Birdsong representation within Messiaen's organ music


A study on the birdsong accuracy within Messiaen's Communion and how to represent the birdsong parts on an eighteenth-century organ


Research Exposition


Jan Pieter Lanooy

Master Organ


4 March 2019


Research Supervisors: Bert Mooiman and Kathryn Cok

Circle leader: Johannes Boer

Main subject teacher: Jos van der Kooy


Presentation: 2 April 2019, 10h15-11h15

Royal Conservatory, The Hague

Juliana van Stolberglaan 1, 2595 CA Den Haag


  • Introduction
  • Methodology
  • Biography Olivier Messiaen
  • Historiography on Messiaen's birdsong
  • Messe de la Pentecôte: an introduction
  • Comparing Messiaen´s birds of the Communion to real-life bird species - Part I: Blackbird

  • Comparing Messiaen's birds of the Communion to real-life bird species - Part II: Nightingale
  • Representing the birds of the Communion on organs
    • Ideas of Messiaen on playing his music on other organs

    • Messiaen on playing his music on baroque/classical organs

    • Playing Messiaen on a small eighteenth-century organ

  • Case-study: Representing the blackbird and the nightingale on the Reichner organ of The-Hague Loosduinen: a discussion considering the used stop colors.
    • Case-study organs
    • Comparing my choices of stop colors with the original prescriptions
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix


This research investigates one part of the Messe de la Pentecôte, namely the Communion. This fourth movement of the cycle – nicknamed Les oiseaux et les sources ('The Birds and the Springs')is the movement in which birdsong plays the most important part. Moreover, in this part, for the first time in his organ works, Messiaen mentions the birds by name in the score.1 This research consists of a theoretical and an artistic part.

The theoretical part of this research concerns the accuracy with which the birdsong are incorporated in the Communion. This part consists of two elements: a literature review on Messiaens bird representations and musical comparison between the Communion birdsong and real life birds. The review will examine how Messiaen, former student and researchers thought about his bird transcriptions. Messiaen extensively wrote about how he incorporated birdsong within his music. A valuable document is his posthumously published Traité de rythme, de couleur et d'ornithologie (1997), that consists of seven tomes (volumes). Within the fourth volume, he extensively analyzes the Messe de la Pentecôte. The fifth volume - divided in two books - focuses on his ornithological ideas. It contains a complete catalog of incorporated bird species. Per individual bird species, Messiaen describes the bird's song repertoire and its natural and musical habits. Furthermore, he refers to some examples of his own musical transcriptions. Other literature consulted for the review are interviews with John Gillock and Almut Rössler, two formar organ students of Messiaen, and books by musicologist Claude Samuel.

The second element of the theoretical part consists of  an musical comparison between two of Messiaens birds (the blackbird and nightingale) and real bird song. Sound spectrograms are investigated, similar to the research methods of musicologists Robert Fallon and Trevor Hold. Picture 1 explains how to read and understand a spectogram. To create the spectograms for the real bird song, recordings from the online bird sound database Xeno-canto were selected. This website is a catalogue of ornithologists' bird recordings. The recordings are categorized by species, date and time of recording, location and sound-types (calls and songs). For each bird species, five recordings were selected, because even individual birds of the same species have slightly different repertoires. By using the song five instead of one bird, general characteristics of the bird song can be extracted. Moreover, each selected bird is recorded in French regions. I have chosen those recordings, because Messiaen probably based his 'Pentecost birds' on blackbirds and nightingales of France.2 The Xeno-canto bird recordings are analyzed using the Praat program. The program produces two different graphs: oscillograms and spectrograms. Those oscillograms will not be used in this study, because the loudness of a real bird cannot be compared to the loudness of an instrument such as the organ. The spectrograms are a virtual representation of the tone frequencies of the birds (in Hertz). Then, these tone frequencies are compared to the tone frequencies of the birds Messiaen's score -using the human piano frequency system (A'-natural = 440 Hz). Because the real bird frequencies are not fixed, aplus (+) or minus (-) sign is added to indicate the position of the bird's pitch in relation to the piano frequency system. For instance, A'-natural + means that the pitch is somewhat higher than the fixed piano tone of A'-natural.

Secondly, the artistic component of this research consists of a comparison between Messiaen's stop prescriptions and recordings of the two birds in the Communion and my own recordings. Messiaen recorded the complete Messe de la Pentecôte on the organ of the Trinité Church of Paris, built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1868. During the summer of 2018, I made a live-recording of the Communion during a concert at the Abdijkerk of The Hague-Loosduinen. The organ is built by the Swiss organ builder Joachim Reichner in 1780. This comparison will show which choices an organist can make when playing Messiaen on a non-Messiaen organ. I will mainly focus on the choices of stops, because the stops are the organ's most important tool for developing specific colors and timbres. The organ dispositions of the Reichner organ and a Cavaillé-Coll organ are totally different, but I will show what decisions I made to make a representation of Messiaen's music on a Dutch organ of the eighteenth century.



The accuracy of Messiaen's birdsong has been a major topic for musicologists, biographers and performers of Messiaen.3 A principle question is to what extent the bird music of Messiaen corresponds with the songs and calls of real-life birds.4


In the 1960s and 1970s, this topic was called the debate of 'authenticity'.5  Musicologist Trevor Hold stated in 1971 that many of his contemporary musicological colleagues - such as Eric Salzman6, Norman Demuth7 and Claude Rostand8 - assume that Messiaen's birds are 'authentic' in the sense that they sound exactly as their real-life peers.9  Hold disproves this by stating that in the first place, real birds produce rhythms that are too complex for human music instruments. Furthermore, real birds sing at a speed that can hardly be imitated by human instruments. Moreover, the pitch of real birds are too high for human instruments. Finally, those pitches are not fixed compared to the fixed tones of the Western musical system. Hold concludes his article by stating that, instead of exact imitations, Messiaen's birds are rather 'imaginative transmutations of real birds.'10 


In the 1980's, musicologists such as Meri Kurenniemi and Paul Griffiths countered the relevance of the birdsong accuracy issue. According to Kurenniemi, the accuracy of Messiaen's birdsong parts is not interesting, because 'it rests on the subjective issue of the listener's perception.'11 Paul Griffiths agreed with Kurenniemi a few years later by stating that the birdsong accuracy debate is useless, because the music of Messiaen is soo complex that his birdsong transcriptions are 'the summit of accuracy.'12


Notwithstanding those critiques, the accuracy issue endured and nowadays it is still an much investigated topic. Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone recently analyzed the birds of Réveil des oiseaux. They stated that, despite Messiaen's contrasting comment in the preface of his work that his birds 'are really found in nature [and that it is] completely truthful work'13, the musical birds were reproductions with several musical adaptations by the composer.14 Robert Fallon analyzed the birds in Oiseaux exotiques (1955-56) for piano and small orchestra. As a response to the critics of Kurenniemi and Griffiths, Fallon stated that the accuracy issue of Messiaen's birds was very significant, because his analyses showed Messiaen's 'aesthetics of representation', which means the deformation of the original birdsong for the sake of the birdsong in his own music.15 Fallon concluded that around two-third of the time Messiaen's birds in Oiseaux exotiques were similar to real-life birds.16


In short, the accuracy of Messiaens bird songs has been a debated topic in the literature. However, literature has only investigated the accuracy of birdsong in Messiaens' piano and orchestral works. The organ works by Messiaen have not been discussed. This neglect is strinkinly visible in Robert Sherlaw Johnson's work. He made a list in his Messiaen biography (2009) of every bird species that was used in Messiaen's repertoire and categorized them by piece. Remarkably, he forgot to mention the incorporated bird species of several organ works such as the Messe de la Pentecôte (1949-50), the Livre d'orgue (1951) and the Livre du Saint-Sacrement (1984). Only the birds of the Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte-Trinité (1969) have been mentioned.17 This is a curious act of forgetfulness, given that bird songs play a major part in all those organ works made after 1950. Therefore, I investigate the birds of one of the parts of the Messe de la Pentecôte, namely the Communion. In the following chapter, I will briefly discuss the history of the case study piece, the Messe de la Pentecôte, and afterwards, I will focus on the comparison of Messiaen's Communion birds and their real-life counterparts through the use of spectrograms. Lastly, I will investigate how to represent Messiaen's birds on Dutch 18-century organ instead of Messiaen's Cavaillé-Coll organ. 



One of the main characteristics of the music of the French composer Olivier Messiaen is its usage of birdsongs. In almost all his compositions, songs (and calls) from numerous bird species appear, both European and non-European birds. For centuries, birdsong has been an inspiration for many Western classical composers - from Clément Jannequin to Maurice Ravel -, but no composer has incorporated birdson so precisely as Messiaen. He called himself an (amateur-)ornithologist and he travelled all over the world to listen to specific bird species and to try to translate their songs to music (Video 1). I find his extended incorporation methods very interesting. As an organist, I regularly perform music by Messiaen. Thus, my acquaintance with Messiaen's birds in his organ works made me curious about how he incorporated those sounds and how accurate he was. During my search for relevant literature, I found out that previous research on the birdsong accuracy issue was mainly focused on the piano and orchestral works of Messiaen. The organ works seemed to be forgotten. In my view, this is remarkable, because birdsong regularly appears in the organ works as well. In this exposition, I want to find out this birdsong accuracy issue in one of Messiaen's organ works, the Communion of the Messe de la Pentecôte. A main goal is to provide insight in how the composer worked on the incorporation of real-life sounds in his music and how he made those musical 'creatures' representable.


The way how Messiaen wanted to represent birdsong in his organ works led to another question, namely how to represent those birds on an organ? Messiaen composed all his organ works on one single organ, the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Trinité Church in Paris. In the editions of his works, he always added prescriptions of the stops that he used. This preciseness has a disadvantage, namely that it reduces the number of organs on which you can play the music of Messiaen. After all, every organ is different regarding the number of stops, colors and acoestics of the church/concert hall. In this study, I discuss the choices that I made with regard to the use of stops on a Dutch eighteenth-century organ and how it corresponds with Messiaen's original prescriptions. Puritans would say that I made some huge sacrifices with regard to the colors, because they sometimes differ largely from Messiaen's prescriptions. In this study, I want to react to this opinion and state that even with different colors, the music of Messiaen can still sound representatively.

Biography Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen was born in 1908 in Southern-French town Avignon. His father Pierre Messiaen worked as a translator of Shakespeare works and his mother Cécile Sauvage was a poet. Despite the fact that son Olivier was raised in a non-religious family, he converted to Roman Catholic faith at an early age. Later, he would tell that his conversion was to be destined: 'I was born a believer and it happens that the sacred texts have struck me even from my earliest childhood.'18 During his whole life, Messiaen dedicated his life to religion. Consequently, it became a major theme within his musical oeuvre. After studying at the Conservatory of Paris with George Falkenberg (piano), Paul Dukas (composition) and Marcel Dupré (organ), he was appointed as main organist of La Sainte Trinité Church (Paris) at the age of 22 in 1931. He would stay there the rest of his life and the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Trinité would become a major inspiration for his organ compositions. During his first years as titular organist, he composed three organ cycles dedicated to religious themes: L'Ascension (1933-34), La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) and Les Corps Glorieux (1939). After World War II, new cycles came up with La Messe de la Pentecôte (1949-50), Livre d'Orgue (1951), Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte-Trinité (1969) and Livre du Saint-Sacrement (1984). Furthermore, Messiaen wrote compositions for various instruments and ensembles, including piano solo (Catalogue d'Oiseaux, 1956-58), large orchestra (Turangalîla symphony, 1946-1948), and chamber music (Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, 1940). He also wrote an immense opera, Saint-Francois d'Assise (1975-83), based on the saint Francis of Assisi.

Beside the religious aspect, Messiaen's music is characterized by several recurring elements. First, he always used 'modes of limited transposition', collections of notes that do not change when transposed by certain intervals. This fixed note pattern also results in a lack of resolution, such as within the traditional diatonic scale. As a consequence, Messiaen's harmonies always keep the same and create a static, meditative mood. Secondly, Messiaen played with rhythm. He was inspired by Ancient Greek rhythms (alternation of long and short syllables) and the Indian durational system of talaRhythm was not a matter of meter – the division of week and strong beats -, but of duration. A third main characteristic – and most relevant for this research – is birdsong. From the 1940s onwards, birdsong appeared in almost every composition by Messiaen.

After his imprisonment at a German work camp during the Second World War, Messiaen was appointed in 1941 as harmony teacher at the conservatory of Paris. There, he would teach many important future composers, such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Ton de Leeuw. Thanks to his large oeuvre and his teaching at the conservatory, Messiaen is considered as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth-century. He died in 1992 at the age of 84.


Picture 1: An example of an oscillogram (top) and a spectrogram (bottom) of a cuckoo recording. In both graphs the x-axis represents time (9.91 seconds). In the oscillogram the y-axis denotes the amplitude or loudness of the sound wave. When there is no amplitude, there is no sound, so a straight line represents the end of a call. In this example, the cuckoo makes 8 calls with pauses in-between. The higher the amplitude, the louder the sound. In the example you can see a sound with high amplitude first, a decrease in amplitude almost to a silence, and then a sound with a smaller amplitude. Thus, the call of a cuckoo consists of a loud sound first (cu) followed by a somewhat softer sound (ckoo). The spectrogram at the bottom represents the frequencies or tones of the sound wave in Hertz (Hz) on the y-axis. The blue line shows the call: the larger the unit of Hz (or the higher the blue line in the graph, the higher the sound. In this example, the cuckoo shows the classical major third in the first call (high sound followed by a low sound (cu-ckoo). In the subsequent calls, the cuckoo makes a hiccup after the low sound (cu-cu-ckoo). The black sweeps underneath the blue lines are the fundamental frequencies (as opposite to the high overtones of the bird call) in the recording: this can be seen as background noise.

Video 1: Olivier Messiaen walking through the French countryside, talking about birdsong.

Messe de la Pentecôte: an introduction

During the 1940s, Messiaen did not write many organ pieces. After the major organ cycles of his productive 1930s, the Second World War and the first post-war years lead to a shift to other instrumental genres such as chamber and orchestral music. Nevertheless, he keep playing the organ during services at the Trinité church: 'three masses and vesper every Sunday, and often funerals and weddings during the week'.19 During the Low Mass on Sunday, he mostly played traditional organ literature with a liturgical function, such as Nicolas de Grigny, Johann Sebastian Bach and César Franck. From 1945 onwards, he had the possibility to play extended organ recitals with exclusively modern music during the noon Mass.20 These recitals gave him the opportunity to play long improvisations based on the vast sections of the Catholic mass: Offertory, Consecration and Communion. Through those improvisations, Messiaen discovered a lot of different color combinations and rhythmical variations on the organ (Video 2 and 3). Gradually, all those improvisational materials transformed into 'one' improvisation that he wrote down between 1949-1950, which he named the Messe de la Pentecôte. The Messe de la Pentecôte was never officially premiered in concert, but on Pentecost Sunday 1951 during the High Mass at the Trinité organ.

Besides the standard parts of the mass – Offertoire, ConsécrationCommunion – the Messe de la Pentecôte contains two corner parts: the Entrée and the Sortie. Besides the liturgical name, Messiaen gave each part a subtitle based on a Biblical quote that is related to Pentecost Day, the day on which the Holy Spirit came back to earth, fifty days after Easter.21 The Entrée – played during the entering of the clergy –is called Les langues de feu, based on the tongues of fire that came to rest on Jesus' disciples on Pentecost day (Acts 2:3). The Offertoire – played during the placement of the Eucharist wine and bread on the altar – is subtitled Les choses visibles et invisibles, which relates to a quote of the Symbolum Niceanum or Nicean Creed ('visibilium omnium et invisibilium'). The Consécration – played during the moment of the transubstantiation of wine and bread – is a short meditation on Le don de la Sagesse, that is the gift of Wisdom, one of the seven gifts received by the Holy Spirit. The Communion – played during the sharing of wine and bread – is called Les oiseaux et les sources and derives from the Song of the Three Holy Children in which nature - including the water and the birds - are asked to bless the Lord.22 Apparently, birdsong plays a major part in this movement. The final part, the Sortie – played at the end of the Mass – alias Le souffle de vent, refers to a 'mighty wind' is filling the house of the disciples (Acts 2:2).

As been said in the biography, Messiaen's music is known for a lot of characteristics. The Messe de la Pentecôte is a piece that is a good resume of Messiaen's music. Within approximately 30 minutes, the majority of Messiaen's musical characteristics is presented. The 'modes of limited transposition' are the harmonic framework. Furthermore, Messiaen's rhythmical diversity are showed through the use of Ancient Greek rhythms – the entire Entrée is built on rhythms such as iambs, trochees and anapests – and Hindu rhythms – particularly the Indian durational system Deçi-tala that can be found in both the Offertoire and the Consécration. Another characteristic is the use of Gregorian chant, referring to Messiaen's love for the Roman Catholic liturgy. Within the Consécration, he incorporated an alleluia plainsong for Pentecost Sunday. Finally, birdsong plays an important part within the Messe de la Pentecôte. It is the first organ piece in which Messiaen clearly refers to specific bird species that he incorporated. According to the bird catalog of Messiaen's Traité de rythme, the Messe de la Pentecôte contains six specific bird species: the blackbird, the cuckoo, the nightingale, the skylark, the robin and the garden warbler.23 This research will be limited to the Communion birds that he explicitly named in the musical score : the blackbird and the nightingale.

The Messe de la Pentecôte is not only a summation of the composer's musical characteristics, but also of his ideas on using the organ of the Trinité. Messiaen ones told that it was 'the only [composition] that was completely written for [his] organ of the Trinité...[the organ] uses all timbres and timbres combinations [during this composition]'.24 Thus, Messiaen provides insight in what organ colors he chose for his birdsong parts for instance. Within this research, this will be discussed throughout the analysis of the birdsong parts and the comparison between Messiaen's recording and my own recording. Furthermore, this research will focus on the compromises that an organist has to make when he plays the Messe de la Pentecôte on an organ that is totally different from the Trinité organ.

Comparing Messiaen´s birds of the Communion to real-life bird species - Part I: blackbird


The common blackbird (Turdus merula) is one of the most frequently incorporated bird species in Messiaen's music. Messiaen regularly heard singing blackbirds he was walking through the streets and parks of Paris, but in case that he wanted to transcribe the birdsong, he went to small towns (Zürich, Switzerland) or his holiday home in the rural French district Dauphiné. There, he could listen more carefully without being disturbed by the noise of the city.25 The Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940) is the first piece in which blackbird songs are incorporated, followed by Visions de l'amen (1943) and the Turangalîla-symphony (1946-48). Later, Messiaen would admit that the blackbirds of those particular works are not very accurately transcribed.26 In his words, thos transcriptions were 'very badly' and he was 'deeply mortified by [his] ignorance [of bird knowledge].'27 Because of his uncertainty, he wrote down in the score more general terms such as comme un oiseau or oiseaux.28 From the 1950's onwards, Messiaen became more convinced about his bird transcriptions, due to the help of professional ornithologists such as Jacques Delamain, Robert-Daniel Etchécopar and Jacques Penot. Looking back on his early bird trancriptions of the 1940s, he explained that oiseaux referred to blackbirds and nightingales.


When Messiaen composed the Messe de la Pentecôte around 1950, he seemed already more convinced about naming birds in his music, because he wrote the name of the blackbird in the score once. This happens in bar 20-27 of the Communion, where he titled the upper voice Chant de merle (Blackbird song; Picture 3). There are one other references to blackbirds in the Communion, but this one is not mentioned in the score. Within bar 14-20, there is dialogue between on the one hand, a blackbird that sings ornamented, joyful and quick whistles and, on the other hand, a cuckoo that calls from a distance. Within the score, those birds are marked as oiseaux (Picture 4). However, years after the release of the Messe de la Pentecôte, Messiaen explained during one of his organ masterclasses - attended by the American organist Jon Gillock - that this passage refers to a dialogue between a blackbird and a cuckoo.29 Notwithstanding the fact that he was not always certain about his 'musical' blackbirds, Messiaen was aware of some general characteristics of the real-life blackbird song that he took into account during the birdsong incorporation. Here, those blackbird characteristics are analyzed and compared to the music score.


Individual variations among blackbirds. A first characteristic is that each male blackbird - the female blackbirds never sing - develops a personal collections of song themes during its life.30  At the start of the spring, every blackbird starts with singing themes and motifs that he invented during previous spring times and tries to improve it through the addition of new song materials. Due to those large individual differences, Messiaen decided to make his 'musical' blackbirds individually different. In the Communion, the two blackbirds passages vary a lot in terms of speed, rhythms, musical sentences, development of motifs, ornamentions and moments of break. Moreover, the difference is indicated by the use of diverse stop prescriptions. The blackbird of bar 14-20 has to be played on a bourdon 8', while the chant de merle of bar 20-27 is represented by a flûte 4'.


Regular intervals. Despite the aforementioned individual differences, real-life blackbirds regularly sing a limited amount of intervals. According to Messiaen, their songs are 'based, if not on a hypermajor mode, at least on the use of the major third, perfect fourth, major sixth, and augmented fourth.'31 (Picture 5 en 6). For this reason, Messiaen incorporated those intervals in his music as well. Within the Chant de Merle of the Communion, three out of four aforementioned intervals appear (Picture 7). The major sixth interval can be found multiple times in the blackbird passages of bar 14-20 (Picture 8).


Song structure. Besides the consistent use of specific intervals, real-life blackbird songs often have a similar structure. For instance, blackbirds frequently make breaks in their songs. Within those fragmented passages, a similar structure can be recognized. This structure consists of a beginning at a relatively low frequency, followed by a sudden quick jump upwards that ends on an extremely high pitch (between 5000 and 8000 Hz) (Picture 9). Ornithologists call this a 'regular advertisement song'.32 It is unclear whether Messiaen was aware of this particular term, but he spoke in comparable terms about 'formulae always rising to a high pitch.'33 The blackbirds of the Communion also contain regular, short musical rests - particularly quavers and semiquavers - that fragment the song (Picture 7 and 8). However, a major difference with real-life blackbirds is that Messiaen's birds have lower frequencies. The highest note of Messiaen's blackbird is a D-natural''' in bar 21 with a frequency of 2349 Hz (Picture 10; top right). Comparably, real blackbirds can reach 5000 to 8000 Hz. Another structural characteristic that both Messiaen's birds and their real-life peers have in common, is the repetition of motifs during their songs. Within Messiaen's music, the repetition of motifs means that Messiaen used the exactly the same notes and rhythmical patterns. In other words, the pitch does not change. For instance, the blackbird of bar 14-20 of the Communion sings twice a rising hemidemisemiquaver motif, followed by a jump towards a B-natural''' (in bar 14 and 19; Picture 10; top left). Considering repeated motifs within the real-life blackbird songs, it can be concluded that the pitches are always different, even though a human ear cannot distinguish those different pitches. Moreover, real blackbirds never sing pitches of fixed musical tones like music instruments do. As can be seen in Picture 11, the pitches are always somewhat higher of lower than the fixed tones of the Western musical system (e.g. A-natural+; A-natural - ). Despite those differences, a human ear does hear the same 'tones' in this motif and consequently, a composer like Messiaen incorporated these motifs as similar forms in his music.


Emotional contrasts. A major characteristic of each blackbird song, according to Messiaen, is that is full of different emotional moods. On the one hand, the song can be both 'mocking, ironic and exuberantly joyful.'34 Within the Communion, this is reflected by fast rubato passages (Picture 7) that include fast, often staccato notes, polyrhythm - for instance 9 (pour 8) in bar 17, which means 'nine in the space of eight' - and a lot of 'before-the-beat' acciaccaturas. Comparable irregular rhythms and acciaccaturas can be found in real-life blackbird songs as well (Picture 12). A major difference is that those rhythms never stick to rhythms of human music. Apart from virtuoso elements, the blackbird can also sing in a 'calm, peaceful and solemn' way.35 Within the Communion, this is best represented by bar 15 and the second half of bar 17, in which the blackbird sings notes with a long duration with short breaks in between (Picture 13).


Conclusion. The blackbirds of the Communion have been composed with a lot of musical compromises. It was difficult for Messiaen to incorporated a unifying blackbird sound, because the blackbird repertoire is enormously varied and each blackbird song differs individually from the other. For this reason, Messiaen made each blackbird part in the Communion different from the other, both, structurally, harmonically and rhythmically. Despite the large individual differences, blackbird songs do have several standard characteristics that Messiaen recognized. Therefore, he focused on incorporating regular repetition of motifs, standard intervals and the change between calm and restless passages. Exact musical notes of real blackbird songs were impossible to hear due to the speed of singing. That is why he translated blackbird transcriptions to his own harmonic thinking. Thus, a complete accurate transcription of real blackbird songs is not possible, but Messiaen tried to be as accurate as possible.


Picture 9: Blackbird spectrogram of XC374426 that shows examples of a ''regular advertisement song'' of a blackbird. After a low start of each formula, the blackbird's song constantly makes a sudden jump upwards toward a very high pitch. In this case, the blackbird surpasses 7000 Hz every time.

Video 3: In this movie, Messiaen improvises on the organ of the Trinité Church. It shows different characters of the organ by selecting a large variety of stop combinations. Through those kind of improvisations, the Messe de la Pentecôte was shaped around 1950.

Picture 2: Male common blackbird or Turdus Merula.

Picture 5: Blackbird spectrogram of XC385959. In this small fragment, one can see that the blackbird starts at a pitch of 1979 Hz, which is just a little higher than a B-natural''' in our piano key frequency system (1975 Hz). This pitch is followed by a step upwards that ends on 2821 Hz, which is somewhat higher than an E-sharp''' in our piano key frequency system (2793 Hz). Together, B-natural and E-sharp form an augmented fourth interval, which is common in the blackbird repertoire.

Picture 7: The chant de merle of the Communion (bar 20-27) – played in the upper voice – contains intervals that are typical within the real blackbird repertoire: major thirds, perfect fourths and augmented fourths.

Picture 11: Spectrograms of the same blackbird song (XC133967) showing a repeated motif. The human ear does not hear many differences between the two motifs. It also recognizes a comparable structure – two identical notes, followed by a small jump upwards and downwards again (marked by the red arrows). The frequencies, however, show that – although the frequencies come close to each other (e.g. first pitch: 1713 Hz versus 1735 Hz) – the blackbird never reaches the same pitch. As such, it is different from the fixed pitches of Messiaen's blackbirds.

Video 2: In this video organ builders and Messiaen biographers are talking about Messiaen and his special relationship with the Church of the Trinité and its organ.

Picture 3: Beginning of the Chant de merle on the
second half of bar 19 of the Communion.

Picture 4: Beginning of the dialogue between the blackbird and the cuckoo within the Communion (bar 14).

Picture 6: Blackbird spectrogram of XC405785. In this closely examined fragment between the 21st and 22nd second, one can recognize a major third. The lower arrow the line is at 2021 Hz, which is close to the frequency of a B-natural on the piano key frequency system (1975 Hz). Hereafter, the blackbird line goes upwards and reaches 2499 Hz, which is close to the frequency of D-sharp (2489 Hz).

Picture 13: Bar 15 of the Communion. While the water drops in the lower voice are constantly moving, the blackbird in the upper voice sings long and very tranquil notes preceded by an 'acciaccatura' note.

Picture 12: Blackbird spectrogram of a fragment of XC374687, on which one can recognize forms that come close to 'acciaccatura notes'. The blackbird song makes sudden jumps upwards that immediately return downwards.

Picture 10: Examples of sudden jumps to high pitches within the blackbird songs of the Communion: bar 14 (top left), bar 21-22 (top right) and bar 23 (bottom). The blackbird songs are played all in the upper voice, accompanied by staccato notes in the lower voice that are represented as gouttes d'eau (water drops). In every case, Messiaen's blackbirds make a sudden quick movement upwards to high notes (e.g. B-natural''', D-natural'''') through the use of fast rhythms (e.g., hemidemisemiquavers in bar 14) or acciaccatura notes.

Picture 8: Bar 14-19 of the Communion. The blackbird passages are red-framed. The orange frames indicate the major sixth intervals that appear within the blackbird passages.

Playing Messiaen on a small eighteenth-century organ

What happens if one plays a piece by Messiaen on an 'historical' organ that is much smaller than Haarlem and Utrecht, in casu the Reichner organ of The Hague-Loosduinen? First of all, there are more restrictions and therefore, it is required to be more careful in selecting Messiaen pieces that fit on the organ. A first restriction is the amount of stops on both the manuals and pedal is smaller, which means that the amount of colors is restricted. Furthermore, the acoustics of the church/concert hall plays an important part. Messiaen composed his organ works in the immense acoustics of the Trinité, in which the sound of the organ reverberates multiple seconds. The church of Loosduinen is much smaller and so is the acoustics. A third restriction is that there are less manuals to play on. In case of Loosduinen, there are two manuals, while Messiaen's organ has four manuals. A final restriction is the shortness of the manuals and pedals. The manuals of Loosduinen reach f'''', while Messiaen's organ ends on g''''. The highest pedal of Loosduinen reaches d'', while Messiaen's highest pedal is the f''. Those restrictions make playing Messiaen's music tough on the organ of Loosduinen. However, they are relatively easy to solve considering the Communion. At first, there are less stops to use, but there is still a variety of colors. The organ has multiple flutes on both manuals as well as two different reed stops (Dulciaan and Trompet 8'). As Messiaen prescribes, the majority of the Communion is built on the use of different flute stops. As such, differences in colors can be made. Considering the acoustics, the Communion fits into the church space of Loosduinen, because it is piece with merely soft registrations – with the exception of the prescribed reed stop in the first three bars. Furthermore, the Communion formally has to be played on three manuals (Grand Orgue, Positif and Récit), but never those manuals have to be played simultaneously. Finally, the restricted size of the manuals and pedals do not cause much changes to the Communion. In case it occurs, simply transposing the notes octave lower is required, for instance in bar 45 (Picture 22).

Thus, there is only a small amount of technical restrictions to overcome when playing the Communion in Loosduinen. Besides those technical aspects, there is also an ethical matter, namely the fact that I did something that Messiaen would never do. In his view, the translation of the colors of the Communion on such an organ would bring too much damage to the original prescribed colors. On the other hand, the prescribed colors are only one aspect of the music of Messiaen. The musical language by Messiaen is characterized by more factors, such as a consistent use of modes, typical harmonies and rhythmical structures are also characteristics that make his compositions recognizable. Those characteristics do not change when you play Messiaen on the organ of Loosduinen. It does not mean that you can play anything by Messiaen on this particular instrument. Organists still have to be selective in choosing his compositions that fits on the organ. However, the fact that the colors that Messiaen prescribed are lacking has not been a decisive factor in case of the Communion. In the following part, I will discuss my decisions considering registration of the blackbird and nightingale parts of the Communion compared to the prescriptions by Messiaen.


The common nightingale – also called Lusciana Megarhynchos – regularly appears in Western music compositions, for instance within the music by Händel (Organ Concerto no. 13 'The Cuckoo and the Nightingale' HWV 295), Beethoven (the second movement of the Sixth Symphony) and Ravel (the opera Les enfants et les sortilèges).36 Regarding the works by Messiaen, the nightingale is one of the birds that he incorporated at an early stage. Messiaen mostly combined the nightingale in combination with the blackbird, as is case in the Quatuor pour la temps (1940). At this time, he was very uncertain about naming the bird species in the score. A couple of years later, he seemed more confident, as he mentioned the nightingale in the piano cycle Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus (1944).37 From this time onwards, he named the nightingales more and more. By listening to different nightingales, Messiaen discovered that a nightingale does not have a large and varied repertoire. There are only 'five or six stereotyped formulae'.38 This made the incorporation of nightingale songs easier. Moreover, Messiaen could standardize his 'musical' nightingales within his works. This means that a particular nightingale theme reappeared several times in different compositions. For instance, one of the themes of the Communion nightingale (1949-50) is more or less similar - considering the form and motifs - to the nightingale within Jardin du sommeil d'amour, the sixth movement of the Turangalîla-symphony (1946-48) (Picture 15).


The Communion contains three nightingale themes (named Rossignol). In bar 9-13, a nightingale sings solo phrases without being interrupted by other birds or nature sounds (Picture 15; bottom musical fragment). A nightingale reappears in bar 33 and 47, in which he sings a shorter phrase. This is a motif that already appeared in the phrase of 9-13, a fast slur upwards of arpeggio demisemiquavers (Picture 16). As such, we can conclude that Messiaen reused a standardized formula to represent a nightingale. Strangely enough, he only indicated the first theme with rossignol. The other themes are named oiseau. However, he later mentioned in Traité de rythme that those oiseau are referring to nightingales.39 By comparing Messiaen's nightingales with real-life nightingales, attention is paid to voice volume, voice colour and rhythmical structure.


Dominant voices. Messiaen explains in his chapter on nightingale songs in Traité that the nightingales can be very dominant when they are singing. As a consequence, other birds can feel intimidated and stop singing.40 In the music of the Communion, Messiaen tried to represent this singing dominance by presenting the nightingale parts as unison parts without any harmonical accompaniment or a dialogue with other birds. This is different from the blackbird for instance, who is constantly accompanied by other sounds. Furthermore, the dominance is indicated by long musical rests that follow the nightingale songs, as showed within bar 34 and 48 (Picture 17). It is as if nature sounds have stopped for a moment. Real-life nightingales from the Xeno-canto-database have a comparable sound supremacy, reflected by powerful and penetrating sounds that make background sounds hardly audible, as can be heard in  the example of XC 380492 for instance. (audiofragment below picture 17).


Emotional contrasts. In the words of Messiaen, the nightingale is a ‘volte-face’ performer .41 He can brusquely switch his way of singing: from slow to fast tempo, from pianissimo to fortissimo, from long notes to virtuosic passages, etcetera. Messiaen uses antropomorphic terms to describe this: 'from sadness to joy'.42 These emotional contrasts are reflected in the nightingale parts of the Communion. The first theme in bar 9 (Picture 18) is a pattern of three long quavers followed by a sudden arpeggio jump upwards with quick notes. This is one of 'the most easy [nightingale themes] to recognize', according to Messiaen.43 In the ornithological world, this theme has the following onomatopoeic formula: tio, tio, tio, tiolaborix. This is a standard formula in real nightingale songs as well, as can be seen in the spectrograms of Picture 19. A second common theme that both Messiaen's nightingales and their real-life peers can produce, is a pattern of two staccato disjointed tones with the onomatopoeic formula: tikotikotikotikotiko (Picture 20). Other nightingales themes can be found in bar 10 (a 'slow and sentimental' diogdiogdiogdiog) and bar 11-12 (‘a new prelude [similar to the theme of bar 9] [followed by] a mocking and humoristic passage’).44 Conclusively, Messiaen incorporated both the structural and rhythmical elements of real nightingales. Imitating exact intervals or pitches were omitted, because those are not as fixed as the pitches of human Western tonal system.


Varied Registration Colors. In Messiaen's view, nightingales contain a lot of different emotions within their songs. These different emotions lead to a variety in timbres. For this reason, Messiaen used contrasting stop combinations on the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Trinité, where he composed the piece. These stops vary in volume and color. Moreover, every stop combination has to be played on a different manual.45 Within the score, the variety in volume is marked by different dynamic prescriptions (piu forte [compared to the previous p-part], mezzo-forte and piano). Messiaen could easily swich from one timbre to the other, because the organ of the Trinité has three manuals and a large number of stops. As such, he was able to represent those quick volume changes that characteristize songs of real nightingales (Picture 19). Considering the colors, each color combination symbolizes of a particular nightingale character. The themes of bar 9 and 11-12 (Picture 18) are formed by high-pitched stops (flûte 4, piccolo 1, tierce 1 3/5; flûte 4, cymbale) and represent the clarity and height of the nightingale song. By contrast, the lower and slower sounds of a nightingale are represented by a low stop, the bourdon 8 in bar 10 and 13 (Picture 21: middle and bottom). By comparing the frequencies of real and 'musical' nightingales, it can be concluded that there are large differences, because a nightingale can sing much higher than the highest tones of an organ. As shown in Picture 21, only the frequencies of the nightingale part in bar 10 and 13 come close to the minimum frequencies of the real-life nightingales.


Conclusion. Similar to Richard Wagner's use of Erinngerungsmotive in his operas, Messiaen incorporated in his Communion reminiscent nightingale motifs and themes that he already used in his earlier compositions. One reason for this is that nightingales only have a few themes that are standard for each individual nightingale. In general, Messiaen was mostly interested in both the structures and rhythms of the real-life nightingale themes, because specific intervals and fixed tones were not discernable. He combined those real-life nightingale structures and rhythms into his own harmonical language and timbres. The differences in colors in real-life nightingale repertoire were reflected by the use of different organ stops.

Comparing Messiaen´s birds of the Communion to real-life bird species - Part II: Nightingale

Ideas of Messiaen on playing his music on other organs

According to Messiaen, the Messe de la Pentecôte was completely dedicated to the organ of the Trinité. The stop prescriptions that he wrote down in the score, were based on the stops of 'his' Cavaillé-Coll organ.46The original function of the Messe de la Pentecôte was liturgical.47 For this reason, Messiaen did not play the premiere of the piece during a concert, but during the service of Pentecost Sunday 1951. His lifelong devotion of the Trinité and its organ – 'it's my child, my son!' – made it very difficult for him to play on other organs.48 He liked to give organ masterclasses all over the world, for instance on the Adema organ of the Saint-Jacobs Church of The Hague in 1986.49 Concert performances on other organs, however, were rather more infrequent. When he was asked to play a concert on another organ, Messiaen deemed it important that the organs were 'large instruments that posses varied timbres and mixtures and, particularly, those that have sixteen-foot stops on the manuals.'50 Furthermore, the organ required to have electronic aids – General Crescendo aids or a Setzer system – to make the registration easier. Consequently, he rarely played on organs built before 1850. In general, Messiaen did not like to give concerts on organs other than 'his own'. Even though he was regularly asked, he rejected most offers. There are some exceptions, such as performances on the Beckerath-organ of the Johanneskirche of Düsseldorf (Germany) during several 'Messiaen-feste', organized by Messiaen's former student Almut Rössler.51 He also premiered the Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte-Trinité at the great National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. (United States) in 1972. In both cases, Messiaen spent a lot of time on studying these foreign organs. In the case of Washington, he arrived ten days prior to the concert 'to study the organ's layout and to find [the] timbres and note them in the score.'52 During this long-lasting process, Messiaen sought for color combinations that come close to the colors of his own Cavaillé-Coll organ. However, in case specific color combinations were missing, adaptations in the registrations prescriptions were needed. Messiaen did this without hesitation, because – in the end – the musical effect and 'the spirit of the narrative' were more important than a specific color combination.53

Messiaen on playing his music on baroque/classical organs

Messiaen rarely played his music on organs that were completely different from his Cavaillé-Coll. In case he did, the organs still had large dispositions with a lot of reeds and mixtures, as well as electronic aids. In fact, those were instruments on which one can play music from every periods and styles. The idea of having 'complete' organs was rejected by many organ builders from the 1960s onwards. Stimulated by 'musical authenticity' movements, a lot of organs throughout Europe were rebuilt in baroque or classical style, which meant a removal of 19th-century additions as well as electronic aids. In Messiaen's view, this returning to the 'authentic' state of early instruments is restrictive, because this would reduce the repertoire possibilities. 'I love [the music of early-music composers such as Nicolas de Grigny and Girolamo Frescobaldi], but even so, I want to be able to play other things [on every organ],' he told interviewer Claude Samuel.54 During the same interview, Messiaen stated that 'obviously' his own music would never suit on an organ from the baroque or classical era, because this would require too much changes in his prescribed colors. If every organist would follow up this vision, Messiaen's organ music would hardly be performed in the Netherlands. Nowadays, there are only a few Cavaillé-Call organs in the Netherlands and in general the French-Romantic influence on the Dutch organ culture can be considered as marginal. A main reason for this, is that the Dutch organ culture was mainly inspired by Germany for centuries.55 Moreover, twentieth-century non-Romantic movements like the Orgelbewegung (1950s-1960s) and the 'authenticity' movement (1960s-1970s) had an enormous impact orn orgna building and renovation in the Netherlands, which reduced the number of 'ideal' Messiaen-organs.56

Despite this lack of typical Messiaen-organs, a lot of organists play Messiaen during concerts on Dutch organs. Already from the 1950s onwards, Feike Asma, Charles de Wolff and Stoffel van Vliegen did not hesitate to program Messiaen's music on Dutch 'historical' organs, for instance in Maassluis (Groote Kerk), Haarlem (Bavo Church) and Utrecht (Dom). This development is continued by several contemporary organists, such as Jan Hage, Jos van der Kooy and Hayo Boerema. Even Olivier Latry, the titular organist of Notre-Dame in Paris who recorded the complete organ oeuvre by Messiaen, did not hesitate to play the Ascension on the eighteenth-century Müller organ of the Bavo Church in Haarlem, because 'there is so much poetry in [Messiaen's] music.'57 However, playing Messiaen on Dutch historical organs always means making inevitable compromises in terms of transposing and changing the colors. The advantage of organs like Haarlem is that they have large dispositions with a lot of different color possibilities. Those colors are mostly not similar to Messiaen's stops, so making a 're-creation' of the piece is inevitable. Nevertheless – as Latry stated – telling the musical story with other colors can keep the story intact.

Representing the birds of the Communion on organs

Picture 15: Comparison between the first four bars of the piano part of the Jardin du sommeil d’amour (sixth part of the Turangalîla symphony; top) and the first nightingale passage within the Communion of the Messe de la Pentecôte (bar 9-13; bottom). The form and motifs that Messiaen used in both pieces are almost identical.

Picture 17: Bar 33 (left) and bar 47 (right) of the Communion. After both nightingale motifs, the music stops suddenly for a moment, indicated by two or three crotchet rests. In the appended audio-fragment, a real-life nightingale (XC 380492) sings such a very powerful and penetrating song, that the background sounds are subordinated to it.

Picture 19: Spectrograms of XC394428 (top) and XC374317 (bottom). Both Messiaen’s fragment and the spectrograms show the same nightingale’s song pattern: long repeated tones followed by quick passages upwards (indicated by the red circles). The orange circle in XC394428 indicates the quick pitch changes. Within a split second, his song can make jumps from low to high and the other way around. Considering the audio-fragments of XC374317, the upper audio-fragment represents the red circle motif. The audio-fragment below represents the orange circle motif.

Picture 14: Common nightingale (Lusciana Megarhynchos). 

Picture 22: Bar 44-45 of the Communion. The first two notes of bar 45 - indicated by the red circle - cannot be played on the manuals of the organ of Loosduinen. Consequently, it is necessary to transpose the complete melodic line of bar 45 one octave lower. Then, it should be played on a 8' and 4' foot stop (instead of the prescribed 16' and 8' foot stop).

Picture 21: Top: Table with the minimum frequencies of the Xeno-canto nightingales. Those frequencies are more or less similar to the frequencies of the low nightingale tones by Messiaen in bar 10 (middle) and bar 13 (bottom).

Picture 16: Second and third appearance of the nightingale fragment (bar 33 and 47) within the Communion. Messiaen uses the arpeggio motif of bar 9 again.

Picture 20: Bar 13 of the Communion, which shows a series of two disjointed tones. The formula that is given by ornithologists is tikotikotikotiko.

Picture 18: Bar 9 of the Communion with its onomatopoeic formula.


Case-study organs

Reichner organ of The Hague Loosduinen


The organ of the Abdijkerk of The Hague-Loosduinen was built by Joachim Reichner, a Swiss organ builder who worked a great part of his life in the Netherlands. The organ has two manuals and has an independent pedal. Reichner built the instrument in 1780. In 1856, the firm Bätz-Witte renovated most of the pipework and added new reed stops (the Dulciaan and Trompet). In 2006, the firm Steendam, advised by Aart Bergwerff, added three independent pedal stops: Subbas 16', Gedeckt 8' – originating from the former Witte-organ of the Kloosterkerk of The Hague – and Bassoon 16'. The actual disposition can be found in the disposition table (Picture 23).


Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Eglise Sainte-Trinité of Paris (9ème arrondissement)


After the accomplishment of the Eglise Sainte-Trinité in 1867, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll – one of the most important organ builders of his generation – built a three-manuals organ for the new church.1 A few years later, both the church and organ were heavily damaged during the Commune of 1871. Hereafter, it was restored by Cavaillé-Coll. Just before Olivier Messiaen was appointed in 1931, his predecessor Charles Quef advised the firm Pleyel-Cavaillé-Coll to extend the organ with eight extra stops (including a Cymbale III and Tierce 1 3/5). In the 1960s, extra reeds and mixtures have been added. For this research, those latter additions are not relevant, because the recording of the Messe de la Pentecôte took place in 1957. The situation of 1957 can be found in the disposition table (Picture 25).




In this exposition I have sought to investigate the representation of birdsong within the Communion of the Messe de la Pentecôte by Messiaen. In the first part I investigated the way Messiaen incorporated birdsong within his music and which restrictions he had to overcome. This has been done through analyzing his birdsong parts and by comparing those 'musical' birds to their real-life counterparts. This comparison showed that transcribing real birdsong cannot happen without musical adaptations. First, the speed and virtuosity of real birdsong cannot be translated by organs or other human instruments. Consequently, Messiaen had to reduce the song speed of his 'birds'. Moreover, the tones of real birds do not fit into the human Western tonal system. This means that Messiaen had to embed the birdsong into the Western tonal system by giving the musical 'birds' lower frequencies, adapted to the level of human instruments such as the organ. In short, Messiaen had to be pragmatic during the incorporation of birdsong with respect to speed and pitch. On the other hand, there are still several identifiable real bird sng elements in his compositions, such as (repetitive) motifs, rhythmical patterns and even intervals. As such, my study results coincide with the earlier studies by Robert Fallon and Trevor Hold. Messiaen incorporated the bird species as accurate as possible and he acknowledged that he was not able to make exact copies. For him, it was more important to create an atmosphere of natural phenomena in his music.


This preference for a musical effect rather than a literal transcription can also be seen in the viewpoint on performing the music of Messiaen on 'foreign' organs. This was the second part of my study. I have performed the Communion by Messiaen on the eighteenth-century organ of The Hague- Loosduinen, an instrument that differs largely from the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Trinité, where Messiaen created all his organ compositions. The reason I chose this atypical organ is that I wanted to show that even on these type of organs the music of Messiaen can sound convincingly. Representing the birdsong parts of the Communion in Loosduinen required color compromises. This was inevitable, because the organ of Loosduinen does not have the same colors as the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Trinité. Messiaen puritans would probably not agree with this, because those compromises would change the character of the piece. During the search for colors, I have tried to stay as close as possible to the original stop prescriptions and its corrensponding colors.  My answer to the puritans is that, even though the final result is different in colors, it is still recognizable as music by Messiaen, because the rest of the elements of the piece is still present, such as the modes, rhythms and harmonies. Changing those characteristics would bring more damage to the original composition than changing the prescribed colors. Changing the colors leads at the most to musical sentences with a slight variation, comparable to the relationship between dialects and a national language. In other words, the musical story hardly changes. This is the link to the comparison between Messiaen's birds and their real-life counterparts: it is more important to give a representation of the birds in which several characteristics are still recognizable, even though they sound different from the original. Making a completely accurate imitation in music is simply not possible.


Case-study: Representing the blackbird and the nightingale on the Reichner organ of The-Hague Loosduinen: a discussion considering the used stop colors.

Comparing my choices of stop colors with the original prescriptions

Blackbird (bar 14-20 and 20-27)

  • Within bar 14-20, Messiaen presents a duet between birds in the right hand and water drops (gouttes d'eau) in the left hand. In the meantime, two oiseaux – in particular a blackbird on Positif and a cuckoo58 on the Grand Orgue – alternate in the right hand. Messiaen prescribed that the water drops are represented through a combination the bourdon 16' and octavin 2'. Furthermore, the birds are represented by two different 8'-foot stops on different manuals. The volume of the water drops should be very soft (with a closed swell box; pp) with a certain clarity, but it should be subordinated to the dialog of the blackbird and cuckoo in the right hand. Consequently, a soft registration is required. At Loosduinen, this was hard to realize. A bourdon 16'-flûte 2'-combination is lacking, so I had to look for alternative combinations. In the end, I used the Holpijp 8' and Fluit 4' of the Rugwerk for representing the water drops and I used one registration for the two birds, the Holpijp 8' of the Hoofdwerk. The balance between the Hoofdwerk en Rugwerk is more or less equal, so the water drops are not subordinated to the bird dialog.
  • In this case, I faced the following dilemma: representing Messiaen's water drops as accurate as possible with consequently a subordination of the bird passages or choosing an alternative registration for the water drops which causes a better balance between the right and left hand? I chose the latter decision, because I wanted to give clarity to both the birds and the water drops. The reason for playing the blackbird and cuckoo on the same manual and registration, is the lack of a third manual and because each bird is singing on a different tone height. A Holpijp 8' can be very clear when playing high notes (around C''') and in low notes (around C'') it can be rather profound As such, a diversity in sound can be made, even on the same registration.
  • Half way bar 20, Messiaen requested to change the flûte 8' of the Positif for a flûte 4' solo. This means that the notes you play on the manual sound an octave higher. The flûte 4' of the Positif on the Trinité organ is a bit softer than the flûte 8' and that is the reason why Messiaen wrote down p instead of mf. In Loosduinen, I pulled out the Fluit 4' instead of the Holpijp 8'. It is important to have a soft flute register on the organ you play, because you need a round flute sound rather than a fat Principal/Octave 4'.


Nightingale (bar 9-13; bar 33; bar 47)


  • According to Messiaen, the nightingale parts have to be played with different registrations to represent the different timbres of the nightingale. The themes of bar 9 (Picture 29) and 11-12 (Picture 30) are formed by a combination of labials (flûte 4, piccolo 1) and 'mutation stops' or aliquots (tierce 1 3/5 and cymbale) on the Positif. This combination results into high-pitched colors and therefore symbolizes the clarity and height of the nightingale song. Contrastingly, a nightingale can also sing on a low register, and therefore Messiaen used a much lower stop, the bourdon 8 on the Grand Orgue in bar 10 (Picture 31) and 13 (Picture 32).
  • Bar 9 (Picture 29) has to be played on a più forte volume (compared to the p-part of the previous bars) on a combination of the labials flûte 4' and piccolo 1' and the 'mutation stop' tierce 1 3/5. This stop combination is hard to realize on the organ of Loosduinen, because there is neither a 1'-foot stop nor a Tierce. Therefore, I took the Fluit 4' in combination with the highest labial of the Hoofdwerk, the Octaaf 2'. I also could chose the Cornet V instead of the Octaaf 2', but in my opinion, the contrast in volume with the previous bars would then be too big.
  • Bar 11 (Picture 30) has to be played on a mf volume on a combination of flûte 4' and cymbale III. In Loosduinen, I chose to take the Cornet V as the alternative 'mutation stop' in combination with the Fluit 4' of the Hoofdwerk. A Cornet V is indicated with the Roman number five, because it consists of five ranks of pipes that sound when playing a key. Within French 19th-century music, a Cornet V always had to be pull out in combination with a labial 8´-foot stop. Contrastingly, Messiaen used aliquots such as the cornet and the tierce more and more without that 8-foot basis. The combination with the Fluit 4' results in a clear and bright sound, a sound that can be an alternative for the prescriptions of Messiaen.
  • The next bar, bar 12 (Picture 30), has to be played on the same stop combination, but on a softer volume (p). Messiaen therefore uses the swell box of the Récit. In Loosduinen, I chose to switch from the Hoofdwerk to the Rugwerk and to play bar 12 on the softer combination Fluit 4' and Roerquint 3'. The Roerquint 3' is a 'mutation stop' which based on flute pipes with a nasal character and it consists of a rounder and softer overtone sound, compared to the previous Cornet V.

Picture 25: Front of the Trinité organ in Paris.

Picture 23: Disposition table of the Reichner organ of Loosduinen. It contains two manuals (Hoofdwerk and Rugwerk), a pedal, two couplers and two registration aids.

Picture 26: Disposition table of the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Trinité Church in Paris. The Jeux de fonds refer to the 'ground' stops (diapasons, flutes, etcetera). The Jeux de combinaisons refer to the 'mutation' stops (with overtones, e.g. ), reeds and mixture stops. The 'enclosed stops' - most of them were added in the 1930's - are situated on the Positif and Récit. They are not part of the so-called 'swell stops', the stops that function with the help of a swell box.

Picture 27: bar 14-15, the first two bars of the dialog between the blackbird (on the Positif) and the cuckoo (on the Grand Orgue). Top audio: recording in Loosduinen by Lanooy (2018); bottom audio: recording in Paris by Messiaen (1957).

Picture 31: Bar 10 of the Communion. Top audio: recording in Loosduinen by Lanooy (2018); bottom audio: recording in Paris by Messiaen (1957).

Picture 29: Bar 9 of the Communion. Top audio: recording in Loosduinen by Lanooy (2018); bottom audio: recording in Paris by Messiaen (1957).

Picture 28: bar 19-20 of the Communion with the chant de merle in the upper voice. Top audio: recording in Loosduinen by Lanooy (2018); bottom audio: recording in Paris by Messiaen (1957).

Picture 30: Bar 11-12 of the Communion. Top audio: recording in Loosduinen by Lanooy (2018); bottom audio: recording in Paris by Messiaen (1957).

Picture 24: the front of the Reichner organ fof Loosduinen.

Picture 32: Bar 13 of the Communion. Top audio: recording in Loosduinen by Lanooy (2018); bottom audio: recording in Paris by Messiaen (1957).



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  • Messiaen, Olivier. Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie (1949–1992): Tome IV. Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1997.
  • Idem, Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie (1949–1992): Tome V en 2 volumes, 1er volume–Chants d’oiseaux d’Europe. Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1999.
  • Idem, Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie (1949–1992): Tome V en 2 volumes, 2ème volume–Chants d’oiseaux extra-européens. Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1999.
  • Rischin, Rebecca. For the End of Time: the Story of the Messiaen Quartet. New York: Cornell University Press, 2006.
  • Rössler, Almut. Zur Interpretation der Orgelwerke Messiaens. Duisburg. Gilles und Francke, 1978.
  • Rostand, Claude. "Trends and Tendencies in Contemporary French Music." In Twentieth-Century Music - A Symposium, edited by Rollo Myers, 175-83. New York: Orion Press, 1968.
  • Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-century Music: an Introduction. Upper Sadle River: Prentice Hall, 1974.
  • Samuel, Claude, and Olivier Messiaen. Music and Color. Conversations with Olivier Messiaen. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994.
  • Verwer, René. Cavaille-Coll en Nederland: Een studie naar het werk van Cavaille-Coll en diens invloed in Nederland in de periode 1875-1924. PhD diss. Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 2008.
  • Wallmann, James L. ''The Organ in the Twentieth-century,'' Chap. 1 In Twentieth-century Organ Music, ed. Christopher S. Anderson. New York: Routledge, 2012.


Selected Bird Recordings from the Xeno-canto-database


  • XC374426, recorded by Timo Tschentscher at Neuve-Église, Bas-Rhin, Grand Est (France; 16 April 2017).
  • XC385959, recorded by Cedric Mroczko at Cordes-sur-Ciel, Tarn, Occitanie (France; 20 May 2017).
  • XC391414, recorded by Gerard Olivier at Messigny-et-Vantoux, Côte-d'Or, Bourgogne Franche-Comté (France; 2 November 2017).
  • XC405785, recorded by Gerard Olivier at Til-Châtel, Côte-d'Or, Burgundy (France; 10 March 2018).
  • XC412039, recorded by Alain Verneau at Théville, Manche, Normandie (France; 23 April 2018).
  • XC374317, recorded by Manuel Grosselet at Prieuré de Marcevol, Arboussols, Pyrénées-Orientales, Occitanie (France; 2 June 2017).
  • XC374780, recorded by Manuel Grosselet at Prieuré de Marcevol, Arboussols, Pyrénées-Orientales, Occitanie (France; 27 May 2017).
  • XC380492, recorded by Timo Tschentscher at Muttersholtz, Bas-Rhin, Grand Est (France; 21 April 2017).
  • XC394428, recorded by Cedric Mroczko at Gaillac, Tarn, Occitanie (France; 30 May 2017).
  • XC411811, recorded by Audevard Aurélien at Belgentier, Var, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (France; 22 April 2018).

Organ recordings

Messiaen recording

  • Messiaen par lui-même. EMI Classics (CD CZS 7674002), recorded by Olivier Messiaen (1957). This recording includes all the organ works by Messiaen till 1951, performed by the composer himself on the Cavaillé-Coll organ (1868) of the Trinity Church of Paris. The recording of the Messe de la Pentecôte can be found on the fourth CD.
Personal recording
  • Live-recording of Jan Pieter Lanooy in the Abdijkerk of The Hague-Loosduinen on 20 July 2018.


Picture 2: 

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Picture 25:


Appendix I: Sheet music of the Communion of the Messe de la Pentecôte (page 17-22 of the Alphonse Leduc edition, Paris 1951). Click on the pictures to open the pdf file of the page.