Tweet inspiration

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Many composers have been inspired by bird song, including Mozart, Schubert and Schumann.

Vivaldi has birds singing in the "Spring" movement of The Four Seasons (1726) and again in his flute concerto Il Gardellino (The Goldfinch, 1728).

The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams (1914) describes in music exactly what its title suggests, while Ottorino Resphigi listened to a recording of a nightingale when composing his Pines of Rome (1924).

The French composer Olivier Messiaen imitated bird song in many compositions, including a major piano work called Catalogue d'oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds, 1956-58) and a clarinet solo in his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time, 1941), which was written and first performed at the Gorlitz concentration camp, where he was held by the Nazis.

Messiaen carefully transcribed the songs of different birds, and these were used in many pieces he wrote in the 1950s. His interest in ornithology began when he was a student, and he had imitated bird song in a general way in a number of early works. In 1951, he began to copy the songs of particular species, journeying through France and later much of the world collecting bird song by ear.

The first of his larger bird song compositions, Reveil des Oiseaux (Awakening of the Birds, 1953), presents a speeded-up picture of the period from midnight, when only nightingales are singing, through the dawn chorus to mid-morning, when the air falls silent. Later, he incorporated impressions of landscape features such as rocks and mountain streams into his compositions.

In adapting bird songs and calls to musical instruments and to a human tempo, he had to make certain adjustments. Yet it has been said that Messiaen's birds are recognisably his, but also recognisably themselves.

More recently, the Finnish composer Harri Viitanen has adopted a more scientific approach to incorporating bird song in his music. He uses a computer to slow down the sound, so that he can examine details of pitch, rhythm and organisation, before reworking the results into his compositions. An example of his work is Images d'oiseau pour orgue (Bird Images, 1992), which features four "soloists" - a nightingale, a pied flycatcher, a great tit and a blackbird - all represented by the organ.

Another composer from Finland has short-circuited this process somewhat. In his Cantus Arcticus (Arctic Song, 1972), Einojuhani Rautavaara has simply incorporated pre-recorded tapes of whooper swans and other northern birds, which "appear" in all their natural glory in concert performances.

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