Birds behind bars

Eastern-BluebirdDuring the Second World War, when Vera Lynn sang her now legendary version of There’ll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover, poetic licence ignored the fact that the bluebird’s habitat is nowhere near the south-east of England. But it tacitly confirmed that birdsong is generally associated with an atmosphere of peace, a natural sense of optimism and a significant musical interest.

Of all the calls from nature, birdsongs are the ones most assimilated into musical compositions, either through imitation or the incorporation of actual recordings (and, occasionally, by whistlers!).Tundra-swans

Cantus Arcticus (Naxos 8.554147) was written by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara in 1972. It’s scored for orchestra with the addition of pre-recorded birdsongs, including those of the shore lark and migrating swans. Written for a degree ceremony at the ‘Arctic’ University of Oulou, it couldn’t be more of a contrast to BrahmsAcademic Festival Overture (Naxos 8.557428), written for a similar occasion at the University of Breslau almost a century earlier but which incorporated the slightly wilder warbles of student drinking songs.

The cuckoo may have only a meagre, 2-note call but it has nonetheless attracted the attention of a number of composers, from Daquin’s Le coucou for keyboard, to the clarinet renditions in Saint-SaënsCarnival of the Animals (Naxos 8.550499) and Delius’ cameo for small orchestra, On hearing the first cuckoo in spring (Naxos 8.557143).

Despite its lacklustre plumage, the nightingale is one of the supreme melody-makers in the natural world, with a richly varied calling card that is matched by few other species and is the envy of many a coloratura soprano.

nightingaleThe bird was captured in a celebrated 1924 sound recording of the English cellist Beatrice Harrison playing Londonderry Air al fresco in her garden, duetting with the enchanting counterpoint of a nightingale sitting in a tree.

Beethoven portrayed the bird – along with quail and the cuckoo – in his Pastoral Symphony (Naxos Classical Archives 9.80526), writing parts for them on flute, oboe and clarinet respectively, clearly marking the parts accordingly on the score.

Ottorino Respighi also included the nightingale in his symphonic poem The Pines of Rome (Naxos 8.550539) but demanded that, wherever possible, a sound recording of the actual birdsong should be used. The warbler appears at the end of the third movement that describes pine trees on the hill of the Temple of Janus bathing in moonlight, but it doesn’t hang around at the onset of the Roman legions storming their way into the picture during the following, final movement, The Pines of the Appian Way.

The bird was also beautifully referenced in Eric Maschwitz’s lyrics for the song A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120663), apparently equally at home with London’s city centre as more pastoral settings:

That certain night, the night we met,
There was magic abroad in the air.
There were angels dining at the Ritz,
And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.

The avian maestro, however, was Olivier Messiaen, the French composer for whom birds had an almost spiritual significance. He wandered througholiver-messiaen woods and city-centre bird markets transcribing the songs and calls of an extraordinary gamut of birds with an unparalleled zeal. Some of that enthusiasm can be seen on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QdgUJss9BU in which he demonstrates a number of transcriptions with the help of his wife Yvonne Loriod at the piano.

Messiaen first captured birdsong in his Quartet for the End of Time (Naxos 8.554824), written in 1941 and scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, and he went on to include the concept in many of his compositions. The Catalogue d’oiseaux (Naxos 8.553532-34) is his magnum opus on the subject: written between 1956 and 1958 for piano solo, it lasts for around 150 minutes and explores less familiar ornithological species, such as the Alpine chough, the reed warbler and the short-toed lark.

Any survey on the contribution birds have made to the classical repertoire could go on and on, but let’s end with two works separated by four centuries, as different as chalk and cheese in musical style but unified by the fascination with our feathered friends.

emperor-nightingaleThe orchestral suite derived from Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale (Naxos 8.571222) relates the charming Hans Andersen tale of how a Chinese Emperor is restored to health by the singing of the tiny bird, for which a clockwork equivalent proves no substitute.

Composers were already at it with their musical birdcages, however, in the Renaissance period so, if you don’t know it, why not try out Clement Janequin’s Le chant des oiseaux (Naxos 8.550880) and enjoy three minutes of the most delightful chirruping fun.

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