Music inspired by birdsong (Part 3): Birds in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, known as his ‘Pastoral’ symphony, has moments when the music is explicitly depicting sounds from nature. The fourth movement, for example, re-enacts a thunderstorm: beginning with droplets of rain (short, fast violin notes) and distant thunder (timpani rolls), it builds to thunderclaps and lightning (timpani hits followed by single loud woodwind chords) before subsiding to gentler music again as the storm recedes. Knowing that Beethoven was taking great care to create nature realism in this symphony, it nevertheless took me by surprise when I turned my attention to the famous section of birdsong towards the end of the second movement, and realised just how closely Beethoven was re-creating the actual birdsong he would have heard on his walks in the countryside.

The clue was probably in the fact that Beethoven names the birds in his score. In the flute line we read “Nachtigall” (nightingale), the oboe is labelled “Wachtel” (quail), and the clarinets are the “Kukuk” (cuckoo) [1].

And in excerpt (having transposed the Bb clarinets to C instruments):

So here is my  rendition of Beethoven’s score for birds (at this point in the score, all the other instruments have stopped playing). 

Granted, I’d already spotted that the two clarinets, playing in unison, are extremely cuckoo-like. Surely, this has to be the most recognisable bird in the history of music. Two notes, usually in a falling interval of a minor third. There’s even a musical instrument called the cuckoo, which plays these two notes, and makes a solo appearance in the ‘Toy Symphony’ (composed by Leopold Mozart…or Franz Josef Haydn…no-one’s quite sure).

Here is Beethoven’s clarinet cuckoo, followed by a cuckoo that was recorded in June 2019 that sounds pretty similar. (Yes, I did deliberately choose a recording of the cuckoo at the same pitches).

Ireneusz Oleksik, XC478852. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/478852.

Composers actually vary in which musical interval they use to depict their cuckoos. Here, Beethoven is using a falling major third, but elsewhere in music it has been a minor third (Leopold Mozart/Haydn’s Toy Symphony), or even a perfect fourth (Mahler’s first Symphony). The actual musical interval, it turns out, is seasonal. The falling minor third is generally the sound made by a cuckoo in spring, but this interval tends to widen to a major third, then later a fourth as the season progresses. (I should add, this listening is made by people with ears acclimatised to Western classical music, no doubt making microtonal shifts in order to ‘resolve’ them into classical intervals). So it would seem that Beethoven’s cuckoo was heard slightly later in the season than early spring, as was the example given above (it was recorded in June), and the famous Pastoral symphony storm was probably a summer storm rather than spring storm.

Having readily identified the cuckoo, my curiosity was piqued by wondering (as a relative newbie to learning to identify birdsongs) what a quail actually sounds like. Imagine my delight when I discovered this wonderful three note call, in the distinctive dotted rhythm scored by Beethoven, in quail recordings. Also, pretty much all of the quail recordings I auditioned in xeno-canto.org were pitched at or close to this high D chosen by Beethoven. (Although multiple harmonics are present and it can be difficult to determine which is loudest.) Here’s the oboe part, followed by a quail recording.

Joost van Bruggen, XC483556. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/483556.

Freshly emboldened by my success, I now turn to the nightingale. The nightingale has a complex and rich repertoire of calls, songs and phrases. Here’s how Simon Barnes describes it in his book ‘Bird Watching with your Eyes Closed’ [2]. First he points out that in one study a male nightingale demonstrated 250 different phrases, using a repertoire of 600 song units. Hmmm. Finding Beethoven’s phrase could prove tricky. But then he points to two ‘basic and unmistakable bits of nightingale song: the first, an unbelievably clear and passionate whistling, short notes that gather in intensity and volume’. (The second is a ‘deep, throbbing drumming’.) Is the first what we have here? Here’s Beethoven’s flute nightingale again:

This recording of a nightingale (in Germany) appears to start the whistling phrase after about three seconds. It gets louder, speeds up, and erupts into energetic trilling.

Stephan Risch, XC568090. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/568090.

I find myself wondering if Beethoven’s choice of birds in his Sixth Symphony (completed in 1808) was influenced by the Toy Symphony (perhaps written in the 1760s)? After all, he studied composition with Haydn, in Vienna. As well as the cuckoo, the Toy Symphony also features a part for quail and nightingale, which can also be played on dedicated musical instruments built to simulate these birds. (The nightingale is a strange affair involving blowing into a small canister containing water, and the resulting bubbling whistle sounds like a nightingale trill). The Toy Symphony composer scores the nightingale as just a trill, and the quail as the distinctive three notes in dotted rhythm [3].

As for Beethoven’s instrumentation in the Pastoral symphony, he chose unison clarinets for his cuckoo. The instrument makes a lower sound than the flute, and when played quietly has a pure timbre that perhaps suggests a more diffuse sound coming from a distance? Why two clarinets, and not soloists, like the other birds? Two instruments create a different timbre compared to one soloist. Perhaps the ‘chorus’ effect in his instrumentation suggests the slight echoey effect of a distant cuckoo sound echoing through a forest? The quail, however, makes a more strident sound, better suited to the strong tonguing attack an oboist would need in order to reach those Ds in a somewhat high register for the instrument. And flute for the nightingale seems the obvious choice for the whistling phrase Beethoven chose to score. But perhaps a composer would need to use many more effects if they wished to represent more sounds from this bird’s vast repertoire, such as a flautist slapping their fingers down on the flute’s keys to make the clicking beats that feature in nightingale song.

One final point. The second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony is entitled ‘Szene am Bach’ (Scene by the brook) and begins with gentle repeating string phrases that imitate flowing water. I am reminded of the opening of Daphnis and Chloe (Suite 2) — see part one — which also simulates a flowing brook but through woodwind and harp repeating ‘bubbling’ phrases, and with programmatic elements also written into the score such as ‘On percoit des chants d’oiseaux’ (we hear birdsong).

 

[1] First Edition Score from Breitkopf & Hartel (Leipzig), from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (Public Domain).

[2] Simon Barnes: Bird Watching with your Eyes Closed. Published by Short Books, 2011, quotation from page 258.

[3] Score from Breitkopf & Hartel, Haydn Kinder-Symphonie, from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (Public Domain).

Music inspired by birdsong (Part Two): Tweets, trills and flourishes.

In Part One of this series, (Generic bird sounds in flute music), we looked at some of the musical devices used by composers to represent the sounds of birds, using examples from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe (Suite No.2). In this post, I’ll take three of these devices (grace notes, trills and flourishes) and offer examples from real birds that may have inspired these musical sounds, alongside how they would sound as I play them on the piccolo. It’s worth mentioning at this point a few things about using birdsong in music: birds sing incredibly fast and at much higher pitches than we find easy to follow or play, they don’t sing in discrete musical pitches that comply neatly with our Western musical system of tones and semitones, and they don’t observe regular beats with regular subdivisions. Having said that, let’s plough on looking at musical devices that represent them in music!

1. The first is the grace note. We usually see it written in notation as a very small quaver note with a slash through it, leading into a main note.

It has to be played very quickly, just before the main note, sort of squashed in before it, with the first note tongued but then slurring into the second. Here are a few piccolo examples of the above.

To me, these two notes (grace note followed by main note) is your universal generic ‘tweet’. Compare it to a house sparrow. In this audio, each chirp is not just a single pitch, but begins with a higher-pitched, more strongly attacked sound that moves down. It’s actually more of a chir-rup than a chirp.

[Pere Josa, XC600002. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/600002]

And here’s my attempt to reproduce what I’m hearing in the above audio, played on the piccolo. I’ve moved it to much higher notes to more accurately imitate the actual frequencies.

And again, this time with the piccolo and sparrow recording combined…

2. Trills involve alternating between two adjacent notes very quickly. On a flute it’s usually a case of lifting and replacing one finger very rapidly (it should look like a motion blur). It’s written with the trill abbreviation ‘tr’ above the note, and a wavy line.

And here are examples of this, played on the piccolo.

Trilling is so common to birdsong it is even part of the birdsong descriptive language. I’ve chosen the wren for my comparison because of the way a wren’s song is almost always described as having the distinctive trill at the end of its song (as well as being incredibly loud).

[Jacek Betleja, XC632487. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/632487]

To me, I’m actually hearing several trills in succession, at different speeds. When it came to reproducing this song on the piccolo, I actually played trills for the slower alternating sounds, but for the buzzy trill towards the end, (presumably the ‘distinctive trill’ everyone is referring to), I opted for a flutter-tongue technique (see future post). My fingers simply could go fast enough. Hats off to the wren!

And the two recordings combined:

3. For a flourish, the notation is usually a stream of short notes, beamed together, which must take place within the given duration. Here’s the example from Daphnis and Chloe, followed by my flute rendition.

For this comparison, I’m thinking of a blackbird, with its beautiful fluid flutey phrases.

[David Tattersley, XC629598. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/629598]

As I made the piccolo rendition, there were moments that reminded me strongly of the opening of Messiaen’s flute piece ‘Le Merle Noir’ (‘The Blackbird’). (Watch this space for a future post!)

Here’s the piccolo:

And, again, combined with the original audio I was copying:

So, here’s what I learned as I did this exercise. Birdsong is fabulous! Trying to copy their song with regular beats and pitches feels almost mechanical. And yet, as a composer, there was something liberating about attempting to copy it, as if I was somehow being freed from the limitations of Western music and its notation! Part three to follow soon!

Music inspired by birdsong (Part One): Generic bird sounds in flute music

Depicting birdsong in music seems wonderfully obvious; birdsong has pitch, rhythm, structure, repetition, and timbre – the components that make up music. We perceive the sounds of songbirds as musical. Anthropomorphically, we call it song. Composers through the centuries have used birdsong in music to symbolise the idyllic dream, the beautiful rural landscape, the escape into nature that benefits our mental health. (The fact that birdsong is actually about territorial wars and attracting mates is conveniently absent.)

Using the flute to depict birdsong is also obvious: the flute’s high pitch, the easy virtuosity (trills, runs, and grace notes come more naturally to playing the flute than, say, the trombone – sorry, trombonists) and the flute’s birdy timbre makes it the obvious choice to represent birdsong in music. Give the score a handful of flute trills, pop some grace notes in here and there, and we know we’re in the countryside, and there are birds present.

Before I became fascinated by the actual songs of birds themselves, I also took this rather general approach. To me, birds made generic bird sounds: tweets, trills, and whistles. ‘Birdsong’ was an umbrella term that included anything birdy, and could be created through musical devices such as grace notes, trills, flourishes and repeating notes.

A fantastic example is found in one of my favourite pieces, Ravel’s ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ (Suite 2), completed in 1912. Ravel’s orchestration uses a piccolo, flute and three solo violins to depict the birds in a dawn chorus.

Here’s an excerpt of the piccolo part (petite flute 1)1: The player begins playing in the third bar after figure 156 (the small notes before that are cued cello notes, to help the performer know when to come in). It would sound an octave higher than written. In this section, we can see grace notes, flourishes, repeated notes and trills; four effects that composers have traditionally used to recreate birdsong:

Here’s a rendition of how that part would sound on its own2.

(Frankly, it can be disheartening as an orchestral player when you realise just how quiet you are in the mix from the audience’s position of listening. It sounds so much louder from where you’re sitting in the middle of the orchestra.) 

But, master orchestrator that he is, Ravel takes his score a little further. After the piccolo has started, the flute joins in with a new effect: flutter-tonguing (rolling an ‘r’ while simultaneously playing a note), which captures the raspy sound sometimes heard in birdsong. (It’s the last note of this bar).

Flute 1

Here’s how this sounds on its own3.

At the same time, three solo violins are playing three different sets of harmonic notes, simultaneously, which simulate the sound of a single bird whose tone includes multiphonics (more than one pitch sounding at a time).

Heard in the full orchestral context, the birds are harder to pick out individually, being just one in a chorus of nature sounds, including a bubbling brook effect. In the orchestral version linked below, the three violins begin their harmonics at 39 seconds, the piccolo bird can be heard at 43 seconds, and the flute bird begins at 53 seconds, with the flutter-tongue notes at 57 seconds.

To me, this passage is possibly one of the most sublime orchestral renditions of sounds in nature in the history of Western music. However, stunning though the music is, to an ornitholgist the bird sounds themselves might be unsatisfyingly generic. I certainly wouldn’t be able to identify exactly which types of birds might have been singing here. (If anyone can make suggestions, I’d be delighted to hear from you.)

In further posts in this series, I will look at music inspired by composers who had really listened to the songs of individual birds and created music based on recognisable features, albeit stylised, of actual bird songs, rather than using generic birdsong effects. But before that, I will be taking the musical devices discussed above (such as trills and grace notes), and comparing instrumental audio renditions with audio examples of birds tweeting, trilling and whistling that might have inspired the devices, as a direct comparison.

 

1 All scores: Publisher: Paris: Durand, 1913, from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (public domain).

2 Yeah, OK, it’s me (Fiona Taylor) playing this. I’m probably a bit rusty after all this time…

3 Also me playing.

Scoring a dancing leaf video

A few years ago, I was searching YouTube for a video to practise scoring music to. In particular, I was looking for expressive visual movements that could translate into music, a little bit like a dancer might move spontaneously to music, but the other way round.

This connection across the modes is at the heart of how non-verbal interactions between a mother (or primary care-giver) and child might occur, for example, in the way a baby’s excited arm waving might be matched in the mother’s excited tone of voice. These sorts of connections move me, it feels very human, recognising expressive connections across the modes.

The video I eventually found was called ‘Dancing leaf in the autumn forest’ and was posted back in 2014. And there’s a story behind it being filmed….but first the video.

It has a perfect set of random and natural movements; sometimes the leaf is gently swaying in the breeze, suspended presumably on a strand of spider’s web. Sometimes the breeze causes the leaf to appear to dance, sometimes the twirling and spinning speeds up, then it slows down again and starts gently rocking.

From an emotional point of view, it also carries a certain sadness to it: the leaf looks fragile, it’s a brown, dead, autumn leaf, in a damp looking forest, caught on a strand of spider’s silk….dancing alone.

I scored the music by watching it a few times, then improvising at the piano, in one take, as I watched it on screen, and responded to what I saw. Then I added some strings and woodwind (I’m a flute-player). The resulting music received, for me, the highest accolade I can get – a group of professional and student composers (on the ThinkSpace course in Chichester) said it made them want to cry. (Yes! This is my life’s ambition – to make people cry).

But the fact is, it’s a gorgeous video. Beautifully framed, filmed by someone who obviously has an an eye for the artistry of what they were witnessing. Which is why it came as no surprise that when I approached “GullwingPhoto” (who posted this video) to ask for permission to post it here, I discovered that he is a professional photographer who specialises in photographing musicians!

http://www.gullwingphotography.co.uk/music/

Guy Carpenter, the photographer, remembers filming it, saying “I…just shot with my phone while out on a run in the woods, years ago! It was rather a beautiful sight though, spinning away”.

Thank you, Guy. So inspiring!

Using unusual sounds to create music

Lots of composers are at it! Taking the audio files of unusual sounds and manipulating and processing them (using computer software) to produce new and distinctively different-sounding music.

I first became aware of this as a digital composing technique in the songs of Imogen Heap (in her album ‘Sparks’). For example, in the track ‘Telemiscommunications‘, we hear a series of pops, pings and clicks which are structured by some beautiful piano chords and evolving drones. In ‘The Listening Chair‘, all the sounds come from her voice, from which she creates rhythms, pitch slides, reversed sounds and echo effects. In the track ‘Lifeline‘ she invited fans to send her audio clips to incorporate, and includes the heartbeat of a baby in the womb and a slinky going down some stairs.

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir created the entire score for the HBO mini-series ‘Chernobyl’ [1] by using the sounds she and her team recorded in a power plant in Lithuania. In it we hear highly processed sounds that contain both rhythm and pitch.

‘Planet Earth II’ composers Jasha Klebe and Jacob Shea had access to the natural sounds that the directors had been recording in the wild, incorporating them into the score in a way that ‘blurred the lines between what were natural sounds and what was music’ [2]. Wind sounds from the tops of mountain were shaped into pitches and incorporated into the score for the ‘Mountains’ episode, rustling grass from was turned into a percussion instrument for the ‘Grasslands’, and the sound of swarming locusts made it into the score for ‘Deserts’.

Christian Henson shows how to process the sound of rain to create pitched, fantastic ethereal sounds. [3]

I wanted a go: so I took, as my source audio, the clacketty sound you get when slamming fingers down on the flute (without blowing).

I then copied it twice, to create three tracks, and put different effects on each track: such as EQ, compression, pitch shift, tremolo, stereo delay, and distortion (guitar amp), later adding reversed celesta, with tremolo and high pass filter to capture the ticking sound (I’m using Logic Pro X).

Digital Audio Workstations – fun toys to play with!