BIRDS IN MUSIC – a walk with Janequin, Stravinsky and Messiaen

Throughout history composers have found in birds the music they wished to create. It is impressive the amount of birds you can indentify in so different periods, including even the most extreme contemporary ones! 

On last Wednesday (March 14) I gave the lecture “Birds in Music – a walk with Janequin, Stravinsky and Messiaen” at the Oviedo Higher Conservatory of Music, Spain, and in this lecture I outlined the way birds appear in music. I could identify three main strategies.

The names I gave to these three main strategies are: Imitative / Expressive / Constructive.

The imitative strategy is, for example, a kind of onomatopoeias. Onomatopoeias are culturally defined, and a nightingale can vary a lot from culture to culture. Janequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaux exemplified this strategy. In this work you clearly listen to the way Janequin shapes himself in a nightingale (instead of a nightingale in Janequin). 

The Nightingale, composed by Stravinsky, exemplifies the expressive strategy. The opening of “The Song of the Nightingale” does not imitate a nightingale. It is the nightingale expression, connected with repeated figures and some particular ornaments that are preserved to create a melody. Definitely this is not a nightingale but the expression of Stravinsky that is inserted in an imaginary nightingale.

The constructive strategy takes some structural aspects of a bird’s song and transfers it to music. “La Rousserolle effarvatte”, a piece form the Calalogue d’Oiseaux of Messiaen exemplifies this strategy. When a bird song includes microtonal intervals, you can stretch all intervals (like a chewing gum) to match its smallest interval with a semitone. You can do the same with rhythms. You can separate the main bird song and the ornaments to compose different sound layers, or to create some variation strategies, expanding and developing them, or you can put together different musical segments following a bird “syntax”. Also, I have used bird songs to create musical textures (in my work Fragmentation, for instance). 

The lecture concluded with the great performance of Jose Antonio Mazaira (clarinet), who played the Abîme des Oiseaux (Abyss of birds), by Messiaen. His brilliant performance kindly closed this nice evening on music, birds and fruitful ideas!

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