Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a French organist, composer, and theorist whose rhythmic and harmonic innovations made significant contributions to the trajectory of 20th century music. In addition to exploring the concepts of modes of limited transposition, total serialism, non-retrogradable rhythm, and irregular rhythms that do not fit into conventional meters, Messiaen is also noted for his interest in birdsongs. His lasting influence as a pedagogue is overwhelmingly apparent upon review of his list of accomplished students including Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gérard Grisey, George Benjamin, and Peter Maxwell Davies.
At the behest of the Paris Conservatory flute department in 1952, Messian composed Le merle noir (“the blackbird”) for the annual flute concours, and this short, single-movement work for flute and piano is the first of Messiaen’s compositions to imitate the song of a one specific bird species. Previous works, such as his organ cycle La Nativité or the seminal chamber work Quatour pour la fin du temps, had referenced birdsong in a generic way, but works after Le merle noir attempted to emulate the songs of birds that Messiaen had personally recorded and studied. Examples of these later works include Réveil des oiseaux (1953) and Oiseaux exotiques (1955–6) for orchestra and Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958) for piano.
In Le merle noir, the short motivic bursts of activity the in cadenzas and the wild grace notes of the concluding passage imitate the call and fluttering of the blackbird. The connecting passages, while not containing birdsong material, demonstrate Messiaen’s penchant for rhythmic complexity by inserting added note values—in this case, sixteenth notes—into an eighth note pulse in order to create an ebb of activity that defies normal metric parameters. The resulting structure of the work paints an apt portrait of Messiaen as a composer by weaving together innovative techniques and a passion for birdsong.
My favorite recording of this piece is by Emmanuel Pahud (flute) and Eric Le Sage (piano).
Also worth a watch is a masterclass with Pahud, which includes several amusing bird imitations.