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Songs of Wild Birds

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How better to start this post than with a quote from the writings of Richard Jefferies:

The fervour of the sunbeams descending in a tidal flood rings on the strung harp of earth. It is this exquisite undertone, heard and yet unheard, which brings the mind into sweet accordance with the wonderful instrument of nature.—' The Life of the Fields': The Pageant of Summer.


A mono recording of a Friday morning dawn chorus, 5 a.m. Downloaded from under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (Credit:Nebulousflynn)


Here is a Field recording of British countryside in peak summer time. Recording taken near Allendale Common in Northern England using a Marantz flash recorder and a Rode NT1A microphone. The recording has been edited extensively from the original. Downloaded from under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (Credit:bulz)

I associate grassland sounds with the days of my childhood. I remember sitting or lying in the grass with a blade of grass in my mouth, basking in the sunshine, and looking at the birds flying by - getting lost in the magic summer meadow sounds – sounds of chirping birds, chirring grasshoppers, and buzzing bees. Now these sounds awake in my mind memories about that past carefree happy-go-lucky days of my childhood, days I’ll never forget.


And to end a perfect day:

Cuckoo & Nightingale singing in the early hours of twilight...
You can hear other bird sounds in the background, other nightingales as well as thrushes & crows. May 2010.

Downloaded from under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (Credit:Vonora)

The above recordings of birdsong played individually are mini soundscapes in their own right. Uniquely, played together - a cacophony of sound - to some perhaps almost orchestral. I am afraid tone deaf.

There were two masters of the recording and interpretation of birdsong in the 20th Century both seminal in their production, in different ways, of the soundscape of birdsong in the countryside: Ludwig Koch and Olivier Messiaen.

The work of Ludwig Koch (1881-1974) is remarkable in that it represents a pioneering attempt to document the natural sound world using recording technology.

During his lifetime, Koch devoted himself to collecting the sound phenomena he heard in the world around him. When he arrived in England in 1936, Koch began to travel all over the British Isles, capturing birdsong and the sounds of natural environments on wax discs before transferring these to shellac. This was a long and laborious process, often requiring hours or even days of observation of a particular bird before beginning to record its voice.

Koch’s first British recordings were published as Songs of Wild Birds in 1936, in partnership with the ornithologist E.M. Nicholson. This was followed by More Songs of Wild Birds in 1937. These unique collections combine textual descriptions of the songs and habitats of a variety of species, illustrations of the birds themselves and excerpts of their recorded songs and calls. Koch described Songs of Wild Birds as ‘the first sound-book of British birdsong’ – an early multimedia document that combines text, image and audio.

wild birds
captured on vinyl
sing indoors

What is remarkable about Koch’s recordings of birdsong is how skilfully he manages to isolate the songster within the recording, yet still captures elements of its surrounding environment - rather like a soloist performing to the backdrop of an orchestral accompaniment. This provides the listener with a clear sense of the habitat in which the featured bird lives: in other words, the recording presents a particular ‘soundscape’.

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Birdsong fascinated Messiaen (1908 – 1992) a French composer, organist, and ornithologist, one of the major composers of the 20th century. His innovative use of colour, his conception of the relationship between time and music, and his use of birdsong are among the features that make Messiaen's music distinctive.

An early work - 1952 - was the piece Le merle noir for flute and piano; the flute piece based entirely on the song of the blackbird.

In his later works his evocations of birdsong become increasingly sophisticated, and with Le réveil des oiseaux reached maturity, the whole piece being built from birdsong: in effect it is a dawn chorus for orchestra.

The pieces are not simple transcriptions; even the works with purely bird-inspired titles, such as Catalogue d'oiseaux and Fauvette des jardins, are tone poems evoking the landscape, its colours and atmosphere.

Messiaen’s birdsong pieces are like musical pictures: designed to document a particular scene almost as faithfully as the sound recordings from which they take their inspiration.

The songs of several birds that feature in Koch’s recordings subsequently found their way into Messiaen’s compositions, as the latter turned to the notations he had made as a source of musical material. For instance, in the final piece of the great piano cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux of 1956-1958, entitled 'Le Courlis cendré', we can hear a direct 'quotation' of the curlew’s call that features on More Songs of Wild Birds:

Le Courlis Cendré (extract)
Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen: piano & organ music (2008). Decca 478 0353, British Library shelfmark 1SS0006222

Curlew calls recorded by Ludwig Koch (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Paul Griffiths, a British music critic, novelist and librettist, observed that Messiaen was a more conscientious ornithologist than any previous composer, and a more musical observer of birdsong than any previous ornithologist.

I started this post with a quote from Richard Jefferies; it seems fitting to end it with a poem by John Clare that other great Naturalist and observer of nature:

Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove,
And list the nightingale - she dwells just here.
Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love ;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year -
At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day,
As though she lived on song. This very spot,
Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way -
And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails -
There have I hunted like a very boy,
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn
To find her nest, and see her feed her young.
And vainly did I many hours employ :
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down,
And watched her while she sung ; and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,
And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy,
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part
Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ ;
But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred,
All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain :
The timid bird had left the hazel bush,
And at a distance hid to sing again.
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves,
Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain,
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs ;
For while of half the year Care him bereaves,
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast ;
The nightingale to summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs,
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide -
Hark! there she is as usual - let’s be hush -
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way,
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs,
For we will have another search to day,
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ;
And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows,
We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook :
In such like spots, and often on the ground,
They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look -
Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here,
Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about
For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by -
Nay, trample on its branches and get near.
How subtle is the bird ! she started out,
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh,
Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near
Her nest, she sudden stops - as choking fear,
That might betray her home. So even now
We’ll leave it as we found it : safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard
Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall
Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives.
We will not plunder music of its dower,
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall ;
For melody seems hid in every flower,
That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all
Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ;
And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves,
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest ; no other bird
Uses such loose materials, or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves
Are placed without, and velvet moss within,
And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair ;
For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win.
Yet Nature is the builder, and contrives
Homes for her children’s comfort, even here ;
Where Solitude’s disciples spend their lives
Unseen, save when a wanderer passes near
That loves such pleasant places. Deep adown,
The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lie her curious eggs in number five,
Of deadened green, or rather olive brown ;
And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well.
So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong,
As the old woodland’s legacy of song.

The Nightingales Nest by John Clare

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Sorry but I cant resist a postscript - taken from Richard Jefferies 'A Story of My Heart' which has provided me with so much personal solace and inspiration.

There is a hill to which I used to resort ... The labour of walking three miles to it, all the while gradually ascending, seemed to clear my blood of the heaviness accumulated at home. On a warm summer day the slow continued rise required continual effort, which carried away the sense of oppression. The familiar everyday scene was soon out of sight; I came to other trees, meadows, and fields; I began to breathe a new air and to have a fresher aspiration...

Moving up the sweet short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant here. By the time I had reached the summit I had entirely forgotten the petty circumstances and the annoyances of existence. I felt myself, myself

The Story of my Heart, by Richard Jefferies, 1883.

The broadcast of Julian Anderson's orchestral composition "Harmony" inspired by The Story of My Heart can be heard below.  It was played on the first night of the proms in 2013 and is about 9 minutes long.

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Harmony sets some lines concerning nature and time by the nineteenth-century mystical writer Richard Jefferies. Whilst walking in the Wiltshire countryside near a prehistoric monmument, Jefferies had a moment of revelation in which time appeared to stand still and he felt he had entered eternity. This moment was later written up as his strange autobiographical book The Story of my Heart (1883). Harmony’s text is drawn from this volume. The work emerges very quietly and has only a few brief moments where the full strength of choir and orchestra are revealed – analogous, perhaps, to the brief intensity of Jefferies’ revelation. To give a feeling of timelessness, the harmony of the music moves very slowly and gradually throughout, despite some very fast foreground figuration and a few passages of more vigorous rhythmic activity. For the same reason, a short duration requested was appropriate for this work: a flash of revelation can only be reflected in either a very brief but intense musical statement, or else in a very long one. Moderation is not an option when dealing with eternity. When we listen to music together in a concert, our normal sense of everyday, clock time is suspended and we enter the time of the music itself. So in writing a work such as Harmony, which celebrates eternity and timelessness, however briefly, in effect one is celebrating one of the special marvels of concert giving and of music itself.

Credit: The Richard Jefferies Society

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Clare Pooley
Clare Pooley

Another beautifully crafted post, Clive. I love all the recordings!


I have only once heard a nightingale – for several evenings running two years ago. By the time I had realised what I was listening to the bird had moved on. Listening to the recording in your post confirms what I had heard. Hopefully we will have another visit next year.

Martin Smith

What a great post!! Sorry I missed it

Joen Elmbak
Joen Elmbak

A good little read, which made me even more interested in aspects of Messiaen’s Catalogue … Thank you from Copenhagen.


Clive, something’s gone wrong with my link to you so I’m going to unsubscribe you, leave it for a day or two and re-subscibe!

Martin Smith

Love the messiaen piece after I was introduced to it by a girlfriend i just started seeing. We walked in my Wood, and she is a composer