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Times of the Islands Magazine

BIRDSONG INSPIRES COMPOSERS THROUGH THE AGES: Possessing essential musical characteristics of pitch and rhythm

Mar 09, 2021 07:20PM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE

Think of all the sounds produced by nature: waves pounding the shoreline, distant thunderclaps, howling wolves and coyotes, and evening crickets. These and other aural phenomena contribute to our experience of the natural world around us, and have particularly inspired musicians who have sought communion with nature as an artistic impetus.

But perhaps the most influential body of naturally produced sound—as far as composers are concerned—is the inexhaustible repertoire of birdsong. This is in no way surprising. While birdsong may not constitute music per se, it possesses the essential musical characteristics of pitch and rhythm that musicians have long adopted or adapted for their own use.

Instances of birdsong in musical works are scattered throughout history. For example, the two-note minor-third descending call of the cuckoo has been used especially often, having the advantage of being easily identified because of its simplicity. It can be heard in works such as Daquin’s 1735 harpsichord piece “Le Coucou” and the second movement of Handel’s Organ Concerto No.13, where it is paired with the song of the nightingale.

Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (1808) also features cuckoo and nightingale motifs—as well as quail—to help conjure the scene by the brook. In two other famous examples, Mahler’s First Symphony (1888) and Delius’ “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring” (1912), the cuckoo’s call assumes structural importance beyond mere incidental quotation.

The invention of the gramophone led Italian composer Ottorino Respighi to include a recorded nightingale in his 1924 orchestral piece “The Pines of Rome,” a first in music history. The Beatles did something similar 40 years later with their 1968 recording of “Blackbird.” In both cases the original birdsong becomes an accompaniment to the composed music, creating a disorienting effect of intruding realism distinct from the musical stylization of the cuckoo examples mentioned earlier.

French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) represents the apotheosis of birdsong incorporated into a musical language. For Messiaen, birdsong had a deep spiritual significance linked to his Catholic faith. He transcribed the calls of hundreds of birds and utilized them as part of his unique modernist musical language. No other composer has taken inspiration from birdsong to such an extreme.

It proves illuminating to examine the many ways birdsong has provided inspiration to creators of music throughout history. Nature comes alive with the sound of birds singing, serving as a metaphor for the composer looking to harness and shape her notes and rhythms. Like music, birdsong exists as organized sound, and bringing these natural sounds into man-made music forges an explicit connection, a bridge between humankind and nature.

Both nature and humans produce musical sounds. Just as birds use their vocalizations to communicate with other birds, composers give voice to their life experiences and then share that music with others. The kinship between birdsong and our own musical inclinations seems to suggest that perhaps we ought not to think of ourselves as distinct or separate from nature, but rather connected in tangible ways with the natural world around us.

Pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a post-graduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis and his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel Island.