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TeachNet USA

From Magpies to Messiaen: Birds in Music

Birds As Singers and Music Teachers

by Henry T. Finck

Two of the greatest singers the world has ever heard, Jenny Lind and Christine Nilsson, were each proud of being referred to as "the Swedish nightingale". Was that really a compliment? Does the nightingale or any other bird sing so beautifully that a world famed prima donna should swell with pride when she is compared to one?

So wonderful is the nightingale's song, in the words of the Englishman, Charles A. Witchell (who wrote a valuable book on the evolution of bird song), that "a listener is apt to forget all else than the supreme impulse and passion of the singer * * * Now he prolongs his repetitions till the woods ring. Now his note seems as soft as a kiss; now it is a loud shout, perchance a threat (r r r r r r); now a soft p e e u u, p e e u u, swelled in an amazing crescendo. Now he imitates the sip sip sip sisisisisisi of the wood warbler, now the bubbling notes of the nuthatch. The scientific investigator is abashed by this tempestuous song, this wild melody, the triumph song of Nature herself, piercing beyond the ear, right to the heart of the listener. He is pleading now! But no, he is declamatory; now weird, now fierce; triumphant; half merry; one seems to hear him chuckle, mock, and defy in almost the same breath."

It is a wonder that Milton, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Cowper, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Heine, Longfellow and other great poets referred in glowing verses to the beauty of the nightingale's song? It is strange that bird lovers should have exhausted their ingenuity in trying to convey some idea of this charm to those who have never heard the queen of songbirds? Athanasius Kircher made an audacious attempt to record it in out musical notation; his page is reprinted in Wild Birds and Their Music, by F. Schuyler Mathews, an admirable book by a thorough musician. Others have attempted to give a vague idea of it by the use of letters. For example:

Tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tix.
Tzu, tzu, tzu, tzu, tzu, tzu, tzu, tzu, tzu, tzu.
Tzorre, tzorre, tzorre, tzorre, hi; etc.

With which compare the attempt of a famous German bird specialist, J. F. Naumann:

Ih ih ih ih ih wati wati wati!
Dewai quoi quoi quoi qiou qui,
Ita lelelele lele lelele watiwatiwatiwatih!
Lu lu lu lu lu lu lu lu watitititit.
Twoi woi woi woi woi woi woi ih, etc.

This comes about as near to giving one an idea of the bird diva's song as one could give of a gorgeous sunset with chalk and a blackboard. But there is a Victor record (No. 64,161) which always proves a pleasant surprise to those who have never heard a nightingale in the woods. Unfortunately it was made by a captive bird, and birds in a cage are not apt to sing with the wild, triumphant abandon of birds in the bush. But I have heard nightingales abroad whose song fully bore out every word written by Mr. Witchell, and I can understand his indignation at Bechstein's assertion that this bird has "only twenty-four strains."

The Perfect Nightingale

John Burroughs thinks the nightingale is but little short of perfect in all qualities. "We have", he says, "no one bird that combines such strength or vivacity with such melody. The mockingbird, doubtless, surpasses it in variety and profusion of notes; but falls short, I imagine, in sweetness and effectiveness. The nightingale will sometimes warble twenty seconds without pausing to breathe, and when the condition of the air is favorable its song fills a space a mile in diameter. There are, perhaps, songs in our woods as mellow and brilliant, as is that of the closely allied species, the water thrush; but our bird's song has but a mere fraction of the nightingale's volume and power."

Has America any songster to match the nightingales of England, France, Russia, Germany and Italy? Was it patriotism that made Mathews declare that the song of our hermit thrush is "the grand climax of all bird music"? Would the great European poets have gone into such supreme raptures over the nightingale had they known our thrushes? H.D. Minot, while conceding that the nightingale is "the greatest of all bird vocalists", declares that it has "a less individual and exquisite genius than our wood thrush." Mathews cites a theme of the hermit thrush which, he declares, "is completely beyond the ability of the nightingale; it is a theme worthy of elaboration at the hands of a master musician; but the hermit does his own elaborating...Some of the themes are in the minor key and some in the major; some are plaintive, others are joyous, all are melodius; there is no score of the nightingale which can compare with such records as these....It must be remembered, however, that bird songs are most ethereal things, a great deal like the wonderful tinting and delicate spiral weaving of Venetian glass; one must see the color or hear the melody in order to fully appreciate its subtle beauty; the song is charming because of its spirituality of tone and its depth of expression; how can the meager outlines of music notation convey such truths? Who can justly report the hermit's song? There is a silvery sustained tone like that of a flute, then a burst of brilliant scintillating music:

...and the song's complete,
With such a wealth of melody sweet
As never the organ pipe could blow
And never musician think or know!"

The dynamics of this thrush range from pianissimo to fortissimo. The fortissimo has been heard across a lake at a distance of nearly a mile, while the whispered tones cannot be heard farther than thirty feet away. Cheney compared the climax of this bird's song to the bursting of a musical rocket that fills the air with silver tones. "Yes", adds Mathews, "the tones are silver - burnished silver, and sweeter far than those of any instrument created by the hand of man."

Operatic Bird Melodies

If Richard Wagner had carried out his plan of migrating to the United States he might have been accused of borrowing some of his Nibelung melodies from songs of hermit thrushes heard and recorded (pp. 242-3) by Mr. Mathews; not merely calls, like those of the cuckoo, nightingale and quail as introduced by Beethoven into his Pastoral Symphony, but real melodies like that of the bird which guides Siegfried to Brunnhilde and the Rhine daughter's motive.

The same observer, who has spent years in the woods with opera glass and note book in hand, heard meadow larks sing snatches of melodies identical with phrases in La Traviata, Aida, Carmen and Ruddygore. From a purely technical point of view this bird is less praise worthy than as a creator of melodies, his voice being wiry and thin, wherefore he is not classed among our best songsters.

Like an operatic coloratura singer is the bobolink, concerning which we read that he "is indeed a great singer, but the latter part of his song is a species of musical fireworks. He begins bravely enough with a number of well sustained tones, but presently he accelerates his time, loses track of his motive, and goes to pieces in a burst of musical scintillations. It is a mad, reckless song fantasia, an outbreak of pent up irrepressible glee." To make a record of this music sung at breakneck speed is impossible until we get a recorder "with the sound catching skill of Blind Tom and the phonograph combined."

In the South of bobolink, every year, destroys two or three million dollar's worth of rice; then he goes north and tries to atone for the theft with his song. He succeeds, I think. To be sure, I don't own a rice field! I love to watch him as he hops along our fence in Maine, apparently trying to lure me away from his wife's nest, and then, when the danger is past, rise like a skylark, soaring and singing.

Jean de Reszki, the greatest operatic tenor and artist of his time, frequently lunched at my residence during the years he was in New York. Of course, I never asked him to sing, but at table he often kept us convulsed with laughter imitating the voices and mannerisms of other artists at the Metropolitan Opera House. Adelina Patti had the same gift; Herman Klein remarks, in his recently published book, The Reign of Patti: "From childhood upward, her sense of humor, her spirit of mischief, her love of drollery and of fun, had been allowed unrestricted sway. To those qualities she added her extraordinary gift of mimicry - not mere talent for imitation, but an intuitive faculty for faithfully reproducing the manner or style of whatever she saw or heard done by another person."

A Feathered Clown

"How birdlike!" an ornithologist would exclaim on hearing these things. The mockingbird owes its very name to its habit - and amazing success - in imitating almost any sound it hears, musical or otherwise. I remember how indignant my sister in Southern California used to be one winter when I was with her because mockingbirds so often made her run out into the chicken yard, thinking a hawk was after her alarmed flock.

"There is a dash of the clown and the buffoon in the mockingbird's nature", says John Burroughs, "which too often flavors its whole performance. It is when its love passion is upon it that the serious and even grand side of its character comes out," he adds.

Many other birds possess the mocking bird's faculty of mimicry. The catbird, for instance, "intersperses his melodic phrases with quotation from the highest authorities - thrush, song sparrow, wren, oriole and whippoorwill. The yowl of the cat is thrown in anywhere, the gutteral remarks of the frog are repeated without the slightest reference to good taste or appropriateness, and the harsh squawk of the old hen, or the chirp of the lost chicken, is always added in some mal a propos manner. All is grist which comes to the catbird's mill, and all is ground out according to the bird's own way of think", writes Mr. Mathews. In other words, there is no regularity; these birds improvise as much as does a pianist when he just follows the inspiration of the moment.

Bird song, evidently, isn't such a simple, "instinctive" thing as most person imagine. It can be as fluently melodious and euphonious as Bellini, but it also rivals modern program music, and even ultra modern cacophony; Schonberg, Ornstein and the rest of them have not succeeded in reproducing the awful roar of the lion, but the ostrich does it so successfully that even the keen eared Hottentots cannot always discriminate between them. "Can we wonder", asks Mr. Witchell, "that the young of the imitative butcher bird, when out of the nest, should squeal like a tortured frog or bird when we know that the parents slay frogs and birds in the vicinity of the young?"

The bleating of lambs, the mewing of cats, the note of a kite or buzzard, the hooting of an owl, and even the neighing of a horse, are imitated by English jays so closely that Montagu was deceived. A more musical kind of "program music" results from the habit of many birds of imitating each other and the sounds of nature. Witchell heard thrushes mimic the cries and songs of the nuthatch, wood warbler, house sparrow, blackbird, nightingale, starling, lark, chaffinch, goldfinch and a number of other birds. robins imitate larks, blackcaps, green finches, besides the titmouse and hedge accentor. The skylark has at least sixteen other birds in his repertory; the starling has eighteen more; nor is even the nightingale content with his own lovely song, but must needs introduce in it motives borrowed from other feathered songsters.

Inanimate nature also influences bird music. The voices of owls simulate the moaning of the wind in hollow trees, such as these birds frequent. In British Columbia Mr. Witchell heard what he thought was the sound of a gurgling, rippling mountain stream. It stopped, and started again, and then he noticed that it was the song of a Canadian wren. He things that many of the warbling birds, such as the blackcap, robin, blackbird, thrush and will warbler, which build their nests near running water, are likely, when young, to be influences by the rippling sounds they hear. What a theme for musical poets!

Every Papa Bird Teaches Music

A thousand years ago it was expected that every Englishman at a banquet would be able, if called upon, to sing a song and accompany himself on the harp. It makes one laugh to think of what would happen if such an assumption were made at a modern banquet, anywhere. And how helpless ninety-nine out of every hundred human fathers would be if they were asked to teach their children music! But that is what every papa bird does! Music teaching is a universal profession among birds! With a few and occasional exceptions, mamma birds do not sing; perhaps for the same reason that they do not wear the gay plumage of the males, which would betray them, while hatching the young, to the keen eyes of birds of prey. But the male is an irrepressible songster, danger or no danger, and every one of his little boys is expected to learn to sing, as much as a matter of course, as our boys are expected to learn the three R's - "Reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic." I am speaking, of course, of song birds only. Not all birds have a vocal apparatus, but the world over there are some six thousand species which do sing.

I know an American woman who was born in Mexico and when she came to New York at the age of five she spoke only Spanish. I know another American woman who was brought up at Lyons and when she came back to New York at the age of six she spoke only French. It is the same way with birds. If a nightingale were hatched and reared among robins or thrushes it would sing like a robin or a thrush. Certain calls and cries of alarm seem to be inherited and instructive, but the actual song of birds is acquired. The older birds are the teachers, and the younger birds learn by listening to them and trying to repeat what they heard, improving from year to year, and gradually adding details and expressive touches of their own. Some of the youngsters are more gifted than others, and the vocal sins of fathers are visited upon their children.

What's the reason that in some regions finches and nightingales and other birds sing better than in other places? Cats! A single cat will catch and eat a hundred or more birds each year. In regions where cats and hawks are scarce birds are likely to live many years, and as their proficiency in singing improves from summer to summer, the younger ones have better teachers as models and thus learn to be better singers than those heard in cat infested regions.

Buffon believed that mockingbirds sometimes consciously sing for the purpose of gaining the favor of man. One thing is certain, he says: "It's song, sung close to human habitations - in the vines and orchards and gardens of man's planting - is not the same song it sings in the wild depths of the southern woods." Roaming in Mexican woods he could always tell when he was approaching a settler's cabin by the peculiar notes of this bird.

Man and birds are the only animals that sing - we know why we sing. Professionals sing for money and applause, and that' why most of them sing so badly and so artificially. Amateurs sing to while away time, for the enjoyment of the music, to please friends, to express happy or sad feelings, especially religion and love. Bird song is commonly supposed to be all love music. Undoubtedly it is at  its best in the springtime of courtship, when the make bird is eager to lure the female, and in all probability the best bird music is inspired by ardent love and fierce rivalry when two or more birds compete for the favor of a female. On such occasions male birds have been known to sing so ardently, so rapturously, that they fall down exhausted, and even dead.

Singing for the Love of it

But many birds sing in summer when the season of courtship is over, or in fall, and even in winter. Why? Evidently because they enjoy singing for its own sake, just as we do. Mathews goes so far as to say (and few know birds so intimately) that they sing first for the love of music and second "for the love of the lady". The skylark sometimes continues to sing even when fighting. Caged birds sing because they have nothing else to do. Wild birds announce daybreak by song because the dangers of the dark are past. The sing when the fog lifts, or after a shower, because they are glad that the sun has returned. Like ourselves they sing at a feast. "The songbird", writes Maurice Thompson, in his charming little book, Sylvan Secrets, "is a gourmand of the most pronounced type, and we find him going into a rapture of sweet sounds over a feast of insects or fruit. * * * I have seen a mocking bird eat the best part of a lucious pear or apricot, and then leap to the top most stray of the tree and sing as if it would trill itself into fragments for very joy of the feast."

The Etude Magazine May 1921


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