This is #2 in a series of SongNotes about some French music that we love. Click here to read about the first one, a hymn.
by Naomi Bird (originally published via email on 4/13/19)
Today we are featuring the French art song Le Colibri. While last week’s French hymn was more based on the history of the text, today’s is thoroughly musically and poetically French.
The text is by Charles-Marie Rene’ Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894). He is considered to be the foremost French poet apart from Victor Hugo. Born on an island in the Indian Ocean, de Lisle eventually made his home in Paris.
The composer, Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) was a Paris native and studied at the Paris Conservetoire alongside the influences of Jules Massanet, Cesar Franck, and Claude Debussy.
The poem and the music are each in a style that is expressively juicy and subtly suggestive. This is thanks to its influences from both 19th century Romanticism and the newly emerging Symbolism.
As such, a poem like this can be interpreted on several levels. I am taking the educational route of exploring the subject’s basic physical science. Instead of references about the birds and bees, it will just be about the birds. Specifically – hummingbirds.
Le Colibri means “the hummingbird.”
As I researched the bird and studied the text I saw some parallel themes that enhance the appreciation of the poetry.
STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL APPEARANCE
“The hummingbird, the green prince of the heights”
Hummingbirds live in a world of colors that we cannot even see because their vision reaches toward the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. During courtship rituals, the males of some species orient themselves according to the sun so that the light accentuates their colors for the females to see. As such, the “green prince” can, with a shift in light, become red in hue.
“..nest of fine, woven grass,”…“Where the waves of bamboo rustle and bend”
Found exclusively in the Americas, hummingbirds make their homes in lands extending from southern Alaska down to the Tierra del Fuego islands off the southernmost tip of South America.
“Shoots up in the air like a gleaming dart”…Hurriedly he flies”
Hurriedly indeed. Male hummingbirds do a ritual called a courtship dive. In this maneuver, they ascend over a hundred feet into the air above the female and then show off by diving down toward her at a rate of 50-60 miles per hour, experiencing about 10 g of gravitational force. This is comparable to a fighter jet pilot making a sudden turn and nearly losing consciousness!
“Down to the flower he flies…and from the rosy cup drinks…”
It is common to associate hummingbirds with red-liquid-filled feeders and brightly colored flowers. In actuality, they consume nectar from many different flowers, and it seems that location and quality are more important factors than color. While they require insects, aphids, and spiders for nutrition, it is sweet nectar that is their primary fuel.
EXPRESSION OF VOCAL LEARNING
A poem by definition is both speech and song. It is words. It is rhythm. It is language and communication.
Humans are the only species that can freely create original language to communicate about life. But did you know there are seven other species that possess “vocal learning” – the special ability to acquire new sounds heard in their environment? One of these species is the hummingbird.
Unlike the limited “vocabulary” of a dog’s bark or a crow’s caw, the hummingbird can acquire unique sounds that reflect its vocal peers and may communicate with other birds.
How fitting. A vocal Bird communicating about vocal learning birds who communicate with other vocal birds.
You’re welcome. 🙂
Here is a video of us rehearsing Le Colibri. The audio is pretty rough, but it’s real life, clingy two-year-old and all.
words by Leconte de Lisle
music by Chausson
The green humming bird, king of the hills,
Seeing the dew and the bright sun
Glitter on his nest, woven of fine grasses,
Like a light breeze escapes into the air.
He hurries and flies to the nearby springs,
Where the reeds make the sound of the sea,
Where the red hibiscus, with its heavenly scent,
Unfolds and brings a humid light to the heart.
Towards the golden flower he descends, alights,
And drinks so much love from the rosy cup
That he dies, not knowing if he could have drained it!
On our pure lips, oh my beloved,
My soul likewise would have wanted to die
Of the first kiss, which has purfumed it.
English translation by Edith Braun
Click here to see the source that I referenced in this article. (c) Peter Low, used with permission from the LiederNet Archive
This is one of the last of our weekly songs that we will be sharing openly online. Sad.
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