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Vocalises of birds – Le Temps

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“Frian frian tr tar tar tu / velici ticun tu tu / qui lara fereli fi fi …”: no, it is not a typing error (nor the result of a chat that would have passed on the keyboard of the ‘computer generating this text): this is how Clément Janequin (1485-1558) transcribed the nightingale’s trills in his Birds song from 1528. Imitating nature (or even surpassing it), this is one of the paths that artists have taken almost since Zeuxis painted, they say, bunches of grapes so realistic as birds (hey, more birds) came to peck them.

In music, it is precisely the feathered animals that often serve as models. The Geneva Chamber Orchestra and the Eklekto Ensemble will give an example this Monday with a thematic concert broadcast live at 8 p.m. on Léman Bleu (excellent idea for the caged canaries that we have become).

Another Messiaen:

“Bird Symphony in Aldeburgh”

On the program: the Symphony No. 83 in G minor, “La Poule” by Haydn; Birds (1928) by Ottorino Respighi – an astonishing avian-style review of 18th century fashions; the energetic A little nothing (1964) by Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Finally – this is the main course: the Exotic birds by Olivier Messiaen.

To say that Messiaen had a taste for birds (even his wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, had a predestined name) is understatement (linnet?). He is often credited with this phrase: “In the artistic hierarchy, birds are the greatest musicians that exist on our planet.” Jabotages and trills populate his rooms: the Exotic birds (1956), the Bird Catalog (1959), Small sketches of birds (1987), but also his opera Saint Francis of Assisi (1983) – we remember that the poverello indeed had the ability to speak to warblers or buntings.


Messiaen transcribed many bird songs. But he is not an imitator. Nature, he goes beyond it, by making aviphonic material the basis of further elaborations. The Exotic birds are a good illustration: in this piece which summons species with more than shimmering names (the Baltimore oriole, the Orpheus bulbul, the golden-fronted verdin …), the vocalizations are extended over tessitages a few times very far from the mouthpiece, and integrated into rhythmic patterns inspired by ancient music from India and Greece. But if the Exotic birds have nothing of an ornithological audio guide, they have everything of a bewitching jungle.

The concert will take place live on Lake Geneva March 22.

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