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49 posts categorized "Music"

28 February 2017

Moomins music

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Readers of a certain age may recall from 1980s tea-time TV the children's series The Moomins, a stop-motion animation treatment of the stories of the Moomintrolls, the family of small woodland beings created by Finnish writer-illustrator Tove Jansson. The original stories and picture-books were written and published in Swedish, and spanned the period 1945-1970. 

Moomins-first-edition-cover

Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Little Trolls and the Great Flood) - the first Moomins book, from 1945.

The TV series shown in Britain was a Polish-Austrian-German production, made at the Se-ma-for studio in Łódź. For UK audiences, episodes were edited from their original longer format into five-minute chunks and given an English-language narration by veteran actor Richard Murdoch.

Another UK addition was a new theme tune and soundtrack, created by Graeme Miller and Steve Shill, who were, at the time, members of Impact Theatre Co-operative, a Leeds-based experimental theatre company whose influence on the contemporary performance scene is still felt today. Perhaps their best-known work is The Carrier Frequency from 1986, a collaboration with novelist Russell Hoban set in a post-nuclear world, and performed on a structure designed by Simon Vincenzi that rose from a two-foot deep pool of water. 

Moomins-music-products

The Moomins' music, a mixture of organic instruments and new electronic sounds, was issued this year in its most complete edition yet by Finders Keepers Records. Formats include cassette, CD and vinyl, plus two de luxe limited edition LPs. Examples of each have been acquired by the British Library for its sound archive (see image above).

Simon Sheridan, in his A-Z of Classic Children's Television, describes this music as 'some of the saddest ever to make its way onto kids' TV'.

In the same book Graeme Miller cites the mournful theme tune from The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (the 1960s French import that was a staple of BBC children's programming for three decades) and the electronic sound of Kraftwerk as primary musical influences.

The Finders Keepers editions are beautifully presented, with the CD and LP editions featuring the bonus of a long and detailed essay by Andy Votel on the history of the series as broadcast, the creation of the music, and the 10-year effort to make the complete soundtrack available for the first time.

22 February 2017

They Walk Alone – A Benjamin Britten discovery

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Britten by Berkeley

Benjamin Britten composing in Crantock, Cornwall 1936 [PH/1/30]

Photo Lennox Berkeley, by permission of the Lennox Berkeley Estate 

Rob Smith, metadata support officer on the Save our Sounds project, alerted me to the fact that he had discovered a hitherto unknown recording of an early work by Benjamin Britten.  Rob has been working on the Bishop Sound discs, which were made for theatrical productions, and has previously blogged about them here.

Britten1edit

As a young man, Britten wrote some incidental music for the play They Walk Alone by Max Catto (1907-1992) who was a Manchester playwright and novelist born Mark Finkell.  It was first performed at the ‘Q’ Theatre, Kew Bridge on the 21st November 1938.

Miss Beatrix Lehmann, who has not been seen on the London stage since her appearance in Mr Eugene O’Neill’s trilogy, Mourning becomes Elektra, will have the leading part in They Walk Alone, a new play by Mr Max Catto, which Mr Berthold Viertel is to produce at the “Q” Theatre to-day week.  (Times 14th November 1938)

Programme cover

PG/1939/0132/1 Image provided by the Britten-Pears Foundation

The play then moved to the Shaftesbury Theatre on the 19th January 1939 and was presented by Firth Shephard. Jack Bishop had a long standing working relationship with Shephard and had been involved with a number of productions with him by this point. From the 1st May 1939 to 3rd June 1939, the play was performed in the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, where Bishop had some offices for a period of time.

Lehmann played Emmy, a girl who goes to a Lincolnshire farm to become a servant.  She is affected by organ music from a nearby chapel which is sometimes heard in the early hours of the morning.  Young men are found horribly murdered, a dog howls and the melodrama ends with Emmy being found out and caught as the murderess.

Programme synopsis

PG/1939/0132/8 Image provided by the Britten-Pears Foundation

The music was not mentioned in the Times review of the play which was published on Britten’s twenty-fifth birthday.  Special praise was given to Lehmann in the role of Emmy.

Here is melodramatic material played by an actress of rare imaginative power and played by her for its thrill.  She uses her face as a tragic mask sprung to life; she does not hesitate before the uses of the grotesque; she draws fear into her on her finger-tips; she employs, as first-rate acting in melodrama must employ, the forces of dramatic hypnosis.  Analysis of the play cannot make much of it, but under Miss Lehmann’s spell it has astonishing impact.  (Times 22nd November 1938)

Ten years later Catto used his play as the basis for the British film Daughter of Darkness (1948) where Siobhan McKenna played the role of Emmy, resulting in the offer of a Hollywood contract.  The role of the organ music as catalyst for her criminal tendencies was replaced by a travelling circus.

Britten wrote a few cues for dramatic moments but the only extended piece, titled Prelude to They Walk Alone, edited by Colin Matthews, was first published in 2004 by the Britten Estate.  The Trustees of the Britten Estate have kindly given me permission for the whole recording to be posted on this blog.  So here we have the first recording of the work, the unidentified organist playing from the manuscript.  There are two complete takes of the Prelude, the first with experiments in registration, the second, presented here, a more unified performance.  This is the disc that would have been played at performances of the play and you can hear it here.

Prelude to They Walk Alone

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13 February 2017

Recording of the week: John Blackwood McEwen

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This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Scottish composer Sir John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948) had a distinguished career producing a large amount of music, little of which is heard today. He was Principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1924-1936 and was knighted in 1931. His String Quartet No. 6, 'Biscay', written in 1913 (and confusingly published as No. 8), consists of three movements. The second and third were recorded in 1916 by the London String Quartet and a live recording from 1951 of the complete work exists from the Library of Congress. Here is the delightful third movement, La racleuse (The Oyster-Raker) from 1916.

String Quartet No. 6 (Biscay)_La racleuse

Portrait_of_Sir_John_Blackwood_McEwenPortrait of Sir John Blackwood McEwan by Reginald Grenville Eves (Royal College of Music, CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Visit Chamber Music on British Library Sounds to listen to more performances by the London String Quartet.

Follow @BL_Classical and @soundarchive for all the latest news

08 February 2017

2017 UK-India Year of Culture: Praise music of Rāṛh, India

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2017 is the UK-India Year of Culture. It marks the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and, through a varied programme of projects and events – led by the Ministry of Culture in India, the Nehru Centre and other Indian cultural organisations in the UK and the British Council – aims to highlight India-UK cultural relations. World and Traditional Music will publish several blogs through the year that will spotlight various musical traditions from India through the prism of collections and projects at the British Library. The first is a guest blog from Jyoshna La Trobe.

Jyoshna gained her PhD in Music from SOAS, University of London in 2010, on “Praise singing and the Performance of Ecstasy, in the Purulia District of West Bengal, India”. Her collection at the British Library (C1211) comprises over 140 hours of audio and video recordings made primarily as part of her doctoral research and in continued projects to date.

 

Fig 1. Rarh kirtan team, India
Rāṛh kīrtan team, India

It’s been twenty years since I began this journey of researching the music culture of Rāṛh in north east India, particularly kīrtan ‘praise music’. Though I had been practicing kīrtan for many years I could not begin to grasp the depth or scope of the music tradition of which I was a part until 2006 when I was able to embark on detailed research for my doctorate at SOAS. Informed by Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar's seminal book entitled Rāṛh, translation into English from Bengali in 2004, I ventured to this region with some knowledge of its special significance in Indian history. The mechanics and structure of the kīrtan music, I soon discovered, were unknown to anyone outside the region at the time. Hence my endeavour was to explore how the musicians could create such ecstatic heights of devotional expression.

What is kīrtan?

Fig 2 Kirtan expert, Sri Jagaran Mahato and Kirtan team
Kīrtan expert, Sri Jagaran Mahato and Kīrtan team

Kīrtan (Sanskit. kiirtana) comes from the Sanskrit word ‘kirt’ which means ‘loud’. In the panorama of music traditions all around the world, ‘loud’ calls or chants to the deity can be heard, whether a Hallelujah chorus, a Hari Bolo kīrtan, or any other sacred chant sung by a congregation at a ceremonial gathering. In essence, kīrtan is the musical expression of spiritual longing and a horde of other emotions, all directed to the deity whose name is being sung, through song, chant, music and dance (samgiita). Calling only the name of god or nama kīrtan is also known as marai kīrtan in this region.

Marai Kīrtan

My research is not the whole spectrum of Rāṛhi kīrtan, which is too vast to cover, but is focused on Rāṛhi marai kīrtan meaning ‘circular’ or ‘grinding’ the name of god. “Marai is not a Bengali word, it is local Purulian or Rāṛh local word, it means to move in a circle, while the internal meaning is ‘to grind’, for if you grind Hari’s name, in your heart, like sugarcane, then it will melt and become nectar for God” (Jagaran Mahato 2007: personal communicaton).

Textually speaking, marai kīrtan could not be simpler: musicians devise a multitude of ways of singing god’s name with only two words, Hari Bolo. Hari is the name of god, and bolo means ‘speak, say or call’. As a musical structure its complex form is not dissimilar to a western classical or jazz piece with specific instrumental parts, rhythmic patterns, melodic and drum compositions (katan). What sets marai kīrtan apart from western classical music, however, is the continuous or repetitive singing of Hari bolo that melts away any sense of separation between the singer and the sacred name. To achieve this state of ‘melting’ marai kīrtan is performed without break for many hours, weeks, or even longer. “Kīrtan is a type of music that you can’t compare with other types, you can’t bind it, you can’t make a boundary line or limit it, or say that there is an end to it” (ibid.).

In marai kīrtan, then, one observes chanting, dance and instrumental music, interwoven into one dynamic form of sacred performance that is geared towards arousing devotion.

Chanting the divine names, can inspire a ‘supra’ aesthetic or ‘transcendental’ experience, for in Rāṛh, kīrtan’s predecessor is the mystical Baul song tradition (Baul is from Sanskrit word batul meaning ‘mad’ in the sense of ‘mad for god’). These ancient Baul mystic songs are full of double entendre masking references to their secret Tantric practices, although understood by those who have been initiated into the intuitional science of Tantra. They represent the earliest form of spiritual culture in the region and possibly the world. [Tantra is Sanskrit for ‘liberation from dullness’ with Shiva being the adi guru or 'first lord'.] Rāṛh is the homeland of both the Baul and the kīrtan traditions.

The boundaries of Rāṛh

Rāṛh or Rāṛho, means ‘reddish soil’, says local expert, Acaryā Kirtyananda Avadhuta. He says the territory, mostly in Bengal, and border lands of Orissa and Jharkhand, was known as Rāṛh bhum, with bhum meaning “land or country” (1966: personal communication).

Rāṛh existed as one kingdom until the seventh century yet still exists in the memory and imagination of the Rāṛhi people today. Though Rāṛh is one of the most economically impoverished areas in India, it remains extremely rich in music culture with at least five indigenous music genres: kīrtan or praise music tradition; the masked dance of the ancient warrior or Chhau; folk or jhumur songs and dances; Baul or mystical songs and nacini nach or ‘dancing girls dance’.

Fig 4 The Ulda Samkirtan Team, winners of the Rarhi Mari Kirtan competition 2016
The Ulda Samkīrtan Team, winners of the Rāṛhi Marai Kīrtan competition 2016

Kīrtan and Social Egalitarianism: Caste - a ranked, hereditary and endogamous group, ordinarily of people of the same occupation - is usually ascribed at birth and is immutable. Even though there is a professional kīrtan caste called the Vaisnavites (such as the Ulda team in the photo on the right) no one is barred from doing kīrtan on the basis of gender, caste, “tribe” (used in an official governmental sense) or social group. Kamaladev from the Lalgar Youth Group, says, “In Hari nam kīrtan there is no question of castes, creed or colour it is open to all, if you come with a pure heart and mind” (2007: personal communication). In a caste society that undervalues “tribal” values, kīrtan can create a sense of equality and respect.

The first Marai Kīrtan competition and festival, June 2016

Two years ago, Sanjay Mahato, my research partner, and I became aware of how many local kīrtan groups were singing more rang (popular song melodies) than the traditional Rāṛhi kīrtans. We decided to hold a kīrtan competition and offer prize money as an incentive for these ‘teams’ (a term the local kirtan musicians use) to continue performing the traditional Rāṛhi kīrtans. We took our inspiration from the late kīrtan expert, Sri Rishi Das, who had shown me a printed poster of a kīrtan competition where his father’s group had won second prize. To our utter amazement, 42 kīrtan groups entered into the competition. The teams came dressed in full paraphernalia, with their spotless white, orange or blue dhotis (traditional men's garment), light coloured sashes tied tightly around their waists or hanging loosely around their necks, sandalwood markings on their forehead, and bare feet. Teams generally consisted of three lead singers (mul gayaks), two khol double-sided drum players, and dancers who play large cymbals (kartal), as well as other instruments that have been adapted from western music ensembles, such as the harmonium, clarinet (replacing the traditional bamboo flutes) and the casio keyboard. They came to do kīrtan in the hot summer sun, or in the late midnight hours, depending on the time they had been allocated some travelling long distances in rented trucks, bringing with them their own village supporters. As each team did kīrtan they were assessed by four local judges and me (as the only international observer). These judges were experts in their field and representing north, south, east and west Rāṛh. Each team performed with utmost sincerity, expertise and devotional expression.

While transcribing their interviews, I was deeply touched by their humility and their depth of knowledge. One such team said, "Our team has been running for 52 years, that means my father and grandfather were there. Only people are changing. Our team is continuing generation after generation. It keeps us healthy, our mind peaceful, and in our family life there are no problems because of kīrtan" (Bhubanipur Samkīrtan team personal communication 2016). Another team discussed the social effects of kīrtan,“Kīrtan helps to bind the society, when we are doing kīrtan we are 15 people, it means 15 families are together, all sharing our joys and sorrows. All social problems can be stopped if you do kīrtan (Dumurbaid Samkīrtan team, personal communication 2016).

Fig 6 The Rupapaita Samkīrtan team, runners up in the Competition
The Rupapaita Samkīrtan team, runners up in the competition
Fig 7 The Panjonia Kirtan team, third place in the Competition
The Panjonia Kīrtan team, third place in the competition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The kīrtan team from Amrabera, talked about kīrtan providing solace and “heavenly pleasure” for “through kīrtan we stay in touch with spirituality” (2016 personal communication). Some kīrtaniyas are known to fall into samadhi or ‘complete absorption into the divine’ and others report that they experience a deep sense of spiritual fulfillment while doing kīrtan. In the end, though it was a difficult task, the judges decided on the three winners, the Ulda Team who came first, the Rupapaita team second and the Panjonia team third.

Watch a summary posted on YouTube by Kavita Neumannova. 

The next Rāṛhi Marai Kīrtan competition and festival in Rāṛh will be in October 18 - 21 2017 where everyone is welcome, and treated as family. As expressed by an American visitor to the Kīrtan Festival, “Rāṛhi Kīrtan has changed my life in just two days; where I find maximum unfettered ecstatic expression to the lord, it is beyond words” (Suniita Schaeffer: personal communication 2016). For my part, I am also very grateful for the inspiration this mystical land and people have given me.

Jyoshna La Trobe (jyosnalatrobe@gmail.com) 07/02/2017 

 

Individual items in Jyoshna's collection can be found on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

 

18 January 2017

Music for a President

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The inauguration of the 45th President of the United States made me think of the music written by the great American composer John Philip Sousa. 

John_Philip_Sousa_cph.3b35816

John Philip Sousa in 1911 (Library of Congress)

Born in Washington in 1854, Sousa’s father was of Portuguese and Spanish origin and his mother was German.  Their son’s musical fame led him to became one of the few enshrined in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1976.

Sousa is famous for his patriotic marches, the most well-known being Stars and Stripes Forever, written in 1896 and made the official national march of the United States by an act of Congress in 1987.  Here is a recording performed by the Sousa Band more than a century ago in extremely good sound for 1909.  The fidelity of the piccolo solo is remarkable.

Stars & Stripes 1909

Hail to the Chief is the official Presidential anthem of the United States which is played at public appearances.  This was a song written around 1812 by a little known London theatre conductor James Sanderson to verses from Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.  After being published in Philadelphia it was played firstly to honour George Washington and then at various occasions including the inauguration of the eighth president, Martin van Buren.

It was the 21st President, Chester Arthur, who requested a new musical work to be written specifically to be associated with the President of the United States because he did not like Hail to the Chief.  Sousa’s offering was Semper Fidelis (Latin for ‘Always Faithful’) written in 1888.  It is regarded as the official march of the United States Marine Corps and here they are playing it in 1909.

Semper Fidelis

These marches, along with The Liberty Bell and The Washington Post will keep Sousa’s name alive, but he also wrote a number of operettas – El Capitan having 112 performances on Broadway in 1896.  His march of the same name uses music form the score and is here performed by the Sousa Band.

John_Phillip_Sousa_-_De_Wolf_Hopper_-_El_Capitan

A poster for the original production of John Phillip Sousa's operetta El Capitan (1896), starring DeWolf Hopper (Library of Congress)

El Capitan

The reason so many early recordings of Sousa’s works exist is because the primitive acoustical recording process was best at reproducing the sound of loud performances - something an opera singer or a brass or military band could provide.  Indeed, some of the very earliest recordings are of bands.  Here is a London recording of Stars and Stripes Forever when it was hot off the press, made by the London Regimental Band 120 years ago somewhere between 1896 and 1900.  Certainly, it has a more primitive sound than Edison was later to achieve; the piccolo solo on this recording is barely audible.

Stars & Stripes 1896

1893sousaband

The Sousa Band at the St. Louis Exposition in 1893 - each member sporting a moustache

Sousa believed that the phonograph would put musicians out of work stating in 1906 that it would prevent music being made at home and that ‘they are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.’  For this reason he would not enter a recording studio although allowed his band to do so.  Therefore, he is not conducting these early performances.  However, he did conduct a few recordings and broadcasts later in life.

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical 

16 January 2017

Listen to and tag thousands of music tracks on Europeana's radio player

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Europeana Sounds, a project that connects digital sound archives across Europe, has just launched an interactive radio player.

Now you can enjoy listening to 200,000 music tracks, and while listening, add labels to help other listeners to find recordings.

The player and tagging are very easy to use and no sign-up is required:

  • Press the play button in the player below to hear a recording
  • Select a term in the list shown in the 'Refine the music genre' box, then press 'Add'
  • Use the buttons below the play window to pause a recording, or to jump to the next
  • You can also select Classical, Folk, or Popular music genres
  • So, listen & tag!


On Thursday, Europeana Sounds will be holding a #TagDayThursday. We want to gather as many new genre tags in Europeana Radio as possible – you can help us make this happen! A progress bar can be seen at www.europeana.eu/portal/en/radio.html

For more information, please see the Europeana Sounds website www.europeanasounds.eu and the press release about the Europeana radio player http://pro.europeana.eu/blogpost/new-interactive-player-europeana-radio-launches-as-an-outcome-of-europeana-sounds-project

The animation below shows how to add tags:

The Europeana Sounds project is co-funded by the European Commission under the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme.

09 January 2017

Recording of the week: Ad man's dream

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Our first Recording of the Week for 2017 comes from Tony Harris, Preservation Audio Engineer.

There's a really lovely, lazy, summery feel  to "Are nor want for be" by the Famous Scrubbs and his Band. The infectious little ditty really should have been in an insurance ad by now!

Are not want for be_Famous Scrubbs and his Band

025I-1CS0043754XX-AAZZA0

The Decca West Africa yellow label series, issued on shellac disc between circa 1948-1958, provides a major resource for the study of contemporary African music. Visit Decca West Africa Recordings to listen to more recordings from the series.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage@BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news
 

06 December 2016

Messiaen and the songs of wild birds

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This guest blog comes from Delphine Evans whose Master's thesis explored the manuscript notations of birdsong made by the French composer Olivier Messiaen during the 1950s, in relation to the early wildlife recordings that inspired them and to the musical compositions in which they feature.

This year, there has been something of a revival of interest in birdsong and natural soundscapes. In particular, a series of programmes devoted to birdsong  appeared on BBC Radio 3. This included a birdsong mixtape, new interpretations of birdsong-inspired music (perhaps most notably Pierre-Laurent Aimard's day-long performance of Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux at the Aldeburgh festival), and debate on the topic ‘Is birdsong music?’ Also of interest was the weekly birdsong segment on Radio 3’s Sunday Breakfast show, where the remarkable field recordings of different species of birds by Chris Watson were paired with excerpts of music from a variety of composers, from Ravel to Respighi.

The British Library’s sound archive is home to a unique collection of over 200,000 wildlife sound recordings from 1889 to the present day. Of all these, the work of Ludwig Koch (1881-1974) is remarkable in that it represents a pioneering attempt to document the natural sound world using recording technology.

During his lifetime, Koch devoted himself to collecting the sound phenomena he heard in the world around him. In 1889, as a child in his native Germany, he was given an early Edison phonograph which he used to make one of the first known recordings of birdsong: his pet Indian Sharma. When he arrived in England in 1936, Koch began to travel all over the British Isles, capturing birdsong and the sounds of natural environments on wax discs before transferring these to shellac. This was a long and laborious process, often requiring hours or even days of observation of a particular bird before beginning to record its voice. 

Koch’s first British recordings were published as Songs of Wild Birds in 1936, in partnership with the ornithologist E.M. Nicholson. This was followed by More Songs of Wild Birds in 1937. These unique collections combine textual descriptions of the songs and habitats of a variety of species, illustrations of the birds themselves and excerpts of their recorded songs and calls. Koch described Songs of Wild Birds as ‘the first sound-book of British birdsong’ – an early multimedia document that combines text, image and audio.

Songs of Wild Birds box set coverFront cover of Songs of Wild Birds (1936) by E.M. Nicholson and Ludwig Koch

What is remarkable about Koch’s recordings of birdsong is how skilfully he manages to isolate the songster within the recording, yet still captures elements of its surrounding environment - rather like a soloist performing to the backdrop of an orchestral accompaniment. This provides the listener with a clear sense of the habitat in which the featured bird lives: in other words, the recording presents a particular ‘soundscape’. These ‘backdrops’ comprise of many different sounds, from the songs of other neighbouring birds to the fortuitous sound of a passing aircraft.

Grey Heron calls with background birds (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Curlew bubbling song with overhead aircraft (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Koch’s recordings were a source of inspiration to another celebrated musical figure whose interest in birdsong is well known. Throughout his life, the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) notated birdsong and other natural sound phenomena. Like his German contemporary, Messiaen had also started to collect the songs of birds as a child – yet, as a musician and (later) composer, his preferred method was to write them down using musical notation. The earliest surviving examples of Messiaen’s autograph notations date from 1951: today, they belong to a collection of over 200 manuscripts that are housed in the archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. These are the cahiers de notations des chants d’oiseaux – the composer’s pocket notebooks that he used to carry around with him and capture birdsong at every available opportunity.

[Recueil_Photographies_Portraits_de_Olivier_[...]Cande_Daniel_btv1b9083761jPortrait of Olivier Messiaen at the 1987 Festival D'Avignon by Daniel Cande (source: Gallica -Bibliothèque nationale de France digital library)

Interestingly enough for a musician who experimented with avant-garde techniques, Messiaen didn't choose to write down what he heard using a progressive form of notation, but instead preferred to use the more traditional stave. He does this in a highly personal and sensitive way, by adding textual descriptions of the quality of a bird’s song, onomatopoeia to evoke its calls (a tried-and-tested ornithologist’s method), and symbols that provide an additional layer of detail to the notations. All of this provides a remarkably thorough depiction of the sounds that he encountered.

Le Courlis Cendre scoreLe Courlis cendré, Catalogue d'oiseaux XIII, p.4. Leduc editions, © 1964

As well as notations made outdoors in the heart of nature, Messiaen’s notebooks also contain a great number of musical sketches that were made from recorded birdsong. These sources were ornithological collections that were commercially available on record – such as Ludwig Koch’s Songs of Wild Birds (1936) and Songs of British Birds (1953)!

Messiaen’s ability to replay time and again the sounds captured in these recordings (something that is obviously impossible with ‘live’ birdsong) doubtlessly enabled an astounding level of precision in his notations. The songs of several birds that feature in Koch’s recordings subsequently found their way into Messiaen’s compositions, as the latter turned to the notations he had made as a source of musical material. For instance, in the final piece of the great piano cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux of 1956-1958, entitled 'Le Courlis cendré', we can hear a direct 'quotation' of the curlew’s call that features on More Songs of Wild Birds:

Le Courlis Cendré (extract)

Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen: piano & organ music (2008). Decca 478 0353, British Library shelfmark 1SS0006222

Curlew calls recorded by Ludwig Koch (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

As well as using bird songs and calls recorded by Koch as a source of musical ideas, it may well be that Messiaen was also inspired by the unique way in which his contemporary captured 'images in sound' of birds within their natural habitat. The notion of a 'soundscape', as pioneered by Koch in his work, finds a lasting legacy in Messiaen’s music. This great French composer similarly presents his listeners with a catalogue, or an inventory, of birds – not only of their songs, but also of the specific environments in which they live. In this sense, Messiaen’s birdsong pieces are like musical pictures: designed to document a particular scene almost as faithfully as the sound recordings from which they take their inspiration.

Delphine Evans is a pianist, musicologist and music educator. Her research is focused on birdsong and the natural sound world, and as a pianist she specialises in 20th Century French music. She has gained musical and academic experience in Canada and France, studying at the universities of Montreal and Paris-Sorbonne. She is currently based in Manchester where she teaches Music and French.