December 02, 2011
When human beings first started making music—tens of thousands of years ago—think about what exemplars of music there were in their environment. The first naturally occurring music that springs to mind is birdsong. Some birds tweet or chirp, while some sing little tunes. It stands to reason that one of early human’s first musical influences must have been birdsong. It is possible to imagine that some of the very first instruments we have found, like a flute more than 35,000 years old, might have imitated the songs of birds. But even when people started notating complex counterpoint, the simple songs of the birds never quite left the imagination. Birdsong can represent the coming of spring and renewal, the beauty and peacefulness of natural settings, or even the blossoming of love.
One of the composers on the latest LACO program is Ottorino Respighi. Respighi, who lived from 1879 to 1936, loved birdsong, and one of his hobbies was transcribing birdsong into traditional notation, no easy feat. According to Maria Anna Harley, author of The New Grove article on “Birdsong,” there are three ways to render birdsong into music, “a) by imitation, by voices and instruments; b) by quotation, using recordings; and c) by using live bird’s voices.” Incidentally, Respighi was the first to use recorded birdsong in a piece of orchestral music. He included a recording of a nightingale song in his Pini di Roma from 1924.
Respighi’s Gli ucceli, which will be played by LACO, is influenced both by Baroque composers and by birds as well. There are four movements named after birds: the dove, the hen, the nightingale, and the cuckoo. The cuckoo, specifically, has made appearances in everything from the thirteenth century song, “Summer Is Icumen In” to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, to Mahler’s First Symphony, to György Ligeti’s “The Cuckoo and the Pear Tree.” The cuckoo’s song is easily imitated, as is the song of the quail, which was used by Schubert in the song Wachtelschlag and by Beethoven in the Pastoral Symphony.
Hearing stylized birdsong sung by human voices can be highly entertaining. The fourteenth century chanson composer Janequin was a master of programmatic chansons, songs that imitate sounds like those of battle or nature. His Le chant de oiseaux is a tour de force of vocal bird imitations. Keyboard composers like Frescobaldi and Pasquini have also brought bird idioms into their work. Two important keyboard works inspired by birdsong are Francois Couperin’s Le rossignol en amor and Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux. The latter composer, Messiaen, is arguably the king of birdsong in music. While everyone else I’ve mentioned (with the exception of Respighi) merely dabbled in birdsong, Messiaen was fairly obsessed with it. Messiaen, who died in 1992, spent much of the last forty years of his life working with birdsong in his compositions. In Réveil des oiseaux (1953), Messaien begins the piece with the song of a single nightingale, and little by little, more and more birds sing their songs, until there is a near cacophony of sound. Messaien, who was meticulous in his study of birdsong, names each bird in the score as it enters into the fray, referring to almost forty different species. Three years later, Messiaen began composing Catalogue d’oiseaux, a huge piano cycle featuring the birds of France. In the following years, Messiaen included birdsong in his music from birds all over the world. To him, the songs of birds represented, according to Harley, “the development of a new musical style with the birds’ irregular phrase structures, rich timbres, complex melodic contours and intricate rhythmic patterns in incessant variation.”
Human beings have been creating music for tens of thousands of years. Notation is fairly new in the grand scheme of things. Our tonal system, especially in terms of its written history, is just hundreds of years old. We have tried everything under the sun to manipulate rhythm, harmony, tonality, and melody. We have brought every one of those musical aspects to its breaking point and beyond, sometimes coming back around to where we began. Yet in all that time, birdsong has still continued to intrigue the composer and the listener. The birds, it seems, still have something to teach us.