In the past few weeks spring has come to these northern wilds. We had a week of blazing sunshine that soaked up the mountains of snow, and then a few days of spring rain to coax the May flowers out of hiding. Best of all, the birds have returned. They can be heard in the morning, warbling like little messengers of joy.
Listening to them has got me thinking about bird song in music. It seems natural that composers should turn frequently to these little creatures for inspiration, and perhaps they do, yet specific references to bird song in musical scores are not as common as you might think. I thought it would be fun to see how many examples I could recall.
The earliest example of ornithologic inspiration that I know of is Clement Janequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaux, a fiendishly complex Renaissance chanson dedicated to imitating bird sounds. There are a surprisingly large number of performances on YouTube, but they are mostly badly sung, badly recorded, or both. The best of them seems to be this one, sung by the San Beda College Chorale from the Philippines (!). The singing is a little wooly, but the tuning is good. The bird song sections are especially at 2:00, 3:15, and 4:50. (Duration: 6 min.)
Then there is a charming piece for baroque violin by Heinrich Biber called Sonata Representiva, in which the music imitates the sounds of various animals, including frogs, cats, and (more to our purpose) a nightingale, cuckoo, quail, and hen. Here is a delightful recording of the piece, with pictures to help identify which animal is vocalizing (Duration: 8 min.):
Some might say that Mozart’s music is itself a kind of bird song, so sweetly does it sing, but there is at least one point in his oeuvre where birds come into the foreground. I’m thinking of the birdcatcher character Papageno in The Magic Flute. Papageno is not himself a bird, but he dresses like one, and he has a certain affection for them. Here is a performance of his first aria “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja”, in which he describes his occupation, and plays a little bird song on his flute. It is sung here in English, with English subtitles provided for good measure. (Duration: 2 min.)
There must be some other examples as well… Isn’t there a point in the opening of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 when cuckoo birds can be heard? There is a scene in Wagner’s Ring when a character — it is Siegfried? — hears and understands the speech of birds, but I don’t remember if bird song is actually heard in the orchestra. Let’s see… ah yes! Stravinsky wrote a short, and relatively little heard, opera called Le Rossignol (The Nightingale). And Frederick Delius wrote an orchestral work called On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring that features, as you would expect, prominent cuckoo calls.
How could I forget The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a beautiful piece for violin and orchestra depicting the spiraling ascent of a bird? At least some of it sounds like bird song. Here is a lovely performance by Janine Jansen with the BBC Concert Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth (Duration: 16 min. total):
I can hear some readers wondering whether I will name the elephant in the room before I finish. Yes, I will: no discussion of bird song and music can possibly avoid the great Frenchman Olivier Messiaen. No composer has been more faithfully attentive to birds. Bird song is integrated into nearly every piece he wrote. Rather than go into details here, I’ve decided to take up the topic of Messiaen and bird song in a separate post.
At the moment, therefore, I cannot think of any other examples to mention. I am bothered by a dim recollection of a piece by Handel that has the soprano twittering and warbling, but the details are not coming into focus. In the meantime, if you know of other bird-inspired music, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about it.