‘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.