From ancient times, birds have figured very prominently in all forms of human music. I think this is because the sounds they make are so much like musical trills, scales, arpeggios and even arias. Doesn’t the turtledove’s mournful cry resemble a musical lament?
Composers have featured birds individually and in whole flocks in their works, sometimes imitating them, other times incorporating actual recorded sounds and blending them in. Melodious calls like those of the nightingale, the cuckoo and the thrush are especially favored. One of Handel’s concerti is called “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale.” In Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” a single violin flutters like a bird. And in Messiaen’s “Le Merle Noir” a flute and piano capture the sound of a blackbird. Cuckoo calls have also been used by Daquin and Vivaldi.
More prosaic birds also strut in some compositions: Haydn has a symphony called “The Hen”
in which an oboe does the clucking. And in Elgar’s “Owls” an owl-like sound recurs in the night.
Then there are the whole flocks of various birds appearing together. The 16th century musician Janequin composed “Le Chant des Oiseaux” (Birds’ Songs). Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” features a storm followed by the sound of birds by a brook. But the most famous work about flocks of birds is Otterino Respighi’s “The Birds.” He went about collecting and recording various bird sounds and incorporated them into his composition.
A most subversive idea came to me as I thought about the concept of “birds singing.” Why do we believe that they are singing? A bird’s life is fraught with danger and necessity. At every moment, it needs to think of foraging for food while not becoming someone else’s food. A bird does not have the leisure and luxury of engaging in frivolous singing. For that you need calm, tranquility and serenity.
So here is my translation of their sophisticated language that sounds like song to us. (This is absolutely without evidence.)
Her to Him: Night is falling. The chicks are sleeping.
Him to Her: Looking for more worms. Coming soon.
Her to Him: Watch out for the fluffy cat. It has become better at pouncing.
Early morning birds singing in unison: Get ready everybody. We are migrating this morning.
And at sundown. Omigod, the world is coming to an end!
Next time…More animals and classical music…..
Editors note: This video is not completely on point, but still a lot of fun.
Here’s a lovely rendition of The Lark Ascending