High Flyers: Birds in music

Collections / music - Posted 23-06-2020

One night, as I tried to sleep, I was captivated by a bird call outside my window. A nightjar, perhaps? I couldn’t tell, but I began thinking about birds in mythology and music alike.

Herbert Howells’s ‘King David’ is a musical setting of Walter De La Mare’s striking poem about the sadness of King David. He called for the music of a hundred harps but their sweet sound could not release him from his melancholy. He wandered into his garden and was struck by the sad song of the nightingale and as he listened to it in the cool moonlight, his own sorrow disappeared. Birds have a similar ability in Arwel Hughes‘s work, ‘Adar Rhiannon’.

The cuckoo’s two note call may be heard in some of our folk songs, like the lovely, ‘Daw hyfryd fis …’ as well as in the works of eminent composers like Handel and Beethoven. To old Japanese poets the cuckoo’s call could be either the voice of spring or a voice from the land of the dead and this dichotomy is reflected in the music of Oliver Knussen, ‘O hototogisu’.

I often thought that the ecstatic cry of swifts was like the sound of children playing so it was interesting to read in Peter Tate’s book, ‘Flights of fancy’, that the Inuit and Russians had a similar feeling about the sound of swallows and even believed they were the spirits of dead children.

In the real world, few would trust a bird to deliver a message – but lovers do in folk songs (e.g. ‘Aderyn du a’i blufyn sidan’) and John Williams’s film music, ‘Hedwig’s theme’, portrays Harry Potter’s owl who delivered letters in her beak.

The swan sings before death, according to the old tradition. Peter Tate quotes one of Orlando Gibbons’s madrigals:

“The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approach’d, unlock’d her silent throat”

Tate states that the tradition was kept alive by the eminent zoologist, Daniel Giraud Elliot, who described seeing a swan being shot in 1898. The swan’s wings became fixed in flight and to everyone’s astonishment, it started to make plaintive and musical sounds – at times as though running quietly through the notes of an octave. Fanny Mendelssohn composed a superb piece about a swan’s last song: ‘Schwanenlied’.

I would love to hear a concert of Welsh music inspired by birds e.g. folk tunes and music by composers like Dilys Elwyn-Edwards and Rhian Samuel.

Raising money for music projects (or any other project) is always difficult. Perhaps we could benefit from studying the business techniques of the opera singer Adelina Patti. When a certain individual entered her room her pet parrot would screech “Cash! Cash!”

Heini Davies
Assistant Librarian

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