaux exotiques, Messiaen explored the songs of nature, and sang with the birds in their own language:

In dark hours, when all musical languages seem to me reduced to the meritorious product of patient studies, what is there left but to rediscover the true, forgotten face of music among the birds? There for me is the home of all music. Free music, anonymous, impro vised for pleasure, for greeting the rising sun, for lur ing a mate, for ending all dispute, dissension, rivalry, for using the surplus energy that bubbles up with love and joy.21


1 Christopher Dingle, Musical Lives: The Life of Messiaen, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 145-46.
2 Christopher Dingle, review of Traité de Rythme, de Couleur, et d’Ornithologie (1949-1992) – Tome V, volumes 1 & 2, Tome VI & Tome VII, by Olivier Messiaen. Tempo: A Quarterly Review of Modern Music 58, no. 227 (2004): 43.
3 Olivier Messiaen and Claude Samuel, Music and Color: Conversations with Claude Samuel (Portland, OR: Amadeus, 1994), 32.
4 Romans 1:20 (New American Standard Bible).
5 Robert Fallon, “The Record of Realism in Messiaen’s Bird Style,” in Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art, and Literature, eds. Christopher Dingle and Nigel Simeone, 136 (Burlington, UK: Ashgate, 2007).
6 Dario Martinelli, Of Birds, Whales, and Other Musicians (Scranton, PA: Scranton University Press, 2009), 142-43.
7 Rob Schultz, “Melodic Contour and Nonretrogradable Structure in the Birdsong of Olivier Messiaen,” Music Theory Spectrum 30, no. 1 (2008): 89.
8 Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 117.
9 Olivier Messiaen, Oiseaux exotiques (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1985), X.
10 Peter Hill, ed., The Messiaen Companion (Boston: Faber & Faber, 1995), 409.
11 Ibid., 404.
12 Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 123.
13 Byron Almén and Edward Pearsall, eds., Approaches to Meaning in Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 44.
14 Ibid., 45-46.
15 Peter Hill, ed., The Messiaen Companion (Boston: Faber & Faber, 1995), 406.
16 Almén and Pearsall, Approaches to Meaning in Music, 79.
17 Ibid., 43.
18 Olivier Messiaen, quoted in Orrin Howard,
19 Fallon, “Realism in Messiaen’s Bird Style”, 136.
20 Schultz, “Melodic Contour,” 135.
21 Messiaen, quoted in Orrin Howard, Oiseaux exotiques,


Almén, Byron and Edward Pearsall, ed. Approaches to Meaning in Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Ball, Malcolm. Birdsong in Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques.

Dingle, Christopher. Review of Traité de Rythme, de Couleur, et d’Ornithologie (1949-1992) – Tome V, volumes 1 & 2, Tome VI & Tome VII, by Olivier Messiaen. In Tempo: A Quarterly Review of Modern Music 58, no. 227 (2004): 41-45.

Dingle, Christopher. The Life of Messiaen. Musical Lives. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Fallon, Robert. “The Record of Realism in Messiaen’s Bird Style.” In Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art, and Literature, edited by Christopher Dingle and Nigel Simeone. Burlington: Ashgate, 2007; 116-36.

Hill, Peter and Nigel Simeone. Olivier Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques. Burlington, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

Hill, Peter, ed. The Messiaen Companion. Boston: Faber & Faber, 1995.

Howard, Orren. Oiseaux exotiques.

Johnson, Robert Sherlaw. Messiaen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Marler, Peter and Hands Slabbekoorn, ed. Nature’s Music: The Science of Birdsong. San Diego: Elsevier, 2004.

Martinelli, Dario. Of Birds, Whales, and Other Musicians: An Introduction to Zoomusicology. Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2009.

Messiaen, Olivier and Claude Samuel. Music and Color: Conversations with Claude Samuel. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1994.

Messiaen, Olivier. Oiseaux exotiques. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1985.

Schultz, Rob. “Melodic Contour and Nonretrogradable Structure in the Birdsong of Olivier Messiaen.” Music Theory Spectrum 30, no. 1 (2008): 89-137.


Photo of Elizabeth McLain    

Elizabeth McLain’s background is in music performance and musicology. Previously, Ms. McLain has studied performance interpretations of Shostakoich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,namely how a conductor’s musical, stylistic, and tempi choices can affect the audience’s perception of the morality and message of the opera, a project for which she received a VT CLAHS URI grant and about which she presented at the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Conference in the spring of 2007. Additionally, McLain received a research grant for her contributions to aforthcoming article on the James MacDowell-Templeton Strong letters. Ongoing projects include editing a biography of JamesMacDowell, formatting an English language collection of Liszt d’Agoult letters, and writing an article on the music of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. In addition to her musical interests, McLain studies Russian and religious history, and has acquired a working knowledge of linguistic terminology and theory through her study of Russian, French, Italian, and Spanish. She will receive a B.A. in Music Performance and a B.A. in History from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in May 2010.