For many musicians and composers birdsong is the ultimate musical composition - yet is it music: Birds use variations of rhythm, relationships of musical pitch, and combinations of notes that resembles music, but without fixed musical intervals, as on a scale, there is a chaotic randomness to their singing.
Carl Nielsen wrote ... "The intervals, as I see it, are the elements which first arouse a deeper interest in music ... [I]t is intervals which surprise and delight us anew every time we hear the cuckoo in spring. Its appeal would be less if its call were all on one note."
... It is sweet on awaking in the early morn to listen to the small bird singing on the tree. No sound of voice or flute is like to the bird.
Hours of Spring: Jefferies.
Olivier Messiaen, described birds as “God’s greatest musicians” ... ‘In my hours of gloom ... when I am suddenly aware of my own futility - what is left for me but to seek out the true, lost face of music somewhere in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains or on the seashore, among the birds.’
Beatific in its own right birdsong ‘springs the catch of memory’ - dandelion clocks hanging in the air - catching the sun ... [a] timeless immersion within a ‘spirit of place’: black swift screaming jet-like across a cloudless blue sky, the afterburn of their passing an echo in the still air - a fine fresh spring morning; the gentle purr of Turtle Dove from a nearby copse - lazy hazy summer afternoons; the ever present song of Yellowhammer, singing when all others have ceased - the hayfield in the early evening.
I have other memories: The silvery descant of the first Willow Warbler and the joyful vibrant trilling tremolo of the Wood Warbler - in an early spring beechwood; the transcendent song of the Woodlark - more beautiful and harmonic to my mind than the Skylark - on the hillside of a wooded valley; our very own garden flautist - the Blackbird - from the Maple shadowing the barn; the echoing voice-throwing call of the Cuckoo - from across the fields; the somewhat mournful cello-like melodic notes of a Nightingale at dimpsey; and the Mistle Thrush from the Churchyard Yew - the piper at the gates of dawn.
Above all, the song of birds ... the setting, performance, variety, and musical quality, awakens in us something from way before long ago - a memory of who we once were.
From earliest times we have sought to emulate birdsong with our own music ... a way of deliberately conjuring up a mood or a location - [that] timeless immersion within a ‘spirit of place’ - an expression of our deep desire to extend and perpetuate their performance ... to experience the pure joy and freedom evident in the birds own ‘joy of singing’ Rothenberg.
Who can fail to be moved by Ralph Vaughan Williams's 1914 The Lark Ascending, which begins with "A silvery solo violin line flutters and darts, reaching up ever higher above the orchestra's hushed, held chord. There's no other opening quite like it for instant atmosphere".
He originally composed it in 1914 for violin and piano. It premiered in 1920, the same year the composer re-scored it for solo violin and orchestra. This version, now the more often performed of the two, premiered in 1921. The piece is one of the most popular in the Classical repertoire among British listeners.
He was inspired by the poem of the same name by the Victorian Poet, George Meredith who pictures the skylark’s song as a jet of water soaring ‘With fountain ardor, fountain play’, this carefree—spilling—overflow as if the bird’s song in its pure liquidity dissolves all the dry distinctions of joy and light, the listener and the singer, in an aural alchemy.
And who doesn’t know the opening to Beethoven’s 5th ... inspired it is said, by the song of the Yellowhammer. Or his Pastoral Symphony - of which he said ‘The yellowhammers up there, the quails, nightingales and cuckoos around about, composed with me.’
Among twentieth-century composers, Olivier Messiaen used birdsong extensively. His Catalogue d'oiseaux is a seven-book set of solo piano pieces based on birdsong. Messiaen laboured in all humility to transcribe birdsong as accurately as he could, and then recreate it in terms that emphasise its strangeness, its wildness, and its beauty. His orchestral piece Réveil des Oiseaux is composed almost entirely of birdsong. Many of his other compositions, including Quatuor pour la fin du temps, similarly integrate birdsong.
Carl Nielsen used representations of bird calls in Song of the Siskin, a rarely imitated bird, The First Lark, and Springtime on Fyn, though much of the effect of birds on his work appears in his orchestral colours and time-patterns.
The composer himself wrote "The intervals, as I see it, are the elements which first arouse a deeper interest in music ... [I]t is intervals which surprise and delight us anew every time we hear the cuckoo in spring. Its appeal would be less if its call were all on one note."
Why imitate birds in music when you can use the real thing? Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus (1972) - ‘Concerto for Birds and Orchestra', as it's subtitled, uses taped birdsong throughout. The Finnish composer headed off on a field trip to near the Arctic Circle (hence the title) and to the marshlands of Liminka in Northern Finland to record the calls of a whole host of birds. Listening to is like stepping into an avian paradise, with the melancholy song of the shore larks as unforgettable as the migrating whooper swans. The bird calls are juxtaposed with a lush orchestral score.
In the 1960s and 1970s, rock bands started to use sound effects including birdsong in their albums. The English band Pink Floyd included bird sound effects in songs from their 1969 albums More and Ummagumma (for example, "Grantchester Meadows"). Similarly, the English singer Kate Bush used bird calls on her 2005 album, Aerial. Kevin Kendle also featured birdsong on many of his albums - Water Music (2007) and Summer (2011) - for example.
More recently, Dan Haywood, who is a keen ornithologist, included recordings of birdsong on a number of tracks on Dapple (2013), his delicate and brief new album. This isn’t merely birdsong as a pleasant background hum, a lazy invocation of season or place. Haywood’s birds are instruments in themselves, given a billing equal to that of his guitar.
The most important aspect of this record – the thing that gives it its unique air of wisdom and slight uncanniness – is its deep and symbiotic relationship with nature and place - recorded in the Forest of Bowland - Jefferies’ timeless immersion within a ‘spirit of place’. Indeed, Jefferies’ technique of total immersion in the natural world is one that seems to be shared by Haywood, and the results are similarly transcendent.
Birds in Music Playlist
Click on the ‘cloud’ download link to the right of the track-listing ‘Birds in Music’ to view my playlist on Spotify. Or click on any track listing to hear the song of an individual bird.
The core content of this post, heavily edited and substantially revised, has been sourced from Wikipedia and the newspaper archives of the Guardian and Telegraph. Quoted references are cited in-line, except the two phrases - ‘springs the catch of memory’ and ‘the hayfield in the early evening’ - which were originally written in an essay called Character in Birdsong (1952-3) by Peter Adams and published by his daughter Jane Adams in her blog - used here within the terms of her stated use of copyright.
Another post in my series of short biographies about artists and writers inspired by Nature and the Countryside - Artists Inspired by Nature
Basil Ede (1931 - 2016), was a British artist specialising in birds and noted for the ornithological precision of his paintings. He was widely regarded as one of the worlds great wildlife artists but probably best known here for his popular first book 'Birds of Town and Village' published by Country Life Books in 1965.