A case in point is the piece we are going to look at today, "L'alouette calandrelle" (short-toed lark), one movement from the Catalogue d'oiseaux for piano. This work, a set of thirteen pieces for piano, at nearly three hours in length, is one of the great accomplishments in 20th century piano music. Written between 1956 and 58, they were inspired by his student (and later wife) Yvonne Loriod, an extraordinary pianist. The work is very much more than merely a catalogue of birdsong: each piece is actually a representation of the songs of the main bird, other birds who share the same environment, and the environment itself.
L'alouette calandrelle, at around 5' in length, is the shortest movement (the longest is thirty minutes long!). Here is Messiaen's description of the movement:
Provence in July. The short-toed lark. Two o'clock in the afternoon. Les Baux, les Alpilles. And rocks, broom and cypresses. The monotonous percussion of the cicadas. Staccato alarm of the kestrel. The Route d'Entresson. The crested lark in two-part counterpoint with the short-toed lark. Four o'clock in the afternoon, La Crau. A desert of stones, intense brightness and torrid heat. Alone, the little, short phrase of the short-toed lark peoples the silence. About six o'clock in the evening. A skylark soars into the sky and delivers its joyous strophe. Amphimacer of the quail. A reminiscence of the short-toed lark."Amphimacer" refers to an ancient Greek metrical foot consisting of three syllables: long, short, long. The use of these rhythmic units was part of Messiaen's compositional toolbox.
A few days ago I was looking at IMSLP and saw quite a lot of Messiaen's piano music so I thought that I would be able to find lots of musical examples. But today I see it has all been taken down for copyright violation. So, I'm afraid we will have to get by with just verbal descriptions and YouTube clips!
Getting back to the music: what Messiaen has chosen to do here is remarkable in the extreme. What an amazing vision! I think I have experienced the kinds of things he is trying to capture here--that sense of the whole of a place, sounds, smells, light, air, landscape. It is a kind of reverence for our world that inspires music like this. The place is as important as the birdsong in these pieces. Oh, and the time of day as well, which influences the light, the feel of the landscape and of course the call of the birds. There are layers upon layers here: some things are static, almost mechanical, such as the repetitive sound of the cicadas. Other things develop, musically, such as the strophe of the skylark. There is exposition, development and coda. There is also an underlying, unchanging solidity. In L'alouette calandrelle, it is the pair of repeated chords that capture that static landscape. Alongside are a trio of monotonous sounds: the cicada, and the deadpan calls of the kestrel and quail. Over this soars the lark's song, which contains the only real musical development (which involves that two-part counterpoint with the crested lark).
This is a rather sophisticated and complex idea of musical form, with some elements unchanging and others reshaped and developed. Remarkably, there are no formulas here: each of the thirteen pieces pursues entirely different strategies and structures as it presents a different landscape with a different population of birds.
Let's listen to L'alouette calandrelle and see if we can hear what Messiaen is trying to do. I believe Tomislav Baynov is the pianist:
While we are at it, why don't we listen to another performance of the same piece. This is pianist Håkon Austbø:
My only question, is who goes out and measures lark's toes to see if they are short or not?