Birdsong, literally the most heavenly music there is, has divided even composers. Mahler, for example, was obsessive about not having any extraneous sound disturb him while composing his symphonies during his summer break in the Austrian Alps and ordered his domestic servants to shoo away birds from the log cabin he used to write in. (He had a softer spot for cows and their bells, so magically transported into his sixth and seventh symphonies, however).
Messiaen, on the other hand, was enraptured by birdsong, famously writing his Catalogue d’Oiseaux, a set of seven books of piano pieces based on intensive hearing and transcriptions of birdsongs which also enter into several of his other works, most notably in his Quartet for the End of Time.
Respighi went one better, actually introducing a recording of a nightingale in the score in his “Pines of Rome”. Since he wrote the piece when only 78rpm shellac records were available, it must have been quite a scratchy song at its first performance.
For me the most haunting piece of music ever written is Cantus Arcticus by the Finn Rautavaara who uses pre-recorded birdsongs as an integral part of the score. The strange, ethereal whining song of arctic swans migrating is quite unforgettable and conjures up the desolation, freedom and strange beauty of the polar regions.
Instrumental music imitative of birdsong enters into all periods. Baroque-wise, one just has to think of Daquin’s Cuckoo; romantic-wise it’s the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony and that piece which used to wake up Radio Three listeners in the seventies Vaughan-Williams’ “The Lark Ascending.”
Last night I too was woken up around 2 am by bird song. It sounded so exquisite that I opened all my windows to hear it. The bird, of course, was the nightingale, as outstanding as a singer as it is dull to look at.
Darkling I listened and heard a precise chaconne-type pattern based on two notes. The chaconne’s variations were astounding! The bird sang for much longer, of course, than my little excerpt. Each variation was decorated with acciaccaturas, appoggiaturas, slides, trills, portamenti, staccati and everything that enters the realm and vocabulary of musical ornamentation.
It was like some goddess was speaking through this bird. Indeed, in the Greek myth of Philomela, the raped girl is turned into a nightingale and sings her lament. (Actually it’s only the male that sings). Shakespeare refers to this myth in several of his writings. For example, in Titus Andronicus, when Lavinia is raped and has her tongue and hands cut off so that she cannot speak or write her rapist’s name:
Ravish’d and wrong’d, as Philomela was
More pleasantly, Shakespeare compares his poetry celebrating love to the nightingale’s song (Philomel) in sonnet 102:
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops his pipe in growth of riper days:
Of course, the greatest and best known of poems to this blissful bird is Keats’ Ode – one of the few poems I still remember by heart. (I am so glad I am today living in the “warm south”!)
If you can’t remember it then here is the complete text:
ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?