In an elegant period room with a huge chandelier suspended from the ceiling and a large grand piano standing in the back, bird cages of all shapes and sizes are scattered around the space. The air is filled with the loud twittering and chirping of all kinds of coloured songbirds: parrots, canaries, parakeets and finches. The sun casts mathematical shadow patterns on the floor. An atmosphere of idyllic calm pervades the room. Then, a pianist enters, bows to his audience of birds, sits behind the piano and starts playing Franz Liszt’s Saint Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. As the legend goes, Saint Francis gave a sermon before a flock of birds that he came across in a field, a scene pictured many times in art history, notably by Giotto. Liszt provided sound for the scene as an imitation of the birdsong, with chains of trills and tremolos until Saint Francis himself begins to preach to them, while the birds silence their singing and listen to his words. This blending of music, legend and birdsong results in a sonorous hybrid, which is as moving as it is profound. The simplicity of the birdsong accentuates the ethereal complexity of Liszt’s music. Gramsci, who described Saint Francis as “a comet in the catholic firmament” was no doubt impressed by his
humanity and humility, which echoes in the music. The cheerful chatter of the birds, the whirling sounds of the piano and the sheer power of artistic creativity in all its forms to soar above human flaws and banality, all constitute optimism in symbolic form.