5&1, Part 23: The Calls of the Birds

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It is only natural that those of an artistic temperament will be drawn to the natural world. Forms of human creativity are almost bound to be captivated by aspects of divine creativity. Consider the landscapes of the Hudson River School (like those of Frederic Church or Thomas Cole); or the profound attention to nature’s exuberance in Vincent van Gogh or kaleidoscopic shifts in light in Claude Monet; or the human realities in the biblical story as captured by Rembrandt or Giotto. Then, when it comes to words, just a couple of minutes in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s company will awaken us to what we’re constantly surrounded by but too often overlook.

Yet it should come as no surprise that the world of birds is a profound inspiration for musicians, those perhaps more likely to be captured by the aural than the visual. Of course, the avian world has all kinds of wonders to recommend it: being able to fly is pretty cool, for one thing; then there are the colours, gaudy and gratuitous. But above all, there is its sound. Even in big cities, close attention to the dawn chorus is surely worth fewer hours in bed on occasion. This is divine music! How else can you explain it?

1. Concerto in D ma ‘Il Gardellino’ (RV428 – Allegro-Cantabile-Allegro)

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741, Italian)
Sébastien Marq (flute), Jean-Christophe Spinosi (conductor), Ensemble Matheus

Where possible, I try to introduce new names to each 5&1 list (although today’s has a couple of repeat offenders, inevitably). But I can’t quite believe it’s taken twenty-three lists to welcome the renowned red-haired priest of Venice onto the podium. He was an ordained catholic priest who spent many years teaching in an orphanage for abandoned girls. The music there was of such high quality that people would travel from all over Europe to hear it.

Vivaldi was prolific and influential—J. S. Bach, his junior by seven years, was a notable fan—and wrote for many instrumental combinations alongside his many choral and operatic works. This short flute concerto (a concerto is usually a piece for solo instrument plus orchestra, commonly with a standard fast-slow-fast three movement structure, as here) has the name ‘Il Gardellino,’ meaning ‘goldfinch.’ No prizes for figuring out why flutes and piccolos are commonly used to convey birdsong. You might think we’re listening to a cuckoo at the start. Perhaps goldfinches in the Venetian republic were particularly good mimics. In Vivaldi’s mind, though, they can certainly sing their hearts out (cantabile means songlike, after all).

2. The Swan of Tuonela (Op. 22, No. 2)

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957, Finnish)
Barry Davis (cor anglais), Sir Neville Marriner (conductor), Academy of St Martin in the Fields

We’ve flown a thousand miles from the Venetian lagoon and find ourselves in the frozen mists of mythical Finland. Sibelius had a Tolkienesque fascination with Finland’s mythological epic, the Kalevala. He wrote an early orchestral suite called Four Legends from the Kalevala, of which this is the second movement.

Admittedly, we don’t have the swan’s cry evoked here, so strictly speaking it doesn’t entirely belong on this playlist. But it is a gorgeous piece, and it is about a bird, and Sibelius gives it a unique voice. Tuonela was the realm of the dead in Finnish myth (akin to Hades in Greek myth, the underworld where all people end up) and the eponymous Swan hangs out there, generally being sacred and mysterious. The epic’s hero, Lemminkäinen has been told to kill this swan (you can just tell that’s a bad move, can’t you?) and the music depicts the mysterious bird minding its own underworld business (as it would). The swan’s haunting call is portrayed by the cor anglais (known as the English Horn in north America), a beautiful instrument in the oboe family. Just stunning.

3. Livre d’orgue: IV. Chants d’oiseaux (‘Organ book: 4. Birdsong’)

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992, French)
Olivier Latry (organ)

Okay, I can almost guarantee you’re not going to like this piece. You’ll probably be thinking on first hearing that it is a grim cacophony of mechanical noises and arbitrary notes. But bear with me.

Olivier Messiaen was an organist and composer, one of the most influential of the twentieth century. He was also a devout Catholic and passionate ornithologist. After France fell to the Nazi Reich in 1940, he was made a prisoner of war, during which he wrote the extraordinary Quartet for the End of Time, a difficult piece that is endlessly fascinating and incredibly powerful.

But unlike many Twitchers (you know, those obsessive ornithological types who trample the world to bag rare bird sightings), Messiaen applied his profound musical knowledge to the study of their songs. He would listen very carefully, trying to notate all the variations and fluctuations. Naturally, they don’t follow standard rules of western musical harmony and the like, but they do display clear patterns and forms. He would then include these little motifs in all kinds of compositions, to provide incidental colour or as a primary focus. Next time you’re out in the countryside, try to listen with a musical ear. How might you try to replicate a blackbird’s call or nightingale’s song? Even for the most adept at music theory, it’s hard! But so interesting. Because if you believe in a creator, it follows that their songs are divinely composed.

Having considered this, now listen to this short organ piece. Concentrate and imagine a walk in the countryside. I hope you’ll gradually find yourself more attuned to the glorious sounds of woodlands than the dehumanised hell of a mechanical world.

I enter the meadow beside the hills
Where the fern casts its net of foliage.
And I hear speaking the soft, divine voice
Of calm nature, the milieu of birds.

—Cécile Sauvage

4. A Farewell to St. Petersburg: No. 10, The Lark (arr. M. Balakirev)

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857, Russian)
Tara Kamangar (piano)

Glinka was one of the first home-grown composers to gain fame throughout the territories of the Russian empire. He was a key figure in the development of Russian music, through his orchestral works, operas and songs particularly. His song-cycle A Farewell to St. Petersburg was written in 1840 for voice and piano, setting twelve poems by the playwright Nestor Kukolnik. The tenth in the cycle, The Lark, is apparently quite sentimental and even mawkish in the original, but the melody is gorgeous.

Perhaps this is the reason why many opt for this arrangement for solo piano by composer, conductor and pianist, Mily Balakirev (leader of Russian composers known as ‘The Five,’ Glinka protégés who sought to create a distinctive Russian sound in music—the others were César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikola Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin).

5. Laideronette – Apothéose. Le jardin féerique (from Ma mère l’Oye suite)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937, French)
Charles Dutoit (conductor), Orchestre Symphonique De Montreal

Okay, so this is definitely stretching things. Ravel wrote a set of piano duets under the title of Ma mère l’Oye (‘Mother Goose’) for the young children of some dear friends. Mother Goose was the imaginary author of some French fairy tales, which subsequently gained popularity over the Channel in Britain in the 18th century.

He later arranged it for orchestral suite and combined some of the elements into individual movements. This one combines Laideronnette (the Little Ugly Girl who becomes the Empress of the Pagodas) with Le Jardin féerique (the fairy garden). This is gorgeous, lush musical story-telling at its best, and is one of the pieces that made me fall in love with Ravel’s music in the first place.

But if I’m honest, I’ve only included it in this list because it has a type of bird in the title.

Gli Uccelli ‘The Birds’ (1928)

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936, Italian)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Respighi is best known, perhaps, for his three Roman tone poems (the Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals) but it was The Birds which I first heard through a music teacher when I was about twelve. I loved it immediately. Respighi would be influential on a 20th century musical movement known as neo-classicism, spearheaded by Igor Stravinsky in particular. It was a reaction against (isn’t everything?!) the emotional density and melodrama of late Romanticism, as they perceived it. They sought inspiration from the more disciplined and distilled music of the classical period from the late 18th century. You can certainly hear the echoes of a musical world with which Vivaldi, for example, would have been very familiar.

Taking its cue from several classical pieces which sought to notate birdsong (much like Messiaen two centuries later), Respighi depicts doves, hens, nightingales and (inescapably) cuckoos in five movements:

  • Prelude
  • La colomba
  • La gallina
  • L’usignuolo
  • Il cucù

Bonus! No. 4, Liten Fugl ‘Little Bird’ (Lyric Pieces, Op. 43, 1886)

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907, Norwegian)
Nelson Freire (piano)

Finally, an added bonus. It should have taken Mother Goose’s place, but I just couldn’t bring myself to delete it.

This is a piano miniature, one of sixty-six so-called Lyric Pieces that Grieg wrote throughout his life. It’s as delicate and fragile as the little bird it depicts.

Click here to listen on Spotify and here to listen on Apple Music.


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