Music of the Woodlark

As the sun gives the day's first light, so is music the mind's first light.
Mathematics follows music and science seems more art than science.

This page is about one of the pieces in the "Catalogue d'Oiseaux" (Catalogue of the Birds) by the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). This page also has information which can be found in the book Messiaen by Robert Sherlaw Johnson (hereafter RSJ-M), J M Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1975, page 148.

In the early noughties, I described my interests by saying that I wanted to turn three separate activities into one, and now (July 2017) those three activities are still (1) reconciliation between mathematics and those who fear and hate it, (2) reconciliation between civilization and the natural world, and (3) my own pursuit of mathematics and physics. I do feel that I have done the unification. But now, as before, to undertake such a task without music would be a grave mistake, and I have chosen to emphasize Messiaen for two reasons: First, Messiaen is relevant to the task of making easy that which is difficult. Second, Messiaen's Catalogue of the Birds is highly relevant to the issue of establishing an harmonious relationship between civilization and the biosphere. Below, I will explain first what I'm doing to enjoy Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux, and then I'll talk about how I would like to encorporate Messiaen into my mathematical pursuits.


For the pieces in Catalogue d'Oiseaux, I have written on paper the form diagrams from Robert Sherlaw Johnson's book Messiaen. Then, using a stop watch and a recording by , I have written down the precise time at which each bird or feature is heard. I find this activity to be both enjoyable and rewarding. In fact, I showed this to a friend who has a music background, and he said it made him able to understand Messiaen as he never had before.

Here's the connection I see with my mathematics for the math phobic: Many people who listen to and love classical music don't like 20th century music because they feel it is not melodic enough. I used to be in this group, and I remember Karl Haas trying to coax people into enjoying modern music. Messiaen might be regarded as a somewhat extreme example of "difficult" music, but the exercise I have described has enabled me to enjoy modern music easily and extensively. If we can do this with Messiaen, it seems to me that the musical exercise would fortify the learner for the next task.

'L'Alouette Lulu
( The Woodlark )

Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux consists of thirteen pieces arranged as seven books. The sixth piece is called 'L'Alouette Lulu (The Woodlark), and it is the second piece of the third book. The headings of the three tables below give Robert Sherlaw Johnson's form diagram from page 148 of his book cited above. The body of each table gives the times which I recorded from my stop watch after listening to the piece many times. Each table includes a blank row in case you would like to do the exercise yourself, if you have a Catalogue d'Oiseaux CD. I have done this for all of the pieces in the Catalogue d'Oiseaux. I have found that doing this makes otherwise unintelligible music quite understandable and enjoyable. Most of the other pieces in the Catalogue are more complex than this one, and I have found it very satisfying to go through the process of figuring out which sounds go with the various elements in professor Johnson's form diagrams. In the tables shown below, "A" is the nightingale, "B" is the woodlark, and "c" is the night.

Introduction: B + c
Recording c B c B c B c B c B c B c B
[_1_] 0:00 0:10 0:15 0:26 0:31 0:42 0:49 1:00 1:06 1:18 1:24 1:35 1:40 1:50
_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____

Central Strophes: Dialogue between A and B (+c)
Recording A c B A c B A c B A c B A
[_1_] 2:14 2:38 2:48 3:13 3:55 4:05 4:12 4:15 4:21 4:32 4:36 4:42 4:48
_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____

Coda: B + c
Recording c B c B c B c B c B c B c B
[_1_] 4:56 5:18 5:22 5:33 5:38 5:49 5:53 6:20 6:26 6:37 6:43 6:54 7:02 7:10
_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____

A Note on the Corncrake

One of my favorite sounds in the Catalogue d'Oiseaux is that of the corncrake, who appears in the ninth piece 'La Bouscarle' (Cetti's Warbler). I mention this here because I have just listened to this piece on my recording by Hakan Austbo and I was very much surprised to find the sound altogether different from the one I remember. When I did the exercise described above for 'La Bouscarle', I was using a recording by Anatol Ugorski. In that recording the sound of the corncrake struck me as very funny. I had the picture in my mind of a rather clumsy bird moving along the ground in short jumps. Having just done a quick web search, I found the following description: "When walking about undisturbed a Broadland corncrake's head would move to and fro at each step, with feet lifting high. But it always remained very cautious and at the least sound the neck would be stretched to full extent as the bird craned its head above the grass for a better view." (Click here for more. This link is to the October 2003 issue of the "Birds of Britain", "The monthly web magazine for bird watchers".)


AND: Here are my listenings to the Catalogue.


[1] , piano, Naxos
Recorded at St. Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, England. from 24th to 27th April 1996 and from 1st to 3rd August 1996. Producer: Gary Cole. Editor: Gary Cole. Piano: Steinway & Sons Hamburg. Music Notes: Patricia Althaparro-Minck. Cover: From a sketch by David Barker (1997). Distributed by: MVD music and video distribution GmbH, Oberweg 21c - Halle V. D-82008 Unterhaching, Munich, Germany.

Now please:

A Musical Explanation of One of Einstein's Key Ideas

My other musical links.
Modes & Scales & Key Signatures (circa February 2010)
Musical Diary A
Some Music of Eric Satie (circa April 2011)
Musical Diary B

AND: For much more on Messiaen and his music, please visit Malcolm Ball's site here.

AND: Here are 3 of my best mathematical pages. Their sophistication is nothing compared to that of Messiaen's music:
A Discretezation of the Navier-Stokes Equations
Radical Steps
A Step Function