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Le Rappel des Oiseaux
Luc Beauséjour (harpsichord)
rec. 2019, L’Église St-Augustin-de-Mirabel, Quebec, Canada
ANALEKTA AN28797 [56:46]

This enterprising and enjoyable disc takes its title from the first piece in its programme, Le Rappel des oiseaux by Rameau. ‘Rappel’ can be translated variously in English – ‘reminder’ and ‘recall’ being the candidates found most frequently in the dictionaries I have been able to consult (it can also mean an encore or a bugle-call!). It is not, therefore, a word which necessarily involves imitation; its sense is nearer to ‘evocation’, an action (here music) which prompts the listener to remember his/her own experience(s) of the birds concerned.

A moment’s reflection makes one realise that a great many musical works have presented such ‘reminders’ of birds. To mention just some of the more obvious examples that come quickly to mind – one thinks of the nightingales, the quail and the cuckoo in Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, of at least two Haydn Quartets, op.33. no. 3 (‘The Bird’) and op.64, no. 5 (‘The Lark’), of Boccherini’s splendid String Quintet in D major, op.11, no. 6: L’Uccellaria’ (The Aviary) with its choir of exotic birds, or of Ravel’s ‘Oiseaux triste’. There are also, of course, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela, the various birds in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Warlock’s The Curlew, or Peter Sculthorpe’s Mangrove. There are many more examples; perhaps someone with a lot of time on their hands might like to compile a more exhaustive list. (And I haven’t even mentioned works, like Respighi’s Gli uccelli or Rautavaara’s Cantus Arctus which incorporate actual recordings of birdsong).

Birds have, in short, attracted the attention and interest of composers in many counties across several centuries. But perhaps it is in French music that such an interest has been especially prominent, beginning (so far as we know) with Par maintes foy by Jehan Vaillant (active c. 1375), through the chanson Le chant des oiseaux by Clément Janequin (1485-1558) all the way to Messiaen, in many of his works, not least Le merle noir (1950), Le réveil des oiseaux (1953), Oiseaux exotiques (1956) and Catalogue des oiseaux (1959).

The fine québecois harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour has assembled and recorded a collection of bird-related pieces from one of the high watermarks of French music, compositions for harpsichord written during the French baroque. The result is a musical aviary which includes, inter alia, the turtledove, the linnet, the warbler, the swallow, the nightingale, the lark and the hen. Luc Beauséjour plays a harpsichord of 1981 made by another québecois Yves Beaupré in, we are told, “the style of Vaudry”. This refers, presumably, to Jean-Antoine Vaudry. The CD booklet also tells us, quite appropriately, that “this harpsichord is feathered with feathers of Canada geese”.

Rameau’s Le Rappel des oiseaux was published in 1724, in the composer’s Pièces de Clavecin avec une méthode pour la mécanique des doigts, being the fifth piece (and the first ‘genre’ piece) in the Suite in E contained in that publication. It might almost be described as a toccata, given its rapid brilliance and its virtuosic demands. It ‘imitates’ the twittering of two agitated birds. Rameau’s writing is built around a repeated fourth in the right hand, which is varied as the piece proceeds and which provokes a response in the left hand on the E minor third. There are some relatively tense moments – these birds feel threatened, it appears. There is perhaps something ‘theatrical’, or at any rate dramatic, about Rameau’s music – this is no idyllic country scene. It is revealing (and pertinent) that Robin Freeman (‘Courtesy towards the Things of Nature: Interpretations of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux’, Tempo, New Series, 192, 1995, pp.9-14) should write of “the daimonic element in Le Rappel des oiseaux” and discuss its influence on Messiaen (p.14).

So far as I can tell, Rameau’s Rappel doesn’t present birds of a specific species, but many of the following pieces on the disc name the species the composer has in mind. Many are more concerned with the behaviour (actual or presumed) than the song of that species. In a kind of hangover from the medieval bestiaries, most birds, in the artistic imagination at least, retained a kind of emblematic moral significance. Thus, for example, both Antoine Dornel (Les Tourterelles) and Pierre Février (Les Tendres Tourterelles) seem to ‘represent’ the turtle-dove in terms of its symbolic role as a bird of marital fidelity, and of wider peace and tenderness. This symbolic view of the birds was very much at odds with reality: turtledoves “are by no means the peaceful birds they are popularly supposed to be – fierce, bloody and stubborn conflicts often occur during the breeding season” (Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls: A Guide to Bird Symbolism, 1978, quoting Birds of America, ed. G. Pearson et al., 1917). In Dornel’s piece (published in his Pièces de Clavecin of 1731, a collection which shows quite an indebtedness to Rameau), there is a certain impishness which suggests that Dornel may have known that the birds were not all that the symbolic tradition said they were! Février’s more languorous Les Tendres Tourterelles accepts more simply, as its title suggests, what the Christian symbolic tradition said of the turtledoves, “the dove was the Holy Spirit, Christ, the Church” and its “wings were the wings of contemplation” (Rowlands, Birds with Human Souls).

Antoine Dornel’s Le Chant de l’Alloüette captures more than a little of the brightness of the lark’s song but doesn’t seek (unlike Vaughan Williams) to represent much of the bird’s soaring flight. It may well be, indeed, that Dornel was primarily familiar with the lark as a caged bird, songbirds were frequently kept as pets in France (see Julia Breittruck, ‘Pet Birds. Cages and Practices of Domestication in Eighteenth-Century Paris’, InterDisciplines, 3 (1), 2012, pp.1-48). Dornel’s Le Petit Ramage mimics the insistent rhythm of the warbler’s song but doesn’t do justice to that song’s melody. The ‘Ramage’ reappears in Dandrieu’s Le Concert des Oiseaux, where its song is eloquently evoked in the opening of this tripartite piece. The second and third sections – ‘Les Amours’ and ‘L’Hyme’ presumably narrate the courtship and ‘marriage’ of a pair of warblers (here, of course, there is no attempt at any kind of representation of the birds – they have become emblems of human relationships). Dandrieu’s writing has an attractive and lucid delicacy and Beuaséjour is at his considerable best in the performance of this interesting piece.
Couperin Le Grand is represented by six pieces: Le Rossignole-en-amour, La Linote – éfarouchée, Les Fauvétes Plaintives, Le Rossignole-Vainqueur, Les Coucous Bénévoles and Le Gazoüillement. It would, I think, be fair to say that Couperin wasn’t very interested in birds for their own sake, but rather in how, musically speaking, he could use them to say things about human activities, characteristics and emotions. Messiaen’s observation on one of Couperin’s bird pieces, Le Rossignole-en-amour (The Nightingale in Love) was “I think that Couperin, given what he wrote, never heard a nightingale, but this takes away nothing from the charm of the piece”. The statement has a wider truth. Couperin doesn’t imitate the bird’s famous song, but perhaps ‘records’ the ecstatic experience so many poets have written of in hearing the nightingale. So, too, La Linote – éfarouchée (The frightened Linnet), draws on the traditional reputation of the linnet as a particularly shy and timid bird, but in listening to the music itself, it seems to speak of human fear and anxiety, perhaps social anxiety or lack of confidence in particular. Likewise Les Fauvétes Plaintives (The plaintive Warblers) is more concerned with unhappiness and the expression thereof, than with warblers as such. It is a lovely piece, poignantly melancholy, but I’m not sure that Couperin needed to hear une fauvette to be able to write it. Le Rossignole-Vainqueur presents a slightly more complex case. What is a conquering nightingale? It may be a successful lover, one, that is, who has seduced his lady. In a number of medieval works of literature – including some French examples – the expression “listening to the nightingale” was used as a euphemism for love-making. In French slang, even as late as the Nineteenth Century, the word rossignol was a term for the male sex organ. Le Rossignole-Vainqueur is certainly very different in tempo and mood from Le Rossignole-en-amour. The two pieces seem to ‘represent’ not so much two different nightingales, as a lover lamenting the unattainability of the woman he loves and then (in terms of the sequence of the pieces on this disc) effectively celebrating their sexual union. Les Coucous Bénévoles is another interesting title. In what sense can cuckoos be seen as benevolent? Again, we need to think in human, rather than ornithological, terms. In both English (cuckold) and French (cocu) there are nouns which designate a husband whose wife has one or more lover, both nouns being derived from the name of the bird. I think we might reasonably understand Couperin’s title (Les Coucous Bénévoles) as a phrase more or less synonymous with ‘un mari complaisant’ – a cuckolded husband who tolerates (perhaps in pursuit of social advancement) his wife’s adulteries – such characters are by no means unknown in the stage comedies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indeed, in recognition of this character type, the term “contented cuckold” now occurs quite frequently in academic discussions of the comic drama of this period. Once again, Couperin’s composition, though it alludes to the cuckoo’s reputation, only does so as a means to comment on human society. Le Gazoüillement means, I think, ‘The Twittering’ and as such the piece carries a more obvious indication of an avian reference. The piece might, certainly, be heard as representing the twittering of various birds. But it might also be recognized as an account of the almost meaningless chattering which goes on in many human conversations.
Many of these ‘reminders’ of the birds, I would suggest, might be understood as being as much (or more) about human behaviour, than about peculiarly avian behaviour. The way in which mankind has, for centuries, found in animals and birds metaphors for his/her own behaviour, ensures that only the most literally onomatopoeic music can ever be just about birds.

The work of Rameau begins the programme of music on this disc, with his Le Rappel des oiseaux. It also provides its close with his piece La Poule. Whereas Le Rappel was relatively general, neither naming nor ‘imitating’ any readily identifiable species, La Poule (The Hen) is unmistakably specific, very exact in its representation. It is striking that when the piece was first published, in his Nouvelles suites de Pièces de clavecin (1729/1730?) there should appear, underneath the repeated notes which open it, the syllables “co co co co co co co dai”, so that there should be no misunderstanding. The insistently repetitive clucking of the hen is the dominant feature of this relatively substantial (usually five minutes or more in performance) ‘character’ piece. Luc Beauséjour maintains the necessary energy throughout and brings out clearly the ways in which Rameau varies this insistent pattern. His interpretation also has, at times, a degree of dignity one would not expect in a piece designed only to represent a foolish and fussy hen. This element of dignity, at times approaching a kind of grandeur, I take to be a recognition of what I would call the mock-heroic or parodic dimension of the piece (readers of Chaucer might think of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale and its hen, Pertelote). Rameau’s hen, a limited mother given to panic, but seeking to protect her brood, is a kind of parodic version of a tragic heroine. (I don’t currently have access to Cuthbert Girdlestone’s biography of Rameau – libraries in Wales still being in virus-related lockdown, but I think I remember correctly that he saw in La Poule something of Racinian tragedy). Rameau in the age of dramatists such as Racine and Corneille, seems to see even grand tragedy as something we share with ‘lesser’ species, rather than something which puts us above them.

So, this anthology offers far more than just aural postcards of a variety of birds. It makes us think about birds as a means of reflecting on our own humanity. As such, the disc is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Luc Beauséjour meets all the often-considerable technical demands of this music and his interpretations are sensitive and intelligent, his colouring of effects vivid and effective. One might, I suppose, find slightly more successful readings of some of these individual pieces (as, for example, in Christophe Rousset’s recordings of Couperin), but such differences are slight and debatable. In any case, listening, to these rappels des oiseaux side-by-side brings out their meanings in particularly effective fashion.

Glyn Pursglove
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Le Rappel des oiseaux [3:09]
François D’Agincour (1684-1758)
Les Tourterelles [5:48]
Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694-1772)
Le Coucou [2:12]
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Le Rossignole-en-amour [5:40]
La Linote – éfarouchée [2:02]
Les Fauvétes Plaintives [4:28]
Le Rossignole-Vainqueur [2:04]
Antoine DORNEL (1685-1765)
Les Tourterelles [2:29]
Louis-Claude DAQUIN
L’Hirondelle [3:08]
Jacques DUPHLY (1715-1789)
Les Colombes [4:43]
La Fauvette [2:08]
Les Coucous Bénévoles [0:25]
Antoine DORNEL
Le Chant de l’Alloüette [1:08]
Le Petit Ramage [1:58]
Jean-François DANDRIEU (1682-1738)
Le Concert des Oiseaux [1:29]
Le Gazoüillement [2:17]
Pierre FÉVRIER (1686-1760)
Les Tendres Tourterelles [5:31]
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU
La Poule [4:58]

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