Birdsong and Music
Talk given at Gresham College on 1st July 2011
I'm going to start with a typical spring dawn chorus somewhere in the English countryside. You can
hear a solo song thrush in the foreground against a background mostly of blackbirds.
[English dawn chorus: Dawn Chorus U.K.]
Though this time of midsummer now is delightful, I also can't help feeling a certain sadness because
the birds have mostly ended their long period of spring song, which began at the new year. Some birds
stopped already at the beginning of June; the blackbirds, the great songsters of town and country here in
Britain, are almost the last to finish. On my regular early morning walk in a wood near my north London
home, except for the rasping of magpies and crows and our latest arrival, ring-necked parakeets, there
will soon be silence until, in mid-August, the robins begin to stake out their territories, marking their
boundaries with outbursts of their cheerfully melodious song. The robin, recently voted our national bird,
is incidentally among the most aggressive of all creatures, and robins will sometimes fight to the death
over territorial disputes.
Territory is one of two main reasons why birds sing; the other of course is to attract a mate. Only
male birds sing; unlike humans, no females sing to their young. Song varies immensely: many birds have
just a single phrase which they repeat over and over, like the chaffinch, or the chiffchaff, which makes
endless repetitions of its name. A few, particularly from the thrush family, are extraordinarily inventive.
No two blackbirds sing entirely the same, nor do song thrushes or nightingales. The nightingale has a
repertoire of truly amazing sounds:
[Nightingale song: from CD 'Birds on a spring evening']
I find it hard to believe that the quality of this song can be explained in purely evolutionary terms.
The nightingale is a drab brown bird, so presumably needs to sing something more special than usual to
attract a mate. The peacock, which goes furthest in the other direction in using its spectacular plumage
to appeal to the opposite sex, has unsurprisingly no song at all, only a yelp familiar to those who watch
television serials set in stately homes. But why is the nightingale's song so rich and complex? And why
does he sing all night? Is there perhaps an element of artistry? Is the nightingale, or the song thrush,
or the blackbird perhaps a composer? In his book Why Birds Sing, the American musician, philosopher and
ornithologist David Rothenberg asks similar questions. He comes to conclusions I would agree with:
Why do birds sing? For the same reasons we sing - because we can. Because
we love to inhabit the pure realms of sound. Because we must sing - it's the
way we have been designed to tap into the pure shapes of sound. We
celebrate this ability in our greatest tasks, defining ourselves, defending our
places, calling out to the ones we love. But form remains far more than function...
No explanation will ever erase the eternal need for song.
There can be no proof of what Rothenberg says, but I think he's right, certainly with regard to those
birds he calls 'open-ended learners'. He distinguishes these from the 'closed-ended learners' that make
up the majority of birds that sing - birds like the chiffchaff or the chaffinch. Take the blackbird. At
the beginning of spring, in mid-February, he starts his song with a number of fairly simple phrases. Over
the course of the next three months he will chose particular phrases, gradually elaborate these and
introduce more and more, so that by June he has 'composed' a substantial piece. There is no strictly
scientific explanation for why he does this, just as there is no strictly scientific explanation for why
humans compose. The blackbird sings because he can, and probably because he enjoys singing - and thank
goodness for that.
Birdsong has been celebrated by both poets and composers. The poets came first: the medieval poem
'Sumer is icumen in' praises the arrival of the cuckoo, welcoming the spring. The cuckoo and the nightingale
are by far the most popular birds to be found in English poetry, the cuckoo of course not just for its role
as the herald of spring but for its casual attitude towards family life - the word 'cuckold' derives from
its anti-marital habits. There are a number of Elizabethan poems about cuckoos and nightingales; one of the
best-known is Thomas Nashe's 'Spring, the Sweet Spring', memorably set to music by Britten in his Spring
Symphony. Britten reproduces the cuckoo's call, but he makes no attempt to imitate realistically the calls
of the two other birds alluded to - nightingale ('Jug-jug, puwe!') and tawny owl (Towitta woo!).
[Britten: Spring Symphony, 'Spring, the Sweet Spring']
The 'Towitta woo!' of the tawny owl, more commonly written as 'To-wit, to-woo' combines the call of the
female, 'ke-wick', and the hoot of the male, 'hu-oo, u-hu-hu hu-oo' (memorably notated by Janáček in his
piano piece from On an Overgrown Path, misleadingly known in English as 'The barn owl has not flown away' -
the barn owl in fact shrieks). The obsession with the nightingale reached its climax in the early 19th century,
with John Clare's The Progress of Rhyme, 'which describes the nightingale's song more precisely than any
previous poet had done (though notice that he thinks it's a female bird he's hearing):
The more I listened and the more
Each note seemed sweeter than before,
And aye so different was the strain
She'd scarce repeat the note again:
'Chew-chew chew-chew' and higher still,
'Cheer-cheer cheer-cheer' more loud and shrill,
'Cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up - and dropped
Low 'Tweet tweet jug jug' - and stopped
One moment just to drink the sound
Her music made, and then a round
Of stranger witching notes was heard
As if it was a stranger bird:
'Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur chur-chur
Woo-it woo-it' could this be her?
'Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew
Chew-rit chew-rit' - and ever new...
It's almost a piece of music. Then there is Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, one of the greatest poems in
English, which doesn't describe the nightingale's song but its effect on the poet. Alas, the days when you
could hear nightingales in Hampstead are gone (I don't think they were ever in Berkeley Square, by the way).
Music inspired by birdsong goes back at least as far as the 16th century, when the French composer Clément
Janequin wrote chansons with imitations of the skylark and the nightingale. A number of 18th-century composers
wrote descriptive pieces, such as the 'Goldfinch' Concerto by Vivaldi or Boccherini's 'Aviary' Quintet, which
have very stylized bird songs. The only bird to be reproduced accurately was the cuckoo, for example in Daquin's
harpsichord piece Le coucou, which I learned to play as a boy. Blackbirds and song thrushes sometimes sing
identifiable pitches (as I was writing this talk, outside my window a Blackbird was singing a four-note phrase
in E flat major), but the cuckoo is the only European bird that sings exclusively two easily recognizable pitched
notes, a descending minor or major third. In my experience the cuckoo begins with mostly minor thirds in April,
shifts to major thirds in May, and in June, as the popular rhyme goes, 'he changes his tune' - and starts
forgetting how to sing 'cuckoo', substituting odd sounds with, for instance the second note a quarter tone
flatter than the first. Cuckoos also seem to sing in the key of C. There are a number of pieces of music that
use cuckoo calls, for instance Delius's On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, and Mahler's First Symphony;
however, Mahler makes the cuckoo sing a descending fourth, because that fits better with his thematic material. The most
famous example of a cuckoo call in music is in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, where at the end of the second
movement, the 'Scene by the Brook', there is a cadenza for three birds: a flute imitates a nightingale,
evocatively if not all that accurately; an oboe the quail, quite precisely; and a pair of clarinets the cuckoo -
Beethoven realising that two clarinets in unison convey the peculiarly muffled resonance of the cuckoo's call
better than one.
[Beethoven: Pastoral Symphony, end of 2nd movement]
The musicologist Sylvia Bowden has drawn attention to the inspiration of birdsong in other Beethoven works.
Beethoven went for daily early morning walks in the countryside outside Vienna, and he always took a sketchbook
with him and wrote down ideas in it, some of them, it seems, derived from the birds he heard. Bowden mentions in
particular the song of the yellowhammer, which is often represented as 'a little bit of bread and no cheese' -
it's a number of short notes at the same pitch followed by a long one. Ideas in this shape occur at the beginning
of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto and the 'Waldstein' Sonata, and Carl Czerny said that the opening of the
Fifth Symphony derived from the yellowhammer, which is just possible. (Actually the opening of the 'Waldstein'
Sonata sounds more like the chaffinch.) Bowden suggests that Beethoven may have also taken song fragments from
blackbirds and song thrushes, which can be traced to motives in, for instance, the Ninth Symphony and the Grosse
Fuge. In all these cases it's not a question of Beethoven trying to imitate birdsong, but of birdsong sparking off
ideas that Beethoven then transformed into his own music.
The Pastoral Symphony greatly influenced the early Romantics, many of whom were concerned with evocations of
landscape in music. The 'Scène aux champs' in the Symphonie fantastique was Berlioz's direct response, and you
can hear Beethoven's quails in one section. Wagner's 'Forest Murmurs' from Siegfried are closely modelled on
Beethoven's scene by the brook, with similar string undulations which then become a background for bird-calls on
the woodwind; though Wagner makes no attempt to imitate real birds. Oboe, flute and clarinet play phrases which,
when Siegfried has killed the dragon Fafner and has accidentally tasted his blood, he will hear again as words of
advice sung by the soprano voice of the Woodbird. Wagner's stylized birdsong is based for the most part on the
notes of the triad. In the Ring, he uses pure triadic harmony when he wants to express the elemental quality of
the natural world, as at the very start of the Ring, in contrast with the more chromatic harmony he uses for the
complexity of human emotion. In all his nature painting, Wagner employs musical metaphor rather than depiction,
to make Berlioz's useful distinction, and the effect is I think more genuinely poetic.
[Wagner: Siegfried, 'Forest Murmurs']
The culmination of composers' attempts to combine evocation of landscape with birdsong was reached in Ravel's
Daphnis and Chloe, in the famous passage describing the dawn chorus, not only in my opinion the most poetic use
of birdsong in all music, but also one of the most beautiful orchestral sounds ever written.
[Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe, beginning of Second Suite]
Like Wagner, Ravel doesn't try to notate birdsongs exactly, but evokes the sound of the dawn chorus with
stylized birds that nevertheless bring the experience uncannily to life. It would not have been more effective
with real bird sounds: on the contrary, I find Respighi's use of a recording of a real nightingale played with
the orchestra in his Pines of Rome embarrassingly sentimental. Other composers have gone on to use stylized
birdsongs, most notably of all Vaughan Williams in The Lark Ascending: his violin solos are nothing like the
skylark's actual song, but the piece says something profound about the English countryside and the importance of
the lark as a symbol within Vaughan Williams's evocation of that countryside; so much so that for several years
listeners to Classic FM have voted it their favourite piece, and Radio 4 listeners have just chosen it as their
number one desert island disc.
Olivier Messiaen did attempt to notate birdsongs precisely and included them comprehensively in his music from
the 1950s until the end of his life. Messiaen's interest in birds was very serious - he can be called an ornithologist
rather than merely a birdwatcher - and as a deeply religious man he regarded birdsongs as the voice of God. As a
student, he had taken notice of his teacher Paul Dukas's advice to "listen to the birds! They are great teachers",
and birdsong appears sporadically in his early works. But in the 1950s he began to use birdsong in a much more
comprehensive and systematic way, at first in an orchestral piece called Réveil des oiseaux, where 38 different
birds appear, then in Oiseaux exotiques for orchestra without strings, and the huge Catalogue d'oiseaux for piano,
13 extensive pieces lasting almost three hours (the central piece based on the reed warbler alone lasts half an hour).
Messiaen's own transcriptions of birdsong which he made in the field were done with immense care and scrupulousness.
No composer had done this before, and I know myself from trying to transcribe birdsong just how difficult it is, as
most of the sounds are extremely high, rhythmically very complex, and not always on definite pitches; even Messiaen
has to compromise somewhat in the Catalogue as he is writing for piano and so cannot use quarter-tones. His pursuit
of accuracy is admirable, yet I wonder sometimes if it was an obsession that got out of hand. I remember listening
to a radio programme on the Catalogue where sections of the piano pieces were played and put alongside recordings of
the actual birds from the places where Messiaen had notated them, and I thought that the birds were more musical,
while Messiaen's transcriptions seemed just too coldly scientific. In his Quatuor pur le fin du temps, however, the
piece for clarinet, violin, cello and piano he wrote while a prisoner of war in 1940, and which like many others I
think is his masterpiece, Messiaen begins with a movement called 'Liturgie de crystal' in which clarinet and violin
play, very quietly, phrases marked 'comme un oiseau', but which he says in his preface to the score are based on the
blackbird and the nightingale. Here Messiaen, like Ravel before him, achieves an effect of real poetry.
[Messiaen: Quatuor pour le fin du temps, 'Liturgie de crystal']
Now I want to go to the other side of the world, to Australia. I first visited Australia in 1974, to assist
Peter Sculthorpe with his music theatre piece Rites of Passage for the Sydney Opera House, and since then I've been
returning every few years. As well as the feeling of remoteness from Europe, and the strange beauty of the landscape,
I was immediately impressed by the sound of the birds, quite different from those we hear in Europe. Here's an
Australian dawn chorus recorded at Cambewarra Mountain, New South Wales, by the composer David Lumsdaine. You'll hear
at the start the melodious warbling of Australian magpies, then the rather less melodious kookaburra, then, as the
scene shifts to a new location, a clamorous outburst of many bird species together.
[Australian dawn chorus, from CD 'Cambewarra Mountain']
Peter Sculthorpe's music is deeply concerned with Australia and its landscape, and I find it as poetically
evocative of Australia as the music of Vaughan Williams is of England. Peter was born in Tasmania and spent his
childhood and youth there before eventually moving to Sydney. He wrote the following to me:
I grew up in the country and I suppose I took birds for granted. They were
everywhere. To protect their young, plovers would often attack us out in
paddocks near our house. My real caring for birds began when my father
pointed to a flight of ducks in the sky. One was flying alone. My father told me
that it had lost its mate and would forever fly alone.
The first piece of Peter's music overtly to use bird sounds is Irkanda I for solo violin, which he wrote in 1955.
'Irkanda' is an aboriginal word meaning 'a remote and lonely place'. The piece ends with a passage suggesting a bird
flying high in the sky: one of the few passages in Peter's music that represents a single bird. On this recording it
is superbly played by Richard Tognetti.
[Sculthorpe: Irkanda I, ending]
It's a fine example of birdsong transforming into a human voice. No particular bird is intended here, and for the
most part Peter's bird sounds are choruses of undefined birds whose voices are evoked by various types of string
harmonics and bow-tappings, and which remind me strongly of the birds at the end of the Cambewarra dawn chorus I
played you. Here's an early example of one of these string harmonic choruses; it's from the suite Peter extracted
from the film music to Essington, a television drama on which we collaborated on my 1974 visit. The story concerns
the unsuccessful attempts in the 19th century to establish the settlement of Port Essington, in the Northern Territory.
It failed because the settlers, unlike the aboriginal inhabitants, could not adapt to the peculiar conditions of the
land. The suite contrasts Victorian drawing-room music with the sounds of the bush: this short movement is called
'Phantasy: Unrest' and deliberately presents the natural sounds of the bush as strange and wild, and also emphasizes
the loneliness of the settlement. The essential loneliness of the Australian landscape is epitomized by Peter's boyhood
memory of seeing a single lonely bird in flight. Like almost all his birdsong passages, this one is marked 'Come
veduta a volo d'uccello' (as from a bird's eye view). "At the back of my mind", Peter wrote to me, "is the thought of
flights of birds looking down upon the foibles of humankind."
[Sculthorpe: Port Essington, 3rd movement]
Another chorus from the remote bush is found in the orchestral piece Kakadu. As Peter has pointed out, 'kakadu' is
the German word for cockatoo - and there are cockatoos in the music; but the title is also an aboriginal word and refers
to the Kakadu National Park near Darwin, which Peter first visited in the 1980s. The bird sounds here are mingled with
the beating of drums, in what is quite a scary soundscape. Peter wrote to me: "somebody once said that the birds in
Kakadu sound like birds that bite."
The last example from Peter's music I want to play is from his 16th String Quartet, composed in 2005. This piece,
he writes, "was inspired by a book of extracts from letters written by asylum seekers in Australian detention centres...
the music... addresses the plight of asylum seekers everywhere... Throughout the work, there are occasional bird-like
sounds: many of the asylum seekers write about birds being free to fly in and out of the 'refugee zoos'." The first
movement uses an effect he calls 'seagull sounds'. They are produced by a glissando in harmonics played on the cello -
a cellist in the Yale Quartet, Aldo Parisot, showed this effect to Peter in the 1960s and he's used it frequently ever
since. Incidentally, in his autobiography Peter tells an amusing story about a rehearsal in Tokyo of his orchestral
piece Great Sandy Island, in which the players are instructed to make random seagull sounds quite independently of each
other. "Because of the Japanese love of conformity", he writes, "for quite some time this section of the piece sounded
like one Big Bird."
[Sculthorpe: String Quartet 16, 1st movement]
No other Australian composers have been so concerned with the sounds of birds as Peter has, but Ross Edwards, who
studied with Peter, shares Peter's love of wild nature and his concern for the preservation of the natural world. Ross
has introduced many natural sounds into his music, especially insects. But here's the start of a piece inspired by a
bird, a joyful dance for clarinet and aboriginal clapping sticks called Binyang. Ross explains: "Captivated by a
persistent and strikingly melodic birdcall I derived from it the scale underlying Binyang, [which] means 'bird' in the
now defunct Sydney aboriginal language. The identity of the bird remains a mystery, my whistling its call over the phone
to ornithologists having left them stumped."
Ross Edwards refers to the "strikingly melodic birdcall" that inspired him. One of the first things I noticed about
Australian birds, unlike European ones, is that quite a number of them sing clearly pitched notes that you can easily
write down. In the Cambewarra dawn chorus I played, you heard the sounds of Australian magpies, which unlike their
British counterparts have melodious, diatonic songs. On a visit to Australia in September 2000, I stayed with friends
near Canberra, and they introduced me to the outstanding song of their resident magpie, which they had named Munro (he
had a wife called Marilyn). I wrote down his haunting song, hoping to use it in some way. A few weeks later I was
staying with some other friends at Nimbin in northern New South Wales, and I noted down three more songs, two of them
distinctively melodic. The koel, the Australian cuckoo, had just arrived from the north - it was spring - and sang day
and night. Koels sing the interval of a third like the European cuckoo, but rising instead of falling - in other words
upside down, as one might expect from an Australian bird! Koels usually begin with a minor third, rising to the major,
then a fourth and sometimes higher. The pied butcherbird sings three notes, typically a falling major second followed,
most unusually, by a rising augmented fourth. Lastly, the eastern whipbird has a crescendoing high note followed by a
whip-crack - an extraordinary sound. I found these four calls so interesting I eventually made three pieces out of them:
a series of four pieces for solo violin, one for each bird; and two versions of the same piece, one for chamber
orchestra and the other for string quartet, which begin with a little dawn chorus. I developed the initial eight notes
of Munro's song into a long violin melody; then come the three other bird calls, followed by a more elaborate reprise
of the violin melody on cello. All the instruments use metal practice mutes so the sounds are as if overheard from a
distance. The music is marked 'Lontano' - far away - and when I hear it now it sounds lonely and indeed far away. Here
is the beginning of the orchestral version of the piece, called Aubade.
[D. Matthews: Aubade]
The two pieces have different endings, and the string quartet version ends with the familiar falling third of our
cuckoo call, as if to acknowledge that the music has now moved back to this side of the world.
[D. Matthews: String Quartet 10, ending]
Since writing these pieces I've gone on to include birdsong in other works, including another dawn chorus of
Australian birds in my Sixth Symphony. I'm more and more drawn to birds as an enlivening element in my attempts to
revivify the pastoral, a genre that has been derided by some, but for me one that must survive and perhaps in a small
way even help our precious landscape to survive. Many of our birds are in decline - the cuckoo among them: fewer people
now hear this essential sound of spring. Fortunately we still have blackbirds in great numbers, but we had better take
care of them, and our other songbirds, otherwise we shall end up with the silent spring that Rachel Carson warned us of
in her famous book of that title. Birds were singing millions of years before we evolved: they were the inventors of
music. Maybe our future depends on theirs.