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Composed: 1955-1956
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute, oboe, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, percussion (glockenspiel, 3 gongs, snare drum, tam-tam, temple blocks, woodblock, xylophone), and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 6, 1973, Zubin Mehta conducting, with pianist Peter Serkin

“Listen to the birds! They are great teachers.” This pronouncement by Paul Dukas, composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and professor at the Paris Conservatoire, must have left quite an impression on his teenage student Olivier Messiaen. However, even from early childhood, Messiaen firmly believed that the twittering language of the aerial creatures was much more than mere communication. It was music. No other composer (in fact no other ornithologist) was ever so completely dedicated to the painstaking transcription, study, and musical application of birdsong.

An early manifestation of Messiaen’s style oiseaux appeared in the famous Quartet for the End of Time, composed during his internment at Görlitz prisoner of war camp in the 1940s. In 1953 Messiaen shifted his focus almost entirely to birdsong, first producing Reveil des oiseaux (The Birds Awake) for piano and orchestra, containing songs from an impressive 38 species. Oiseaux exotiques, written three years later, features a more strident ensemble of woodwinds, brass, and percussion – with the piano acting as soloist in what Messiaen describes as “almost a piano concerto.” Where Reveil featured songs one might hear between midnight and noon in the European Jura mountain range, Oiseaux exotiques features 18 species from India, China, Malaysia, and the Americas – a collection that Messiaen acknowledged could never exist together in nature.

Messiaen’s exotic aviary is divided into nine sections. Some are lengthy medleys of tightly intertwined songs for the entire ensemble. Some are brief interludes showcasing individual birds in smaller instrumental combinations. Interspersed among them are several virtuosic piano cadenzas.

The work opens with a pair of shrieks from the Indian minah bird, followed by its full song in extreme slow motion. Note the long sequence of repeated notes at the end of this first melody. It will return in the piece’s dramatic final moments. A long tam-tam crescendo is a prelude to the song of the prairie chicken, whose nasal character is scored for clarinet and oboe in its lower registers. The long medley at the work’s center is introduced by the percussion (snare drum and woodblock) featuring rhythms derived from Hindu and Greek music – the only “unfeathered” music in the piece. The final piano cadenza treats the songs of two North American species, the bobolink and the catbird (with its characteristic “maeow”), as a kind of two-part invention.

Oiseaux exotiques was commissioned by Messiaen’s star pupil Pierre Boulez and premiered as part of his now legendary Domaine musicale concert series in March of 1956. The piano soloist was Messiaen’s wife (and sometimes reluctant transcription assistant) Yvonne Loriod.