Birds and Music: A Violinist's View

Violinist Paul Barritt of the Hallé Orchestra reveals the influence birdsong has had on the works of many famous composers

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From its earliest beginnings, western music has been influenced by the natural world; undoubtedly, man has a fascination for birds and their wonderfully varied sonic landscapes.

Some of the greatest composers certainly did. Ludwig van Beethoven famously stated: ‘Nature is a glorious school for the heart! It is well; I shall be a scholar in this school and bring an eager heart to her instruction.’ Olivier Messiaen, the great 20th-century French composer, considered himself as much an ornithologist as a composer. Birds, he said, were ‘God’s own musicians’. His love of birds, alongside his devout Catholic faith, defined much of his colourful music.

That birds and the sounds they emit have fed the imaginations of our finest composers might suggest that bird ‘music’ and human ‘music’ have much in common. When trying to compare the various functions of both birdsong and human music-making it is all too easy to fall into the anthropomorphic habit—Peter Rabbits in neat little blue jackets—in order to understand their sounds. Concert programmes regularly feature pieces of bird-related music which are, in reality, more reflections of man than bird—music either based on myth and fantasy (Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Firebird’) or pictorially descriptive music which deals with human emotions rather than the sounds from any particular bird itself. Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ is, in my view, at its core, an evocative vision of what it is to be English, and has little to do with the Eurasian skylark (Alauda arvensis).

The cuckoo

Cuckoo_John Gould

Shown here is the cuckoo (from John Gould’s Birds of Europe [1832–37]), whose song influenced the work of several composers. © The Linnean Society of London

The inevitable and much discussed question of whether birdsong is actually music cannot be avoided; fascinating books have been written on this very subject. As a performing musician, I am very aware that my motivation for playing differs fundamentally from what appears to drive birds to sing.

Why do they sing? As well as various alarm, contact or begging calls, true birdsong is mostly emitted for sexual reasons—to attract a mate and to repel rivals—traditionally (in the Northern Hemisphere) it is the males who sing. This is generally the norm, however more and more information is coming to light about how this is not a global phenomenon. (See http://femalebirdsong.org).

The song ‘Sumer is a cumin in/ loudly sing, Cuckoo’, written in the 13th century, figures vividly in my memory as a round we sang at primary school. The earliest meeting of birdsong and music for many, it features a frequently imitated bird, easy to copy, mimic and characterize, and for very good reasons.

As a composer you can’t really go wrong with a cuckoo (common cuckoo, Cuculus canorus). Two simple notes, a descending interval which is as unmistakable as it is a very welcome affirmation that spring is with us and all is right with the world. Notable cuckoo fanciers amongst composers are Beethoven (6th Symphony, ‘Pastoral’), Gustav Mahler (1st Symphony) and Delius’ tone poem, ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’, to name but a few.

The nightingale

Nightingale

The singing nightingale has predominantly and inaccurately been portrayed as female. pixabay/pevank01

Next to cuckoos we have the nightingale. In the world of myth, fantasy and poetry, the singing nightingale has predominantly but inaccurately been depicted as female—a temptress. It is, in the words of John Keats, a ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’. However, a notable exception was Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose ‘Most musical, most melancholy bird’ is correctly identified as male.

A beguiling song certainly—a timbre which is unmistakable, with a great variety of sounds. Often I feel it is mostly the ‘beautiful’ intoning, long repeated notes that are featured in musical renditions of this fine songster, and the scratchy chattering (a sound it shares with starlings) tends to get ignored. But not by Stravinsky in his 1917 tone poem ‘Song of the Nightingale’ (Le Chant du Rossignol).

The quail

Quail

Both Biber and Beethoven were inspired by the succinct song pattern of the quail. pixabay/ariesa66

The third regularly featured bird in western music is less familiar to these shores. The quail (Coturnix coturnix) has a short and succinct three-syllable calling card, which in English popular culture was rendered verbally as ‘wet-my-lips’. In Germanic culture this same song was thought to be communing on a much higher level than a simple request for a pint of beer. ‘Fürchte Gott...Liebe Gott’ or ‘Be God fearing…God loving’. I can’t help but see this as exposing a fundamental difference between the unconscious English and German attitudes to both nature and its meaning to man.) For notable quail songs we can turn to Heinrich Biber (‘Sonata Representiva’) and again to Beethoven (‘Wachtelschlag’).

Front of stage

Ludwig van Beethoven

All three star performers—nightingale, quail and cuckoo—appear in the second movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. WikiCommons

Birdsong motifs can be found in many of Beethoven’s finest works. His love of the countryside was a calming and important part of what must have been a tortured existence for this composer who was forced to endure increasing deafness. As a young man, he took daily walks in Vienna’s Prater and with notebook in hand would record sounds which were meaningful to him. We know that the famous first four notes of his fifth symphony were taken from the song of the yellowhammer (Emberiza citronella). It must be stressed that he used nature’s voice as a stimulus for music (often purely rhythmical) motifs. It was rare that he quoted birdsong. However our three star performers—nightingale, quail and cuckoo—appear as themselves in the second movement of his 6th (Pastoral) Symphony.

So why do these three species get front of stage treatment? The answer becomes very clear the moment one attempts to transcribe birdsong with even a modicum of accuracy. It is highly revealing to listen to slowed down recordings of species that we know well. The familiar shrill, forceful rattling song of the wren, the UK’s most ubiquitous bird, is delivered with remarkable intensity. In slow motion and therefore at considerably lower pitch, there emerges what we would call an unexpectedly ‘musical’ score, full of tonal beauty, with definable, meaningful intervals. But we as humans just can’t hear the beauty because it is too high in pitch, and far too fast to capture on manuscript paper.

On the other hand, our three front of stage heroes have easily recognisable and transcribable songs. We respond initially and instinctively to birdsong which contains the notes (intervals) which make up the diatonic scale (the row of notes containing five whole tones and two semitones—the basic building blocks of Western Music).

Why do birds sing?

So to the tantalising and ever-present question: are birds expressing themselves with their sounds? It is very hard not to conclude that the blackbird doesn’t feel some of the joy and pleasure that we derive from his wonderful, conversational tones. Why does he continue adding to his repertoire even after the immediate needs of finding a mate and rearing young have passed?

Musicians and scientists will probably always see this from different angles. Philosopher and musician David Rothenberg maintains in his book, Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Birdsong (2005), that music and birdsong reveal something that neither science nor poetry can. He plays the clarinet alongside captive birds with fascinating results.

Perhaps for the scientist, birdsong exists purely as a tool for sexual selection, for the defence of territory, for making contact, expressing alarm and much more. They might say that music is a human construct; the suggestion that birds use song in a similar way to the way humans use music is totally unjustified.

For me, a performing musician, music is about describing and sharing the hugely rich world of what it is to be human. As a birding enthusiast, my enormous pleasure in steeping myself in bird sounds is based purely on my belief that they, in their turn, are at some level describing the very essence of being avian.

Paul Barritt, Classical Violinist & Permanent Guest Leader of the Hallé Orchestra

This article originally appeared in PuLSe (issue 46, Oct 2020).