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Messiaen, renewing his musical faith with a robin’s song

Oliver Messiaen in an undated photo.
Oliver Messiaen in an undated photo.(Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen)

On Dec. 16, pianist Daniel Parker plays a recital at Massachusetts Institute of Technology that, even as the winter solstice approaches, sneaks in a robin of spring — in the guise of Olivier Messiaen's "Petites esquisses d'oiseaux." The "little sketches of birds" (1985) were Messiaen's last works for solo piano, but they also represented a late first step.

After completing two massive, encyclopedic works — the opera "Saint-François d'Assise," which took nine years to complete, and the 1½-hour "Livre du Saint-Sacrement," for organ — Messiaen (1908-92) was exhausted and depressed. Having considered the opera the summation of his compositional career, he wondered if he should or even could write any more music. Salvation came via Messiaen's wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, who casually but craftily asked why, among Messiaen's many birdsong-derived works, he had never devoted a piece to her favorite bird, the robin. Working, as usual, in secret (telling Loriod that he was correcting proofs), Messiaen produced six short pieces, three of which portray Loriod's beloved rouge-gorge.

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Birdsong had been a compositional inspiration since the 1940s; Messiaen would go into the woods and transcribe songs by ear, then idiosyncratically translate them into music — a practice apotheosized in the virtuosic, teeming aviaries of his seven-book "Catalogue d'oiseaux" for piano, written in the late 1950s. But Messiaen's toolbox was vast: rhythms borrowed from Hindu music, ancient Greek poetry, and medieval plainchant; unorthodox timbres and orchestration ranging from ecstatically bright to forebodingly deep; harmonies fusing tonal bellwethers with the chromaticism of musical modernism in broad, luminous strokes of color. Messiaen's "Treatise on Rhythm, Color, and Ornithology," compiled over four-plus decades, fills eight published volumes.

Against that background, the "Esquisses" are disorientingly succinct. Many of Messiaen's favorite harmonic ideas and coloristic effects are reduced to brief gestures, even single chords. Detached from the expansive apparatus that supported them in other works, such musical signatures become totems, talismans: isolated moments charged with suggestion of entire regions of Messiaen's musical world.

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One repeated tactic seems particularly symbolic: Messiaen inserts a single, eight-note chord; the bird answers, supplying the remaining four pitches of the chromatic scale. The entire whole is neatly divided into color and action, frame and protagonist — but might also be a catechismal example of how nature always completed Messiaen's musical doctrine. In the "Esquisses," Messiaen renewed his musical faith by following the lead of theologians throughout history: a return to first principles.

Matthew Guerrieri

Parker performs music of Haydn, Messiaen, Scriabin, and Chopin on Dec. 16, 7:30 p.m., in Killian Hall, MIT, Cambridge. Free. mta.mit.edu


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.