Music inspired by birdsong (part 5): Vivaldi and the goldfinch.

I’ve been writing about composers whose music has been inspired by birdsong, and noticing if their music is merely generic and bird-like (such as trills and repeating notes), or if it truly resembles how specific birds actually sound. I get very excited when I spot a good musical rendition of a specific birdsong. If we were look at Vivaldi and judge his ornithological accuracy based solely on the musical birdsong that appears in his ‘Four Seasons’, we’d decide he was a composer writing generic birdsong. For example, near the opening of ‘Primavera‘, three solo violins perform trills, runs and repeating notes which are labelled ‘Canto de gl’uccelli’. I was initially quite excited when I read this labelling. Wow! Which was the bird being immortalised in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? I reached for Google translate, only to learn that ‘Canto de gl’uccelli’ is Italian for ‘birdsong’. OK.

However, much more exciting results are found in Vivaldi’s less well-known concerto for flute and orchestra, named ‘Il Gardellino’ (in D major, Opus 10, no. 3, RV 428). Here we find a complete gem of musical ornithology. Again reaching for google translate, this time I learned that a ‘gardellino’ is a goldfinch. Vivaldi has labelled this piece with a specific bird. Promising. So, I took a further look at just how closely he chose to make the music resemble goldfinch song.

And, the answer is (spoiler alert), magnificently closely. This is a fabulous gold mine of birdsong imitation. I mean, really, really close. Vivaldi must have had a superb ear for birdsong. Here’s what I mean:

The opening flute part from the concerto looks like this:

Here’s what it sounds like (using sampled strings, and me playing the flute part).

In the flute part, I identified several musical motifs, or elements, which can directly be linked to specific elements and notes characteristic to a goldfinch.

The first is a quick, four-note, rising arpeggio figure (bars 1 – 7), which is heard several times:

In the flute:

And in the Goldfinch:


Next up comes the section beginning in bar 13, marked ‘Solo A’ Piacimento‘, (at the player’s pleasure), which means the soloist has the freedom to play this however they wish, presumably in a bird-like manner. Usually, a concerto like this would save this moment of soloistic flamboyance until the cadenza towards the end, when the orchestra also drops out, but Vivaldi has chosen to feature his goldfinch right at the beginning.

This cadenza-like section, begins with a held note, which resembles the little piping squeaking sound I first learned as I was learning to recognise goldfinch song. What follows is a two-note figure consisting of a higher note falling onto the lower squeaking note. Both elements can be heard in this song:

First in the flute:

And then in the goldfinch:

Vivaldi appears to be notating this two-note figure as a falling 2nd, and then a perfect fourth (and later, an octave). Messiaen, twentieth century French composer famous for notating and representing multitudes of birds in his music, also picks out this particular goldfinch call and notated it as a falling minor third [1].

Next comes a series of trilled notes. Vivaldi scores this as the alternating As and Ds, first in flute’s semiquavers (16th notes for you non-Brits), and then in demisemiquavers (32nd notes). So the trilling definitely speeds up.

First in the flute:

Check out what this beautiful goldfinch song sounds like at 4 seconds in.


Towards the end, we have three more elements: the ascending flute octave runs, three short upper notes, and a final:

Listen again to the previous goldfinch example (xeno-canto620853). These three elements resemble, respectively, the upwards gliding notes, (heard two seconds in), three repeating notes, (also heard at 4 seconds) and a final buzzy note (5 seconds in). Here’s the buzzy sound, isolated:

This buzzy note is a rasping buzzy sound that often finishes goldfinch song (and is similar to the concluding buzzing sound in both greenfinch and chaffinch song).

Goldfinch song is often described as tinkly, and metallic. When I was first trying to remember it, I thought it sounded a bit like an organic R2D2. But I’ve been listening to the goldfinch song in my garden with new ears: influenced by Vivaldi’s ears. And they were extraordinary. Without audio recording equipment, Vivaldi picked out sensationally accurate notes and phrases.

With a little re-arranging of the order of the elements from these three goldfinch excerpts, the goldfinch can now neatly play along with the flute:

But who needs the flute? Let’s hand this over to the goldfinch. And so, using just excerpts from the three xeno-canto audio excerpts already played above, I give you the world premiere (as far as I’m aware) of Vivaldi’s flute concerto, performed by the goldfinch.

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