A Messiaen world premiere

Christopher Dingle on the world premiere of his new Messiaen orchestration at the BBC Proms

A Messiaen world premiere
Olivier Messiaen

The first review I wrote for BBC Music Magazine was of the premiere recording of Messiaen’s last completed orchestral work, Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà… (Illuminations [lit. lightening flashes] of the Beyond]. That was 21 years ago, just two years after the composer’s death in 1992.

What nobody suspected at the time is that for much of its genesis, Messiaen intended this 11-movement work to have 12 movements. The omitted movement, ‘Un oiseau des arbres de Vie’ (A bird from the tree of life), was actually one of the first to be composed. Messiaen had written all of the music in a three-stave score, writing his customary ‘Bien’ to denote a completed piece, along with some indications of his intended orchestration.

Drawing on over 20 years of studying Éclairs, I have now realised the orchestration of ‘Un oiseau des arbres de Vie', a project generously supported by Birmingham Conservatoire’s French Music Hub. The piece is going to be heard for the first time at the BBC Proms on Friday 7 August.

‘Un oiseau des arbres de Vie’ is a transcription for large orchestra of a single birdsong, the tui from New Zealand. It would have been the third movement of Éclairs and was to be partnered by a piece dedicated to the superb lyrebird, to be called ‘Un autre oiseau des arbres de Vie’, which was eventually retitled ‘L’Oiseau-Lyre et la Ville-fiancée’ (The lyrebird and the bridal city).

As a pair, the lyrebird and tui movements break new ground for they are the first time that all of the material in an orchestral movement comes from the song of a single bird. Éclairs also contains a further new approach to orchestral birdsong writing with the ninth movement, ‘Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de Vie’ (Several birds from the tree of life – you may spot a theme among these titles!), which is a complex web of 22 birdsongs written without barlines, the instruments entering on a cue from the conductor.

It was at a relatively late stage that Messiaen reluctantly decided to omit the tui movement from Éclairs. His reasons are unclear, but it is likely that, having moved several movements around late on in the writing of Éclairs, the tui movement became surplus to requirements within the revised musical and theological structure. From everything known of Messiaen, it is almost certain he would have used the movement in another work for it is highly effective.

Regardless, the orchestra reflects the piece’s origins in Éclairs, with large numbers of flutes and clarinets, as well as plenty of percussion, including a trio from the xylophone family. The early movements of Éclairs avoid bass instruments, and this piece flies free of them too, with a single trumpet and six horns, but no lower brass, full sections of violins, violas and cellos, yet no double basses. While the size of the ensemble is reflected in the punchy opening cry, a gesture that repeatedly returns, Messiaen often uses only handfuls of instruments in more frolicking passages of song that flits around the sizeable orchestra at dizzying speed. Like the Lyrebird movement in Éclairs, ‘Un oiseau des arbres de Vie’ is a virtuosic challenge for the conductor, while both the orchestra and audience are likely to be left breathless.

Hear ‘Un oiseau des arbres de Vie’ in Prom 29 at 6:30pm on 7 August.

Picture credit: Getty

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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