Messiaen-ic Music From The Canyons To The Stars

"Des canyons aux étoiles,"  said Messiaen, is “above all a religious work, a work of praise and contemplation.”
“Des canyons aux étoiles,” said Messiaen of his work, is “above all a religious work, a work of praise and contemplation.”
(National Park Service)

Olivier Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars). Tzimon Barto (piano). John Ryan (horn), Andrew Barclay (xylorimba),  Erika Ohman (glockenspiel), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor).  (LPO – 0083 [2 CDs]). Total Time: 100:06

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — There are birds all around us, and many of them make the most extraordinarily beautiful sounds. Over the centuries, composers have been fascinated with birdsong and some were moved to incorporate it into their music; for example, Vivaldi in his Flute Concerto “Il gardellino” and Beethoven in his “Pastoral” Symphony. In the 20th century, Stravinsky composed Chant du rossignol (Song of the Nightingale) and Respighi added the recorded “live” song of a nightingale to the slow movement of his Pines of Rome.

The LPO recorded Messiaen's 'Des canyons' on its own label
The LPO recorded Messiaen’s ‘Des canyons’ on its own label

French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), however, surpasses all others with his near-obsession with birdsong, which is a major element in his little-known orchestral work, Des canyons aux etoiles, composed in 1971-74 after a visit to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. A rare opportunity to hear the work in concert will occur when the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival presents “the largest-ever ensemble gathered for one performance at the Festival” under New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert on Aug. 23. For information, go here.

Birdsong was one of the elements frequently used by Messiaen in his compositions. The average listener will have a tough time identifying any particular birdsong when listening to Messiaen, because he almost never transcribed exactly what he heard in nature. Instead, he filtered birdsong through his imagination and invariably came up with something far removed from the original.

I recently visited the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Tex., and among the fascinating items on display was an edition of Alice in Wonderland with illustrations by Salvador Dali. Lewis Carroll chose John Tenniel to do the illustrations for the first edition in 1865, and they were quite realistic — if one can use that word to describe any of Carroll’s projects — while Dali’s graphics were surreal. That word surreal comes to mind when attempting to describe how Messiaen made the leap from hearing birds in the wild to actually putting musical notes on paper. Readers and music-lovers interested in the process used by Messiaen to do this can check actual examples here.

Olivier Messiaen, left, in 1971, with Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, upon receiving the Erasmus Prize. (Wiki Commons)
Messiaen, left, in 1971, with Netherlands Prince Bernhard.  (Wiki Commons)

Messiaen’s Catholicism also influenced his music. Awed by the sights and sounds of Utah, he not only notated the birdsongs, but also took away with him impressions of the beauty and variety of nature and even more meaningfully, perhaps, a sense of the all-encompassing power of the Creator.

Des canyons aux étoiles, he said, is “above all a religious work, a work of praise and contemplation.” One does not have to share Messiaen’s religious beliefs to marvel at the extraordinary music he created. Des canyons aux étoiles is endlessly fascinating for its unique instrumental colors and sound impressions that linger in the memory.

The orchestration is very unusual. There are 13 strings, quadruple woodwind, triple brass, and dozens of percussion instruments. There are even a wind machine and a sand machine (géophone), the latter instrument created just for this piece, according to Messiaen’s instructions. It is a flat drum, filled with beads, imitating the sound of moving sand. Finally, there are prominent solo parts for piano and horn.

Christoph Eschenbach (Eric Brissaud)
Christoph Eschenbach (Eric Brissaud)

Although Des canyons aux étoiles is performed infrequently, there have been some excellent recordings over the years. Esa-Pekka Salonen led a performance with the London Sinfonietta (1988; Sony M2K 44762), and Myung Whun Chung conducted the French Radio Orchestra recording about 15 years later (2003; DG 471 617-2).

Christoph Eschenbach, conductor of this new recording, earned his Messiaen spurs with performances of the Turangalîla-symphonie all over the world. While music director of the Houston Symphony, he played the piano part in a recording of the Quartet for the End of Time (1999; Koch 3-7378-2). About 10 years ago, I attended a mesmerizing performance of Messiaen’s two-piano masterpiece, Visions de l’Amen, by Eschenbach and Tzimon Barto in Philadelphia.

Eschenbach superbly paces Des canyons aux étoiles, a long and demanding work, ensuring that all details are in place. Barto masters the fiendish demands of the piano part, while maintaining sensitivity in the delicate passages. Hornist John Ryan and his colleagues in the London Philharmonic play with unremitting concentration and virtuosity.

It could be argued that a piece inspired by the vast outdoors of Utah would best be served by an audio quality long on reverberation, with a sense of distance. From that perspective, this live recording from the Royal Festival Hall in London is a little dry and clinical, but I did enjoy the amazing clarity of detail.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster, and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for,, and