Night Music-Feb. 2003

Eine Kleine Nachtmuisk
(A little bit of night music)

What I miss most about the winter months is the night music of the Robin as I slip off to sleep. The notes are so clear and melodious that I began thinking of the many wonderful composers who heard the same collection of sounds. I believe that all works of art are nature based.

Throughout history, composers have imitated, represented or reflected their longing for nature in their musical compositions. As early as the 16th And 17th century humankind was already feeling separated from their natural surroundings. They expressed displeasure at the pace and complexities of modern life. The music of this period reflects this feeling. Pastorals, which are simple tales told in words and music against a natural backdrop, reflected a longing for simpler and more serene times. In Greek mythology, Syrinx was a nymph, a beautiful nature spirit. A panpipe is also known as a syrinx and birds sing, squawk, or screech with a syrinx.

The syrinx is located at the bottom of the bird’s windpipe, inside the birds chest, and is made up of soft stretchy membranes. Songbirds have eight or nine different pairs of muscles that pull on these membranes, adjusting their tension like a drummer tightens or loosens the skin on the drum. While doing this, the bird can control the air puffing from the lungs through the syrinx. This technique can change the pitch, rhythm, and volume of the song. Birds can sing louder than you can. They also can sing with their mouths full; and can sing two different notes at the same time. The two side of the syrinx are controlled independently, each using air from a different lung. Birds can sing simultaneous double tones, or they can harmonize with themselves. The male birds are the singers and the females can only put forth calls to keep in contact with the males.

In one of Mozart’s notebooks there is a passage for the last movement of his piano concerto in G major. Beside this composition was the same passage as his pet starling revised it; with the sharps changed to flats. Mozart’s adjacent note read; “…that was beautiful!” When the starling died, Mozart held a graveside ceremony, singing hymns and reciting a poem he’d written for the fallen songster. Mozart’s next composition was known as the musical joke. It was said that he wrote this piece eight days after the death of his starling. It includes starling-like bits as intertwined tunes that were off-key with an abrupt ending. Mozart, in his opera “The Magic Flute”, makes one of his characters a bird catcher (Papageno).

Mozart was not alone in incorporating bird sounds and themes in music. Birds have been used as actual characters in operas, critical to the action of the piece. One of the more famous instances is Rossini’s, “La Gazza Ladra” or “The Thieving Magpie.” In Stravinsky’s operatic setting of Andersen’s fairytale “The Nightingale” (La Rossignol), the beautiful courtship tune of the male becomes a symbol of nature’s soothing and healing effects on humankind. There are many other examples of bird symbolism in opera.

In Wagner’s “The Knight of Lohengrin,” the hero rides on the back of a swan. In Puccini’s less familiar, but elegant opera “La Rondine” (The Swallow), the story is of a women who flees her surrounding, but like the swallow, is destined to return. If you listen to Vivaldi’s flute concerto “Il Gardellino”, perhaps you will hear the goldfinch which inspired it. Some of Chopin’s work sounds much like a Canyon Wren and bird themes are evident in Respighi’s “The Birds” or Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”.

As you prepare for the long winter nights, take a deep breath, relax, and listen for the spirits of nature sing.

References Bird Life International and National Wildlife

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