3. Olivier Messiaen
March 29 2016, Côte Vermeille, Pyrénées-Orientales. The headlands stretch out into the sea like crocodiles. In an echoing crevice of the cliff-face a blue rock thrush sings
When Olivier Messiaen came here in June 1957 he wrote into his notebook a succinct description of the landscape he discovered, notes that found their way onto the cover page of his piano piece Le Merle Bleu – the Blue Rock Thrush. He also noted that the blue rock thrush song “blends with the noise of the waves. I hear the Thekla lark as it flutters in the sky above the vines and rosemary. The yellow-legged gulls cry from afar. The cliffs are terrifying. The water comes to die at their feet in the memory of the blue rock thrush.” He was describing the landscape and sounds of the coast near Banyuls-sur-Mer, and provided the clues that would lead me to the same spot nearly sixty years later.
During The Long Spring journeys I walked south from Banyuls along the twisting coast road until I found a path off to the left that took me down to the sea. From there I looked south along a series of headlands – Cap l’Abeille, Cap Rederis, Cap de Peyrefite, Cap Canadell, and Cap Cerbère. Messiaen’s note on the title page of Le Merle Bleu is specific in naming the places he had come seeking inspiration: “Near Banyuls: Cap l’Abeille, Cap Rederis.” I was looking for a cliff face among the many minor capes and inlets, using the clues he left behind.
To my right, the bay reflected a deep, charcoal-infused blue. In Le Merle Bleu, the blue rock thrush represents the sea in its different simultaneous moods. I heard one in the distance to my right. Suddenly, the bird appeared from between two rock stumps to my right, flew over the finger of rock I was sitting on, and disappeared down into the smaller cove on my left. On its short passage through my visual field, its colour changed with each wing-beat, according to its background and the angle it made with the sun. In the score, Messiaen mentions the colour-shifts of both the sea and the bird; the one represents the other. He annotates the score itself: “the resonance of rock faces”, “luminous iridescent, blue halo”, or depicting the horizon of “the blue sea”. The harmonies are intended to complement the “satin texture and the purple-blue, slate-blue and blue-black shades” of the blue rock thrush's plumage.
Olivier Messiaen wrote his first significant birdsong-inspired piece in Stalag VIII-A prisoner of war camp in Görlitz (now Zgorzelec, Poland). Quartet for the End of Time, a staple of modern repertoire, was originally written for Messiaen and three fellow prisoners to perform, which they did on 15 January 1941 to a rapt audience of 400 inmates. For both Maria Àngels Anglada (featured in the second article in this series) and Messiaen, wildlife symbolised freedom and identity and their works mined deep reserves of personal and cultural connectedness to nature, one of the themes of The Long Spring.
The Long Spring will be published in March 2018
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.