Music of the aviary
“Great works of art do not draw their poetic essence from the things they depict–rather, they make use of those things to conquer the specific poetic essence all their own.”
Reflections on the Art of Music, 1957
The French harpsichord school reached its pinnacle in the first half of the 18th century, as composers published substantial numbers of collections focusing on dance, portraiture, and character pieces. At this time, Aristotle’s guiding principle for the arts–the imitation of nature–had taken on subtle hues, with a focus on subjects such as creating musical portraits of friends or prominent figures, depicting facets of human existence, among them love, and mimicking the noises of everyday life.
The extreme diversity of timbre, tune, and rhythm found in birdsong has always fascinated musicians. Even when the creatures in question are out of sight, their twittering, warbling, and chirping fi ll the air with sweet and pleasant music, both under the morning sun and at nightfall. But their sounds can be difficult to reproduce within our scales and harmonic conventions–apart from, perhaps, the cuckoo’s descending minor third, the hen’s clucking, or the nightingale’s trills.
Beyond the sounds birds made, their colours, shapes, movements, times of appearance, and conjugal “morals” were also observed in times past. Each bird thus acquired a kind of “personality” charged with symbolism and moral instruction. French harpsichordists in this age of gallantry exploited these conventions in composing their avian portraits, focusing primarily on various aspects of love as conveyed by these metaphors from the natural world–indeed unless the pieces were actually portraits of women by analogy.
The turtledove (tourterelle), which forms strong pair bonds, was an emblem of marital fidelity and tenderness, while the cuckoo (coucou), known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests, evoked infidelity. The nightingale (rossignol) symbolized flights of poetic fancy, and its song was an omen of happiness–an ideal symbol of amorous conquest. The linnet (linotte) was a simpleton and rather timid, while the warbler (fauvette) was a protector of nest and home, with a clear and tuneful call in the springtime. The swallow (hirondelle) was another messenger of spring, its song suited to fertility rites. The graceful, white, and gently cooing dove (colombe) represented purity, simplicity, peace, and simultaneously the sublimation of desire and romantic achievement. The lark (alouette), with its swift and high flight, embodied youthful energy, and its joyful song was auspicious. The hen (poule), meanwhile, was seen as “often seized by stupid panic” and running frantically in circles.
These attributes, sonorous and otherwise, served as inspiration for the likes of Couperin, D’Agincour, Daquin, Dornel, Duphly, Dandrieu, and Février in their harpsichord pieces depicting birds, but were no more than starting points for the compositions themselves, which are independent from a musical standpoint. Thus, Rameau could flawlessly mimic the clucking of the “queen of the farmyard” and still transcend mere imitation to produce a soundscape full of tension and angst. With an orchestral texture created by strong block chords in dogged repetition, La Poule (The Hen) far surpasses its models and clearly illustrates the sovereignty of art.
© François Filiatrault, 2020
Translation © Ariadne Lih