Aside: I’ll be looking at birds in culture in more detail, here I’m focusing on bird song.
Bird song in music
Birdsong has influenced music in a number of ways; as inspiration, as examples of music and as part of the music itself. Whilst the tunes of many songbirds have no doubt played a role in a number of compositions, the nightingale and the cuckoo have been particularly influential. Their songs have been used by Handel, Beethoven and many other works. The nightingale is often held up as an example of a melodic, talented singer whilst the cuckoo has a very distinctive call.
Possibly the first piece of music involving a recorded birdsong was by an Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi who would later create pieces which imitated the dove, the hen, the nightingale and the cuckoo.
The BBC’s first outside broadcast was in 1924 and was of Beatrice Harrison playing her cello alongside singing nightingales.
A couple of other notable uses of birdsong in music include Pink Floyd’s use of bird sound effects in their 1969 albums and in 2005 Kate Bush used bird calls in her 2005 album.
As music isn’t my area of expertise, here are a few. links to more info:
- Classical Music: 6 best birdsong pieces
- Guardian: Birdsong in music
- Gresham College: Birdsong and Music (lecture)
Bird song in literature
This is much more comfortable ground for me! When it comes to literature, from what I’ve seen and read, bird song is more likely to be used in poetry. It can be in the form of words which try to capture the sound but it can also be the topic of a poem or the inspiration for it, for example Ode to a Nightingale.
When it comes to writing down bird song, it can be a tricky matter. There are various kinds of notation which are used and obviously those more musically talented can attempt to convert them into note formation but what of the writer?
In Tarka the Otter, Williamson did a good job of capturing the sound of both animals and birds, with the heron crying ‘kra-a-ark’ and the ‘skirr-rr’ of barn owls, and ‘cur-lee-eek!’ of curlews. E. B. White, in The Trumpet of the Swan, has cygnets making ‘beeps’ and adult swans ‘Ko-hoh, ko-hoh!’. Thomas Nashe’s poem Spring, the Sweet Spring, has birds singing ‘Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo’. All of these add greatly to the specificity of the species being written about. In Tarka the Otter, where the animals do not speak, their calls provide the reader with a small suggestion of their character, something which really enhances the story.
Another theme is that of poets comparing themselves to birds, their poems like their songs.
“Sir, we are a nest of singing birds”
– Samuel Johnson
“A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
Again, we find the nightingale as a symbol of birdsong and emblematic of tuneful music. The nightingale is an elusive creature that is best known for night singing. Perhaps this element of mystery and romance is what entices poets to identify with this bird? It may also feed into the image of the poet, awake through the night, solitary and unappreciated or that they simply must ‘sing’, without need of an audience, simply to exist.
Bird song can be used as a symbol or a cipher, both in poetry and prose, to provide the reader with context. The call of an owl suggests night, the twitter of a blackbird suggests dawn and the chatter of an exotic parrot suggests a more tropical location. The noting of bird song also suggests that other ambient noise is low enough that the narrator can hear the birds, or the birds are close enough to him or her. Equally, absence of bird song can be a powerful tool. We can learn a lot from a character’s reaction to lack of bird song – are they shocked, is this normal for their world? And in a world where bird song is not a feature, how do characters react to the sound of it? Are they shocked? Amazed? Terrified?
The Birds of Killingworth by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was written in 1863 and tells of a place which was filled with birds:
The robin and the bluebird, piping loud,
Filled all the blossoming orchards with their glee;
The sparrows chirped as if they still were proud
Their race in Holy Writ should mentioned be;
And hungry crows assembled in a crowd,
Clamored their piteous prayer incessantly,
Knowing who hears the ravens cry, and said:
“Give us, O Lord, this day our daily bread!”
But then, because of the crops they destroyed and such, the citizens decided to kill all the birds. This obviously doesn’t go well and they end up having to import birds. Reactions to the singing of these new residents is mixed and clearly reflects the mental state of the listeners:
From all the country round these birds were brought,
By order of the town, with anxious quest,
And, loosened from their wicker prisons, sought
In woods and fields the places they loved best,
Singing loud canticles, which many thought
Were satires to the authorities addressed,
While others, listening in green lanes, averred
Such lovely music never had been heard!
Imagine a world without birdsong… Well for some birds, this is the case. Whilst most birds can make calls of some sort, storks, pelicans and some vultures are voiceless and I’ll be looking at other forms of communication in my next post.