John Casken: Appollinaire's Bird

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In 1914 the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire signed up as a soldier in the French army, and was seriously wounded in 1916. He recovered, only to die in the Spanish influenza outbreak just days before the armistice of 1918.

Apollinaire’s Bird takes 'Un oiseau chante' ('A bird sings'), one of the poems he wrote while fighting in the trenches, as its basis. This remarkable poem contrasts the realities of war with hearing a single bird singing ‘somewhere among these two-a-penny troops. … Sing on and on your sweet song to the sound of deadly guns.’

Apollinaire’s Bird was written for the Hallé and its Principal Oboist Stéphane Rancourt.

 

Programme note by John Casken

The French poet, novelist and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire was also an art critic, a friend of Picasso and Braque, among others, and a pioneer in explaining and defending the new aesthetic of Cubism. It was Apollinaire who helped to coin the term Surrealism, and his involvement with the Futurists and with Dadaism make him a significant figure in the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century. In 1914 he signed up as a soldier in the French army and was seriously wounded in 1916. He recovered, only to die in the Spanish influenza outbreak just days before the armistice of 1918.

Apollinaire’s poetry has a special quality of bringing the strange and the ordinary together, sometimes in what might almost be described as a surrealist way. Apollinaire’s Bird takes Un oiseau chante (A bird sings), one of the poems he wrote while fighting in the trenches in the First World War, as its basis. This remarkable poem contrasts the realities of war with hearing a single bird singing ‘somewhere among these two-a-penny troops. … Sing on and on your sweet song to the sound of deadly guns.’ But the bird’s song also recalls former times for the young soldier, and for all the soldiers it is a reminder of love, and of lovers left behind. At the same time, Apollinaire also marvelled at the spectacle of war (as in Merveille de la guerre) and relished the comradeship, as well as looking on in horror as the earth swallowed up his fellow men.

As a poem that would inform a concerto for oboe and orchestra, Un oiseau chante seemed the perfect starting point for a work to be premiered in the year of the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. The solo oboe sings the song of the bird, heard at the very start of the concerto, and this recurs throughout. The oboe is also the single voice that transports the mind of the soldier beyond the grim situation of the trenches to create different flights of fancy, songs of hope and despair, dramatic exchanges, and emotional extremes. To begin, the orchestra evokes the blackness of the landscape with searing high notes that cut through the texture, but, in dialogue with the oboe, it too draws us elsewhere, away from this world, a world that is never far away.

The concerto is in two movements. The first movement establishes the sense of place and opens up the relationship between the soloist and the surrounding ‘landscape’. The second, longer movement consists of three parts that play without a break: headings that convey something of the mood in relation to the original poem, two of them using lines taken from the poem itself.

There are seven eruptive tuttis for full orchestra without oboe during the whole work, the sixth being the longest and the seventh the shortest. As well as recurrences of the bird’s song-motif, and allusions to it in both movements, another key idea is that of falling or sinking lines and harmonies, which may suggest literally falling, falling into a dream, or reality receding.

Apollinaire’s Bird was written at the invitation of the Hallé for its Principal Oboist Stéphane Rancourt. I have dedicated the work to the orchestra’s Chief Executive, John Summers, who has been a constant believer in my music over many years, and who has created invaluable opportunities for me to work with musicians of the highest calibre.