Olivier Messiaen: Le merle noir


Olivier Messiaen wrote a collection of significant works in the 20th century. His music often explored the uses of rhythm and harmony to create new and innovative ways to compose music. He also involved himself in the newer practices of total serialism and modes of limited transposition. He was also very interested in birdsong, with a number of his works exploring this through using irregular rhythmic patterns and unconventional metres. 

In 1952, the Paris Conservatory flute department asked Messiaen to compose a work for the annual flute concours. The work composed for this was Le merle noir (The Blackbird). This wasn’t the first work that Messiaen composed that used birdsong, however it is the first work where he tried to emulate a specific bird sound. Previous works such as La Nativité and Quatour pour la fin du temps referenced birdsong in a generic way, so Le merle noir is much more specific in its presentation.


The Music

Le merle noir is built around short motivic bursts from the flute, accompanied by dissonant cluster chords from the piano. The wild flutter notes and placings of grace notes imitates the fluttering of the blackbird. The material that Messiaen writes for the flute shows his complexity in rhythmic writing. The ebb and flow of changes between fast notes adds a rush of excitement through the soloist’s music.

The flute and piano unite for an unconventional, albeit much sweeter, section that shows angular movement in both parts. The innovative ending connects all of the previous passages into an imitation of the blackbird call and flutters away into the distance. The piece shows Messiaen’s creative mind for creating high art out of a simple notion. 


Final Thoughts

Olivier Messiaen’s Le merle noir employs a number of significant aspects to create this highly evocative work. From pitched and seemingly unpitched sounds, to colour chords, Le merle noir is still one of the most illustrative pieces of music relating to birdsong. Now often used as a recital or audition piece, Le merle noir tests a flautist in a number of ways. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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