Breakfast with birdsong

Yesterday, we had breakfast out on the patio – you’ll be impressed (I hope). For once, there were no strimmers strimming,  no builders noisily building, but the birds were singing, particularly (I think), a blackbird. So I rushed inside and got my recorder and recorded about 5 minutes of birdsong. I hope you enjoy it – just press Play!

And it brought to mind a piece of music I’d like to share with you. Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the end of time. It sounds a very pretentious title but don’t let that put you off. Messiaen (1908-1992) is best known to us organists but he wrote lots of piano music, the great Turangalila Symphony, this quartet and of course a lot of other stuff.  He was fascinated by birdsong and spent lots of time recording it, slowing those recordings down and then trying to recreate some of them in his music, for example Catalogue d’oiseaux for Piano of 1958. The first movement of the Quartet for the end of time, entitled Liturgie de cristal, opens with a clarinet and a violin both marked ‘Comme un oiseau’. These duetting birds are accompanied by gentle chords on the piano and 5 high harmonics repeated over and over on the cello. I think it’s beautiful and atmospheric music. But please let me explain the title.

Messiaen was captured and put in a prisoner of war camp in 1940. Fortuitously three other professional musicians were in the same camp, so he wrote the Quartet for them with him playing piano. Hence the unusual combination of Violin, Clarinet, Cello and Piano. According to Wikipedia, they had to have whip round to buy a cello, and all the other instruments were pretty decrepit. Add to that, the 1st performance was on 15 January 1941 outdoors and it was raining. But Messiaen claimed his music was never listened to by a more receptive audience – of 400 prisoners. I guess the title Quartet for the end of time reflects Messiaen’s rather bleak outlook on the future at that time.

Sadly I don’t own a recording that I can share with you. I can buy the track for 79p on iTunes, but iTunes ‘songs’ are protected so that they can’t be shared. But please have a listen to this youtube track: Liturgie de cristal and suffer any adverts graciously.

I hope you are all well. There’s a downpour due in Eastbourne in under an hour, but then the weather looks to improve so it might be a nice weekend. Until next time.


p.s. You might be interested in this article which Robin found in the Guardian yesterday on how to identify common bird song.




  1. So lovely to hear birds other than the squawking gulls at this time too.

  2. Lovely to hear the birds Nick. We enjoy them in our garden too in the old town part of Eastbourne. If we are lucky we don’t get the overpowering sound of sea gulls, except when we take lunch outside, then they seem to appear from nowhere. Thank you for all the music clips too, I will listen to the Messiaen as I have certainly not heard of it before.
    Keep well,

  3. Lovely recording, Nick. I’d go for a robin as soloist, with backing from woodpigeons, gulls (they do have a wide and sometimes very strange repertoire!) and possibly the alarm call of a blackbird….. But I’m no great expert. At one point the gulls became very vociferous and I wondered whether there was a buzzard about – there often is when they get like that round here, I’ve noticed.
    Coming recently from London, i quite like the gulls squawking, it’s still a bit of a novelty. But am glad I don’t have a flat roof, having experienced the relationship between the two at my daughter’s a few years ago.
    I’ve been interested, talking to a few people, that we all feel as if we’re on a bit of a slump moodwise this week and I’m wondering whether this is just a phase in the whole experience, or whether it is downwards from here on. Better keep up the walks!
    I’m not very familiar at all with Messiaen – I listened to Liturgie de Cristal and it reminded me how good he is at birdsong; you could hear the crystal too – was he relating it to Kristallnacht or would he have been unaware of it at that stage? Looked him up and learned he was an ornithologist as well as a musician, which explains a lot.
    Look after yourselves everyone.

    1. Author

      I think you’re right – definitely not a blackbird, but possibly a robin. Kristallnacht – November 1938 so very possibly Messiaen will have known about it. Best wishes Nick.

  4. The Messiaen is particularly appropriate as it was written for a captive audience.

  5. I don’t know Quartet for the End of Time at all,though I shall now investigate it. My father was also captured (near Dunkirk) and incarcerated in 1940, though he would never talk about it very much.
    But more cheerfully, I think 4 years ago Pierre-Laurent Aimard played the whole of Catalogue d’Oiseaux over 24 hours at the Aldeburgh Festival, where I was doing my usual 8 quid a night at a campsite in Blaxhall (near Snape). I must admit I missed his first “dawn chorus” concert from Snape cafe; in my tent I was woken by the actual dawn chorus and put on R3 live broadcast to enjoy both at the same time. There was then, as I remember, a fairly conventional concert at Snape mid morning, followed by a trip to RSPB Minsmere for a late afternoon open air concert taking us into dusk, and finally,back at Snape, the Britten Studio had been cleared of seating, with just cushions on the floor and the piano in the middle of the room. I found a comfortable cushion and a bit of wall to lean against and the lights dimmed, from dim to almost dark. The brave woman who had been page turning all day came in and sat on her stool, and we waited. Until suddenly Aimard leapt from under the piano and crashed his first massive chord. That final concert was simply stunning,completing an unforgettable midsummer day.

    1. Author

      Lisette, thanks for sharing your lovely memories. I too half-remember seeing a performance of Catalogue d’oiseaux about 45 years ago in Coventry Cathedral. Your Snape experience sounds wonderful, and memorable. Thanks too for the link to the full performance – I recommend it to others. Nick

  6. Thanks for the introduction; I really liked the Messaien (and the photography was very appropriate). There is plenty of bird life here; various tits, sparrows and a robin outside my window facing on to the Railway Land. Being confined to that and the garden (no shops for the vulnerable!), life seems suspended in time. Greyfriars residents can only see each other in the garden and shout across the distance. Look forward to singing again one day…


  7. That was a robin singing so beautifully as you took your breakfast! One Robin serenading another…. The herring gulls came in later on, never wanting to be left out of anything.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the confirmation Liz. Have a nice day. Nick

  8. Thank you, Nick – that was lovely. As I sit here, I can hear a robin, a chaffinch and my hens. My music tutor at college in Yorkshire was Christopher Fox who was also deeply influenced by birdsong. We used to tease him about when we found him lying in the garden at lunchtime – i.e. “Chris, you realise that thrush is singing in Bflat”.

    1. Author

      Canada geese – they are great aren’t they! Were they in formation? I hope you are all well. Are you in touch with the rest of the Alto gang? Nick

  9. Thanks, Nick. Lovely bird song. I seem to have more birds in my little garden recently, including a wren yesterday!

    I love the Messiaen. I remember my son practising the violin part (especially the glissandos, imprinted on my brain) when he was about 18. He’s now 35 and living in Paris. He has had coronavirus and, thankfully, recovered.

    Best wishes to all

  10. Hi Nick, Thank you for the lovely bird song . It is a brilliant time of year to walk on the Downs and hear the sky larks and the buzzards . We are so lucky with the weather . Keep safe everyone . Chris Pickford Second sips.

  11. Great stuff, Nick. Thanks. I can’t record; we had a Blackcap trilling away at the bottom of the garden for a week or so, but he seems to have given up the last few days. Much missed. Two years ago we had him for over a month, when they nested in our loganberry bush.

  12. You may have already seen this, it has been around since before Easter, but my laptop just decided I should see it again, so thought I would share as it still makes me grin 🙂

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