In 1982, Antal Dorati conducted The Cleveland Orchestra in a program which featured Ilse von Alpenheim in Haydn’s D Major Concerto and included that composer’s Symphony No. 82, “The Hen,” Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale” and Kodály’s “Peacock” Variations. Although no one was brazen enough to claim that the program was strictly “pour les oiseaux,” it was evident that three or four of the pieces took their inspiration from the aviary kingdom. Of the three birds, however, only one can sing: the nightingale. The Hen is not noted for its musicality, and the peacock’s beauty resides in the gorgeous beauty of its coda (tail), not its vocal chords. Haydn, whose piano concerto was the only non-aviary piece on the program, dealt with birds in his oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, if none too willingly. Mozart owned a pet starling, and taught him the beginning of the finale theme in his G major piano concerto, K. 453.

A quick glance at “bird music” in its historical setting may be appropriate. There have been numerous extensive studies of the subject, and Roger Tory Peterson’s marvelous record album of bird calls and songs is indispensable to the true aficionado. Percy A. Scholes’s chapter “Bird Music” in the Oxford Companion to Music (9th edition, 1955), begins by claiming that “but for the humans, birds are perhaps nature’s only musicians.” (Recent discoveries prove that some species of whales are magnificent “singers,” producing musical patterns of remarkable subtlety and sophistication.) “Bird Music,” continues Dr. Scholes, “is very varied and sometimes quite elaborate.” He quotes a scholar by the name of Garstang to have emphasized that “we are not to regard birds as automatic musical boxes, but as sound-lovers who cultivate the pursuit of sound combinations as an art as truly as we have cultivated our art of a similar aesthetic character. To many of the birds ‘art has become a real object in life—no less real than the pursuit of food or the maintenance of a family.’”

“The demeanor of birds in song,” Dr. Scholes observes, “varies according to their temperament. The nightingale is lost in ecstasy; the pigeon utters its song lazily, like a cat purring. Many birds accompany their songs with some invariable characteristic gesture. . . . highest of all in rank comes the blackbird, who Garstang calls “the Beethoven of birds.” He has long abandoned the mere short cries of his ancestors and freely invents continuous and developed tunes, quite comparable with some of those that our human composers have taken as the subject matter of their sonatas and symphonies. The blackbird, thrush, and some others of the artistic aristocracy of the bird community, show, as many must have noticed, an appreciation of the octave and the common chord (doh-me-soh) and introduced these into many of their tunes. There is great variety in blackbird song, and it appears as though an individual will fashion a little tune that pleases him and then somewhat extend it from year to year. Birds can sometimes be observed engaged at something that looks like definite ‘practice.’ . . .”

The sounds of nature quite “naturally” provide raw material for the imagination of composers, and the material birds provide can be far beyond “raw.” Indeed, the transcription or transformation into musical notes of some bird songs has been recently developed into an art of great refinement, immeasurably transcending mere imitation. The master of this art and craft is the Frenchman Olivier Messiaen, whose many “bird pieces” (among them Réveil des Oiseaux, Oiseaux Exotiques, and extended sections of other works) are of the greatest scientific as well as artistic interest and value. With his music, we can marvel not only at the skill with which he has made music out of sounds and patterns to which most of us pay only cursory attention, but at the astonishing finesse and variety of the original “music” in the first place.

Messiaen’s art, in fact, has little to do with the attractive but largely coloristic use of bird calls as we find it in hundreds of piece since the Renaissance. Those works, however, have retained their simple charm, from the amusing choral pieces by Jannequin and Gombert, the harpsichord pieces on bird calls and bird names by Couperin, Daquin, and Remeau, to Handel’s organ concerto entitled The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. We would be loath to part, for scientific reasons, with Beethoven’s trio of birds in the “Pastoral” Symphony (nightingale, quail, and cuckoo), with the Forest Bird in Wagner’s Siegfried, and with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Mahler’s cuckoo can sing the interval of the fourth in his First Symphony, while Delius retains the interval of the third On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. Boccherini’s string quintet, L’uccelleria (“The Aviary”) is not so well known as Respighi’s suite, Gli Uccelli (“The Birds”), based on pieces by 18th century composers, and the 20th century Italian caused an international artistic flap when he utilized a recorded nightingale in his Pines of Rome, skillfully set into the orchestral fabric. “We may yet live to see,” cried Mr. Ernest Newman in mock outrage, “ the evening when the Pastoral Symphony will be given with real running water in the slow movement, nightingale by the Gramophone Company, quail by Messrs. Fortnum and Mason.”

The denizens of the aviary realm constitute a delectable “Carnival of the Animals,” and Saint-Saëns’ witty treatment of some of them continue to delight us quite apart from arguments about aesthetics and scientific accuracy. Perhaps Hans Christian Anderson was right when he extolled the virtues of the real nightingale over those of the mechanical one, but even Stravinsky’s “real” nightingale is a musical one, not a creature of flesh and blood, bones and feathers. Whether quoted or transcribed, recorded or classified in tones, imitated or transformed, the song of a bird in a composition stands or falls (better: flies) on the quality of musical form and the degree of imagination which the composer has found for it.


Author’s Note: In 1985 the writer tried his hand in this genre with a piece for oboe and soprano, using as a text Izaak Walton’s disquisition on birds in his Compleat Angler of 1653. The dedicatees, oboist John Mack and soprano Christina Price, premiered the piece in 1986, have performed it about two-dozen times since then, and recorded it for the Crystal Records label (released in 1991).

© 1993 Musical Arts Association