‘But you, gods, will give us
Some faults to make us men’

Shakespeare’s words in Agrippa’s mouth remind us of our shortcomings: but how is it that birds seem almost faultless? They sing, they soar, they are good to their young, and good to each other. Birds move away from bad weather. They migrate.

Birds and birdsong have inspired artists and musicians for more than a thousand years, and the last 500 years is full of examples that either mimic birdsong (Clement Janequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaux / 16th Century, France) or, more recently, use it as a starting point for inspiration (Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite: Mahler’s First Symphony : Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring).

Beethoven’s 5th and 6th Symphonies were written at around the same time in 1808, but they inhabit very different sound-worlds. The tempestuous 5th has a Dionysian energy almost throughout: the 6th (Pastoral) has an exquisite, languid beauty, and a picture-book quality that was unusual 200 years ago. The whole symphony is littered with naturalistic effects. and here we have the conclusion of the lilting 12/8 second movement (By the Brook), with the flowing water giving way at the close to almost a woodwind concerto, with the flute (nightingale), oboe (quail) and clarinet (cuckoo) gently harmonizing.

There are very few English yeomen who can resist the yearning pastorale of A Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Inspired by a George Meredith poem, the violin obbligato is inscribed without bar-lines, to encourage a free-flowing impressionistic view of this tiny dull-looking creature as it climbs heavenward. The union here with Walter de la Mare’s wonderful poem The Listeners, seems apposite and, though it pre-dates the music by a few years, it shares the mysterious atmosphere.

At the time, fifty odd years ago and just out of short trousers, I gave it not a second thought. The dry academic tome listed Dvorak’s F Major Quartet, but the name hardly registered… The Nigger. My, how times have changed. Now, universally known, and loved, as The American, this life-affirming quartet’s third movement contains his compressed thoughts on that great nation’s birdsong and wildlife. His masterpiece, the New World Symphony, had just been completed.

One hundred and fifty years ago Mozart was considered to be a ‘slight’ composer compared with, say, Beethoven: hard to imagine today. And fifty years ago, just to mention the name of Ottorino Respighi was to invite ridicule. His symphonic poems, now almost part of the mainstream, were condemned as unbearably vulgar, and the rest of his output (concertos, songs and operas) virtually ignored. This summation took no account of his wonderful melodic gifts, nor of his ability to write in an unforced way for huge orchestral forces, as here in the third section of the Pines of Rome where, toward the end, he introduces a recording of the song of a nightingale into the actual score to marvellous effect. Graham Instrall’s film about a young boy’s loss in wartime Britain seems to fit rather well too.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

8 thoughts on “Birdsong

    June 5, 2011 at 12:13

    Always love the 6th, first thing on a sunny morning, bliss.

    June 5, 2011 at 16:42

    Great article. Had no idea about how Respighi was viewed. Perhaps a future story about classical works inspired by the sea?

    john halliwell
    June 5, 2011 at 19:21

    Vaughan Williams’ Lark never fails to move me. This is a fascinating combination with De La Mare’s poem. It took me back to 1990 when Radio 3 presented ‘An Evening of Ralph Vaughan Williams’, during which a recording of the Lark was played (the glorious Iona Brown with the Academy of SMF), on top of which a studio reading of George Meredith’s poem by the actor Christopher Good had been expertly placed. The result held me spellbound for fifteen minutes. I recorded the programme on cassette and play it whenever I want a Lark with an added dimension.

    June 5, 2011 at 23:24

    With the Beethoven, Vaughan Williams and Dvorak I was in heaven, Mahlerman – soaring high up with the birds. Bliss.Then I came crashing down to earth with the musical equivalent of Vettriano, and an opening scene recalling an advertisement for a cold remedy. Love the first three though – and The Listeners poem, though a deeper voiced narrator might make this sound even more mysterious…

    Banished To A Pompous Land
    June 6, 2011 at 16:14

    All very lovely Mahlerman but you can’t sneak away without at least a mention of the king of birds M. Olivier Messiaen.

    This is particularly delightful and just a little ga-ga. His Highness explains and Madame M tinkles the ivories.

    June 6, 2011 at 16:59

    Yes Banished, one can tell even from that clip that Messiaen was an inspiring teacher – but I’ve always struggled to squeeze any pleasure from his music or, for that matter, from his various Darmstadt pupils, Boulez, Stockhausen etc. My loss perhaps.
    If there is a ‘king’ of the birds in music, then I suppose he is it: but I had to dump about a dozen others before settling upon the final quartet – and I do like a good tune!

      Banished To A Pompous Land
      June 6, 2011 at 17:40

      Agreed, agreed Mahlerman the piano music is awfully hard work. I bought the Regis box set of the complete piano works by Peter Hill when it was a bargain and I was feeling flush. I immersed myself for many many hours in the winter of 2003/4 in a flat with only a few books, the radio and my CDs.

      Its hugely impressive and I want to relate to it but for all his own evident passion it just has no human face.

      I bought the Jennifer Bate box set of the organ works at the same time and I do find that easier to approach.

    June 13, 2011 at 22:00

    Lovely stuff Mahlerman, thank you.

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