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Classical Music (is) for the Birds

Musical bird
Claus H. Godberson
Musical bird

Q: What do you call birds who don’t know the song lyrics?

A: Hummingbirds.

Cheeky blog title aside, there are many examples of classical composers who have been inspired by birds, bird legends, and of course, bird songs. While clucking chickens and elegant swans and others in the avian world aren’t necessarily limited to springtime appearances, I thought it would be fun to put the birds front and center now that it’s the season we start to spend more time outdoors.

One piece of bird inspired music that is at the top of my “love that!” list is The Lark Ascending, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was inspired to write his music based on the poem by that title by George Meredith, which starts:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake….

Everyone who listens all the way through seems to find it is the best piece ever to release the pent-up sadness (have tissues nearby), or the best piece ever to set your hopes and dreams free. Violinist Hilary Hahn takes the role of the Lark here, joining conductor Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra.

“Just for a lark,” how about another classical lark song? The Lark is a piano piece by Mikhail Glinka, who was also inspired by a poem. His friend, the poet Nestor Kukolnik, wrote:

Between the sky and the earth a song is heard
An unending stream of sound pours louder, louder.
Unseen is the singer in the field where sings so loudly
Above his make the sonorous skylark.
The wind carries the song, to whom, it does not know.
She to whom it is sung, she will understand who it is from.
Pour on, my song of sweet hope
Someone remembers me and sighs furtively.

It’s played here by Evgeny Kissin.

Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s flute concerto, “Il Gardellino,” or “The Little Goldfinch,” was published in 1728, part of the first set of flute concertos ever published in Italy. In this piece, it’s a flute that is imitating the bird song. Staying in Venice, here is Claudio Scimone conducting the ensemble I Solisti Veneti, with guest flutist James Galway.

The graceful and mysterious swan has fired the imaginations of numerous composers. Think Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, and Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela. Perhaps the most graceful of all is “The Swan,” one of the creatures Camille Saint-Saëns describes musically in his 14-movement suite, The Carnival of the Animals. Here are Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott.

Very different from Saint-Saëns’s elegant swan is the second movement he titled “Hens and Roosters.” It’s under a minute long, but just enough that you can picture the birds pecking for grain. Here are the brothers and sisters of the famous Kanneh-Mason family. Isata Kanneh-Mason is the pianist.

Josef Haydn was also influenced by birds. In 1785 he wrote the second of his six “Paris” Symphonies, as they are known, Symphony No. 83. When it was published two years later, it was already known by its nickname, “The Hen.” Here is the first movement. At about a minute in you’ll hear that chicken clucking around the barnyard. Capella Istropolitana is conducted by Barry Wordsworth.

A few years later, Haydn was in Vienna composing his six Opus 64 quartets. The fifth quartet is nicknamed “The Lark.” You can hear the bird take flight in the first movement. Appropriately enough, here is the Lark Quartet!

Let’s wrap it all up with one piece that spotlights many birds. In 1928, Italian composer and music historian, Ottorino Respighi, arranged five Baroque-era pieces into a suite for small orchestra called Gli Uccelli (The Birds). Respighi was no stranger to bird song. In a previous work, The Pines of Rome, he actually included a recording of a real nightingale instead of having a musical instrument imitate the bird. But in this suite, it’s all about the musical instruments. The Prelude is based on music by Bernardo Pasquini; “La Colomba” (“The Dove”) is based on the music of Jacques de Gallot; “La Gallina” (“The Hen”) is based on the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau; “L’Usignulo” (“The Nightingale”) is based on a 17th century folksong, “Engels Nachtgaeltje”; and “Il cucù” (“The Cuckoo”) is, once again, based on music by Pasquini. The bird songs are so distinctive that you can hear when he describes one from the next. Louis Lane conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

If this list of bird music inspires you, here are a few other pieces to check out: Louis-Claude Daquin’s The Cuckoo, Handel’s Concerto in F Major, “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale,” Frederick Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, and Olivier Messiaen’s piece for piano and orchestra, Reveil des Oiseaux, or Dawn Chorus of the Birds, describing birds waking up at sunrise!

CODA: Beethoven fans may know that his Symphony No. 6, known as “The Pastoral,” was inspired by the long walks he would take in the countryside and nearby woods. He includes the songs of three birds in this symphony: the quail, the cuckoo and the nightingale.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.