Music of the dawn chorus
The history of music is teeming with birds and birdsong. FT critic Hannah Nepil talks to pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard about performing Messiaen's majestic 'Catalogue d'Oiseaux' amid the dawn chorus at the Aldeburgh Festival
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed by Richard Topping and Petros Gioumpasis. Edited by Richard Topping. Additional footage and pictures from Aldeburgh Festival and Getty. Music: Biber, Sonata Representativa: II. Nightingale, Romanesca; Williams, The Lark Ascending, Hugh Bean; Messiaen, Catalogue d'oiseaux / Book 3 - 6. L'Alouette Lulu, Pierre-Laurent-Aimard
HANNAH NEPIL: What is that mysterious quality in birdsong? It's a question we've been asking for hundreds, even thousands, of years. In ancient Rome, a professional augur would observe the song and behaviour of birds in order to determine whether the gods approved of what the mortals were up to.
The histories of music, art, and literature are teeming with birds and birdsong. Around the 18th century, the ability to convey natural sounds such as birdsong in a musical composition became an expression of virtuosity, as in Biber's "Sonata Representativa in A Major."
The reaction to the Industrial Revolution triggered an idealisation of nature and with it birdsong. Then in the 20th century, composers returned to giving a spiritual connotation to birdsong. You can hear this in "The Lark Ascending," which Vaughan Williams wrote in 1914.
The 20th-century composer Olivier Messiaen collected birdsong like Bartok collected folk music. You can hear it in many of his works, and nowhere more so than in "Catalogue d'oiseaux," which depicts the sound of 77 bird species from Messiaen's native France. Here, pianist Julian Trevelyan plays "The Curlew" from "Catalogue d'oiseaux" at Snape Maltings on England's Suffolk Coast.
"Catalogue d'oiseaux" forms the centrepiece of this year's Aldeburgh Festival, which takes place at Snape Maltings. Pianist [INAUDIBLE] will play the work over the course of a day-- at dawn, in the midday sun, at dusk, and at nightfall. So what was Messiaen trying to say by using birdsong in his music?
PIERRE-LAURENT AIMARD: Many thing, I guess-- first of all, a possible door for escaping to his private life. That was very unfortunate at this moment. He was very deeply despaired.
Second of all, well, his love for nature and as a believer in his love for the creation, and third of all, as a great creator in the '50s, he needed new material for composing music. The moments, the events in the music are often unexpected and create a kind of discontinuity like in nature when suddenly birdsong at unexpected moment and surprise you. And, of course, Messiaen was a great choralist, as everybody knows.
So his harmonic language gives him the chance to paint these landscapes, let's say, or these moments of the day and, of course, also to communicate the emotions that he had in front of this magnificent paysage. He wanted that one plays his text with extreme precision, with respect for all the tempos, well, like somebody who has written not poems with words, but a "Catalogue d'oiseaux."
He has, well, worked the birds so scientifically somewhere. And he want to be very exact, very respectful as notated birdsong. And when he taught musicians to play his music, he has imitated the birdsongs and has shown you really how to play them.
ROGER WRIGHT: We've programmed Messiaen's catalogue simply because of the inspiration provided by our artistic director, Pierre-Laurent. And because he's such a supreme interpreter of Messiaen's piano music as well as so much other keyboard repertoire, the combination of music and place which Aldeburgh, Snape Maltings, and the surroundings, including Minsmere, provide seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. Where else could you actually have this connection between the acoustic sound of the piano and that experience of being able to hear the live birdsong and also go on a journey with the birds themselves from dawn right the way through into the late night?
HANNAH NEPIL: So will the rural setting bring something English to this French work? By introducing real birdsong into our experience of the piece, Pierre-Laurent Aimard is doing something new but at the same time authentic.