Birds of a feather


#1

This is for all musicians, music lovers and others on these boards who appreciate the offbeat (no pun intended).
Charles Schulz goofed big time. In one of his “Peanuts” episodes he had Charlie Brown insult poor Schroeder, the Beethoven buff, by saying that Beethoven never wrote any bird music. Boy, was he wrong! If you listen carefully to the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, near the end of the movement not one, but three birds—the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo—contribute, not once but twice. Yes, the great composer did write bird music. And I started thinking about this, and so I now present a little list of composers who did indeed write music for and about birds who, in the words of the great poet Ogden Nash, are “incurably philharmonic”.
Handel leads off with an organ concerto titled “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”. …
The early French composer Jean-Claude Daquin presents “Le coucou”, a harpsichord piece just about everyone has played at one time.
Camille Saint-Saens gives us a veritable aviary in his “Carnival of the Animals”: “Hens and Roosters”, “Cuckoo in the Woods”, “The Birdhouse”, and of course his famous cello solo “The Swan”, four movements of that suite. And the swan figures prominently in a number of other works: Tchaikovsky with his ballet “Swan Lake”, and Jean Sibelius with that lovely, haunting “The Swan of Tuonela” from his “Four Legends from the Kalevala”.
And there’s the lark. One of Haydn’s most famous string quartets is titled “The Lark” (because the first violin soars above the rest of the ensemble). Again, Tchaikovsky, who wrote two pieces about larks—both called “The Song of the Lark”, from his “Album for the Young” and the suite “The Months” (or “The Seasons”. And the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams portrays “The Lark Ascending”, for violin and orchestra.
Paul Hindemith gets into the act; in his piano suite “In The Night” he depicts a sort of dialogue between a cuckoo and an eagle-owl (the latter being a European cousin of our great horned owl): one could call this “learning a second language”, because the owl decides to try making a sound like a cuckoo, and the latter exclaims “nanu, nanu” (a German expression meaning “Well, whaddayaknow” or “How about that!”) and hoots like the eagle owl.
The Norwegian composer Grieg gives us, in one of his lyric pieces, “The Little Bird”. Carl Nielsen, who apparently lived near a chicken farm, contributes a Rooster Dance in his theater piece “Maskarade”. And speaking of roosters, there was one—“Le coq d’or”—who got composer Rimsky-Korsakoff into a heap of trouble with his government, because this was not one of his usual fairy tale operas but a blistering satire on said government!
And then there was the French composer Olivier Messaien, who was not only a composer but also an ornithologist who studied our feathered friends, collected bird songs—and incorporated them into his music. He gave us “Le merle noir”—“The Blackbird”, for flute and piano, and the exciting “Exotic Birds” for piano and wind orchestra; it should be noted that most of his exotic birds are of the North American variety, such as the robin which plays a central role in this piece, and the wild turkey of the Southwest. Not to mention several piano suites, all about birds.
No doubt there are many more, but this is a considerable sample of those who give the lie to Charlie Brown’s statement that Beethoven never wrote bird music.


#2

I forgot to mention a few more. One of Antonin Dvorak’s symphonic poems is titled “The Wild Dove”. Amy Beach, an early 20th-century American composer, wrote two pieces about the hermit thrush. Igor Stravinsky presented us with “The Song of the Nightingale” (actually, there were two such birds, the real one and an ersatz that had to be wound up all the time); also “The Firebird”, the first of his three great early ballet scores. French ballet composer Andre Messager penned “The Two Pigeons”. Even Engelbert Humperdinck, better known for his opera “Hansel and Gretel”, contributed a tone poem “The Blue Bird” (after a story by Maurice Maeterlinck). And we must not forget the penguins—the emperor, the Adelie and a few other varieties: Again, Vaughan Williams, who in the second movement of his “Sinfonia Antarctica” gives us a look at a bunch of them as they cavort on the ice.
And lest we forget—in the jazz idiom, there was the original “Yardbird”, Charlie Parker, the great alto saxophonist who composed and improvised on countless pieces having to do with birds, works like “Bird Feathers” and “Chasin’ The Bird”—and the trumpeter Miles Davis, whose interpretation of “Bye Bye Blackbird” is one of the great jazz standards. And so I leave you with this admonition: DON’T FORGET TO FEED THEM!!!


#3

It is now 9:17 on a sunny Tuesday morning, and I just remembered several other birds I must mention. Josef Strauss wrote a charming waltz called "Village Swallows’’ complete with the (recorded) twittering and chirping birds of that designation. Charles Tomlinson Griffes, an early 20th-century composer, drew a portrait of a white peacock in his “Roman Sketches”, and Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly stirred up a storm in his “Peacock Variations”, a protest song. Ottorino Respighi, in the third section of “Pines of Rome”, calls for a tape recording of birds singing near the end, and here’s a funny story of a rehearsal we were doing of that piece which we were to perform that night. Somehow the tape recorder got screwed up, but a real live bird came to the rescue; it flew under the roof of the Hollywood Bowl stage and, as if on cue, started warbling for a couple of minutes! If only we could have used that bird at the performance. Respighi also contributed a suite called “The Birds”, featuring the dove, the hen, the nightingale and the ubiquitous cuckoo—delightful. And how about—the last movement of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, which features in the coda a whole flock of screech-owls, in addition to assorted other barnyard creatures! (The whole point was to cause a certain Soviet nogoodnik to have a monstrous cow.})
And that’s all I can think of for now—but this whole essay was for the birds—and the bird-lovers.