© 2019 Malcolm Ball

Birdsong in Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques 
compared with the ornithological recordings he transcribed.

This webpage enables detailed comparison of five of Messiaen's birdsongs with the actual birdsongs he used as models. The spectrograms, the 78 rpm records from which he derived the North American birdsongs in Oiseaux exotiques, and Messiaen's aesethetic of imitation are discussed in Robert Fallon, "The Record of Realism in Messiaen's Bird Style," in OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Music, Art and Literature. ed. Christopher Dingle & Nigel Simeone (Ashgate, 2007).

Prairie chicken [Tétras cupidon des prairies]
Wood thrush [Grive des bois]
Lazuli bunting [Pape indigo ou Ministre]
Baltimore oriole [Troupiale de Baltimore]
Cardinal [Cardinal rouge de Virginie] 

Click on the left play button to listen to the actual bird and the right play button to hear Messiaen's bird.

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• The spectograms are plotted with frequency (Hz) over time (sec.).
• The numbers below the spectograms indicate the frequencies where the arrows point.
• Arrows align the spectogram with the transcription; they do not indicate matching pitches.
• The frequencies were determined with care for the signal’s audibility, a combination of duration and intensity.
• The frequencies are accompanied by their corresponding letter names of musical pitches.
• A “+” after the letter name indicates the frequency is microtonally higher than the indicated pitch: “D#+” means a sharp D#.
• A “–” after the letter name indicates the frequency is microtonally lower than the indicated pitch: “G#–” means a flat G#.
• The indicated frequencies depend on the turntable speed used in the digital transfer, which may not precisely duplicate the speed at which Messiaen heard the recordings. The preponderance of matched tones suggests the two speeds are very similar.


Bird images by John James Audubon.


Recorded excerpts from Olivier Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques are taken from a live performance by the San Francisco Conservatory's New Music Ensemble, conducted by Nicole Paiement, with Jacqueline Chew as piano soloist. The author thanks the performers and the Conservatory for their kind permission to use the excerpts.

©Robert Fallon