02 August 2009

Sung Birds: Bird-based Recital Repertoire

 Peter Cashwell

I    am an avid birder as well as flutist. I would like this Fall to do a recital program of works related to songbirds. Any suggestions?”
  —  Anonymous.
T hanks for the email. Not symphonic birds or full-orchestral concerto birds, but chamber ensemble or solo recital birds. This topic is not one that I have any experience in at all, but it’s intriguing. So I earnestly, naïvely look around...

  • Joseph-Henri Altès. ‘Le rossignol et al tourterelle’, Op. 26. (flute, soprano, piano)
  • Clement-Philibert-Leo Delibes. ‘Le rossignol’. (flute, soprano, piano)
  • Ernst Fromaigeat. ‘Petits poèmes d'extreme-orient’. (flute, soprano, piano)
  • Charles Gounod. ‘O, légère hirondellé’. (soprano, piano)
  • Edvard Grieg. Lyric Pieces for solo piano (‘Little Bird’)
  • Franz Liszt. Deux Légendes S.175 ‘St. François d'Assise: La Prédication aux oiseaux’ [Sermon to the Birds] (solo piano)
  • Bohuslav Martinů. ‘Butterflies and Birds of Paradise’. No. 2. (solo piano)
  • Fleix-Marie Victor Massé. ‘Au bord du chemin, air du rossignol’. (flute, soprano, piano)
  • Felix Mendelssohn. ‘Holder klingt der Vogelsang’ Op. 8 No. 1; ‘Die Schwalbe fliegt’ Op. 8 No. 8; ‘Die Nachtigall, sie war entfernt’ Op. 59 No. 4 (Nachlaß. Vol.38.)
  • Olivier Messiaen. ‘St. François d'Assise’; Perfect Joy, in ‘La Croix’.
  • Auguste Panseron. ‘Philomel; Doux rossignol’. (flute, soprano, piano)
  • Alexis Roland-Manuel. ‘Deux elegies: Charmant rossignol’. (flute, soprano)
  • Albert-Charles Roussel. ‘Deux poèmes de Ronsard’. (flute, soprano)
  • Franz Schubert. Quartet in C. D.46 (finale)
  • Robert Schumann. ‘Vogel als Prophet’, Op. 82 No. 7. (solo piano)
  • Toru Takemitsu. ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’. (viola, piano)
L ots of trills, turns, and other ornaments emulating bird song or flight. I assume the effect you’re after is a serious one, not a novelty? It’s actually pretty tough to avoid ‘pretty-but-inconsequential’ “salon sentimentality”.... pouty kinds of bravery or wittiness or condescension.

 David Rothenberg, transcription of thrush song
I    cons function ‘on the basis of isomorphism. Hence their counterparts in music are imitations of natural sounds like bird song, wind, the murmur of a forest, raindrops, thunder.’ ”
  —  Eero Tarasti, Theory of Musical Semiotics, p. 54.
P ossibly a program of bird lieder or instrumental pieces would go better if combined with bird-poem readings, including ones that were not set to music? Or maybe an all-birds recital in the context of an art gallery exhibit of bird paintings and prints?

I    t is with birds as with other poets: The smaller gift need not be the less genuine.”
  —  Bradford Torrey.
P ersonally, I’m not convinced an entire recital program of bird-themed music is aesthetically such a good idea. I’d love to attend a recital like that and find out I’m really wrong to think this...

B    enjamin speaks of song, which [he asserts] may possibly ‘rescue’ the language of birds, as visual art rescues the language of Things. But this seems to me the achievement of musical instruments much rather than of human voices. After all, an instrument is animation. ”
  —  Theodor Adorno.
I  have to admit that there is a measure of musicality that lives in the ‘gap’ between the notation and the performance—one that manifests in the dignity and authenticity happening in real-time when you are performing music that is meant to provide verisimilitude—in this case, representation of the ethos of an animal, such as a bird. Mimicry of birdness pushes the limits of musical notation and composerly abstraction as much or more than anything else can do. It seems extremely risky—risky for the composer to code something that is at a credible level of abstraction, neither too synoptic nor overly explicit and controlling; risky for the performer to render what has been notated, in a way that is inspired and realistic. If you ‘blow it’, you get caricatures of undignified, monotonous cuckoo automatons. Instead, you need always to suspend and violate the rhythmical patterns as a real bird might do, to accomplish an original expressive—and usually narrative—purpose. This is more license for improvisation or interpretive freedom than we usually get...

T   o accurately render how and what birds sing, musical notation has to be stretched to its limits, at Mathews and Thorpe have shown. When we write bird music down, we always abstract from it. We learn the limitations of our tools in the emulation of Nature. ”
  —  David Rothenberg, p. 192.
W  hat a curious email and question this is! I am enjoying exploring answers for it, but I am not the right guy. Surely your conservatory’s librarian will have better ideas than these. Or have a look at David Rothenberg’s and Elizabeth Eva Leach’s recent books: there are some more examples and excellent discussion of bird-oriented repertoire in those. Maybe other CMT readers will comment with additional suggestions? Dvořák’s undeservèdly obscure pigeon-breeders’ rhapsody? New music; recent birdy commissions?

 Peter Cashwell
I    t would be dangerous to criticise an artist’s selection, for, as Henry James has pointed out, it is always a risk to ask an artist why he [she] selects any particular theme for treatment. That should be the poet’s secret. This holds good in the Hofmann case. He played what he liked because he liked it. He might have given us less salon music and fewer decorations, but it may be added that, no matter what he would have offered, the result would have been the same—beautiful.”
  —  James Gibbons Huneker, New York Times, 26-JAN-1919, review of Josef Hofmann piano recital at Carnegie Hall.
E    xamination of Emily Dickinson’s personal bound volume of miscellaneous sheet music at the Houghton Library at Harvard confirms that she did, indeed, become a highly accomplished pianist. She played the popular waltzes of the day, and her album contains arrangements of nine that are attributed to Beethoven... Three waltzes should be mentioned because of their ranking order of difficulty. ‘The Bird Waltz’ is a difficult piece; ‘Aurora Waltz’ is classed as very difficult; and ‘Sliding Waltz’ could only be played by an accomplished musician, for it is exceptionally difficult.”
  —  Carolyn Lindley Cooley, Music of Emily Dickinson, p. 13.
 David Rothenberg
L    e tapis du rêve

Une nuée d'oiseaux
Est venue s'ébrouer dans mon verger.
Comme une grêle ils ont fauché
Les fleurs don j'espérais des fruits.
Ah, quell saccage!
Ils se sont battus piaillant criant:
Les petals dans l'herbe neigent en tourbillons.
Neige parfumée—
Digne des jardins où se pavanent les heureux fils du Ciel!
Petits oiseaux merci, pour vos ébats turbulents.
Certes les fruits seront bien rares,
Oui mais quel beau tapis pour mes rêves!
Pour mes rêves!”

Carpet for Dreams

A cloud of birds
Has come to flutter in my orchard.
Like a hailstorm they wrecked
The blossoms that I hoped would bear some fruit.
Ah, what vandalism!
They fought shrieking, shouting:
The petals fall like blown snow on the grass.
Fragrant snow—
Fit for gardens where the lucky sons of heaven swagger!
Small birds, thank you for your turbulent carousing.
My pickings will be slim because of what you’ve done,
Yes, but what a beautiful carpet for my dreams!
For my dreams!
  —  Ernst Fromaigeat, ‘Petits poèmes d'extreme-orient’, setting of poems of by L. Arnould-Grémilly, for soprano, flute, and piano.