by Darren Giddings

Human music making has been inspired by birdsong throughout history. It is perhaps only to be expected that musicians would take as their inspiration the spontaneous - seeming melodies casually thrown off by a creature which has always exerted a strange fascination. The romance and mystery which birdsong evokes has also drawn people in: music making for humans is a conscious creative act, for birds it is a fact of life - a fact pulled dramatically into focus by recent research showing that species' breeding habits are at risk due to their courtship songs being distorted by excess traffic noise. Now birdsong is studied with a scientific detachment: acoustically, biologically, ecologically. And still the mystery remains.

The influence of birdsong on human music making is certainly of long standing. Among the earliest surviving pieces of music from Britain is the 13th century melody 'Sumer is icumen in', in which the song of the Cuckoo is emulated, 'cuccu cuccu, wel singes thu cuccu'. This familiar song, with its roots in the oral transmission of the folk tradition, has fed into a number of works in the subsequent centuries, notably making an appearance in the finale of Benjamin Britten's 'Spring Symphony' (1949) and in Michael Tippett's 'Shires Suite' (1970). The Cuckoo's call is as much appreciated as a signal of summer as for its own resonances, and as a consequence has appeared in affirming music by composers as diverse as Beethoven (in his Symphony no.6, 1808), GF Handel (in an organ concerto), Gustav Mahler (Symphony No.1, 1888), Frederick Delius ('On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring', 1913), and Gyorgy Ligeti ('The Cuckoo and the Pear Tree', 1993). There is also the famous Cuckoo Waltz, and recent research suggests that Mozart might have taken the inspiration for his 'Musical Joke' from his pet starling!

The employment of the instantly identifiable call of the Cuckoo's as a motif by composers is a good example of birdsong recreated in a directly representational way. Many other birds have received this treatment over the years, from nightingales and skylarks to robins, wagtails and even the siskin (in Carl Nielsen's choral work 'Sidskensang', 1906). The aptly named William Byrd wrote songs on hawks in the 17th century. Anyone in the 17th century looking for a broad selection of birdsong in music might do worse than consult the string quartet by Luigi Boccherini entitled 'The Aviary' .

In the last hundred years, composers have won increased freedoms in all fields of their work, which have lead to a wide and fascinating diversity of new styles and techniques. The ability to choose tonal or non-tonal paths, and advances such as the wider knowledge of African, Eastern and other seemingly exotic musical forms have enabled experiments with birdsong, and transcriptions of calls which no-longer feel obliged to fit into the traditional structures of Western music. The most famous exponent of this way forward was the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-93), a deeply religious man whose mystical Catholicism included an embracing of the mysteries of the natural world, not least those of birdsong. Among his many works inspired by and infused with birdsong is the 'Reveille des Oiseaux' (1955), an orchestral work derived exclusively from avian sources. As well as these direct transcriptions, he also combined the sounds from nature with more impressionistic evocations of habitat and environment, as in his enormous work for piano solo, the 'Catalogue d'Oiseaux' (1960). A similar (in concept if not execution) blend of the naturalistic and impressionistic can be found in Ralph Vaughan Williams romantic and magical evocation of summer 'The Lark Ascending' (1914).

 Like Messiaen, British composer Trevor Hold studied the forms of birdsong in some depth, and published a collection of notated vocalizations in the early 1970s. His musical work incorporates many of the lessons learned from this study.

Impressionist interpretation is the other significant way in which composers have chosen to represent birds and birdsong in their work. This enables the representation of movement, flight, and even appearance and demeanour, which use of the call alone restricts. The Swan holds a particular fascination. The familiar 'mute' swan is badly named, swan deriving from an Anglo-Saxon word for 'sounder', and although having no song, swans can often be heard hissing, growling and grunting in a most bad tempered manner. 'Sounder' might have been tribute to the memorable sound made by their wings in flight. If any swan can be said truly to 'sing', it is the Whooper Swan, or the Bewick , both of which emit 'haunting cries'. But the legend of the song of the dying swan - the swansong - remains a legend, and as such a potent musical image for composers to draw upon. As early as the 17th century, Orlando Gibbons has a madrigal called 'The Silver Swan', but perhaps the shimmering creature from Camille Saint-Saens 'Carnaval des Animaux' (1886) is the most familiar.

Sibelius brought life to a Finnish legend (as he was wont to do with some frequency) in the orchestral tone poem 'The Swan of Tuonela' (1893) and we can hardly fail to mention Piotr Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake' (1895).

Maurice Ravel also drew birdsong and avian ambience into his works. Small scale pieces, such as 'Oiseaux Tristes' (1905) for solo piano and the song-cycle 'Histoires Naturelles' (1906), feature the most obviously representational portraits, but it is in orchestral works like the ballet 'Ma Mere l'Oye' (Mother Goose, 1911) that a lush impressionism can be appreciated. Certain high string sequences have, in my experience, set a cockatiel to singing. The little birds featured in the 'Tom Thumb' sequence might put us in mind of Modeste Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' (1874), in particular the cheeping and chattering 'Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells' episode.


Beatrice Harrison charms the Nightingales in a Surrey wood.

These, of course, were all interpretations of the sounds of birds played on musical instruments. Involving live birds in performance was obviously impractical, although the 1920s radio broadcast of cellist Beatrice Harrison successfully encouraging nightingales in a Surrey wood to sing by playing popular 'cello repertoire to them [1], is evidence that attempts, however eccentric, were made. Change came with the advances in technology during the twentieth century which allowed for the recording of birdsong from nature. Once recorded, the sounds could be utilised, both as a study and research tool and in performance.

One of the earliest examples of recorded birdsong being used as part of a live concert was in the early performances of Ottorino Respighi's 'Pines of Rome' (1924) whose score incorporates a gramophone record of a nightingale. Since those first steps, recordings have often been used to complement and even enhance music written for 'live' ensembles, tapes frequently being created as part of the process of composition. Johan Dalgas Frisch set a tape of birdsong from Brazil to orchestral accompaniment in his 'Symphony of the Birds', but better known today is the 'Cantus Arcticus' (1972) of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. This atmospheric and moody piece incorporates birdsong recorded by the composer from inside the Arctic circle.

Increasing flexibility in sound recording, such as the invention of magnetic recording tape, lead to the development, after the second world war in the studios of French radio, of Musique Concrete. This was music formed from creative collaging of recordings of natural sound, in both as-found and studio-manipulated forms. The Italian radio network RAI used such a collage, by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henri of birdsong as its off-air call signal for many years. The American composer James Fassett's 'Symphony of Birds' (1955) is an ambitious layering of birds songs and calls recorded from nature. The last work of Karl-Birger Blomdahl was an astonishing piece for Swedish radio entitled 'Altisonans', (1966) which drew together recorded bird vocalizations with sounds from space satellites and magnetic storms, testing a theory from physicist Ludvik Liszka that the song of the Redwing bears a remarkable similarity to that of some satellites' radio emissions.

Science may try to define the meaning and processes behind birdsong, but the sheer magic of its spontaneity will always be an inspiration to the creative.

Darren Giddings


A New Dictionary of Music Jacobs, (ed) Penguin, 1973.
All the Birds of the Air Francesca Greenoak, Andre Deutsch 1979.
Bird Song - Biological themes and variations Catchpole & Slater, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Dictionary of Birds Campbell and Lack (eds),1985.
New Grove Dictionary of Music Macmillan, 1980.

Selected Discography

Birds and Harmony - From Janequin to Monteverdi (Ensemble Terpsichore, CD - Koch International, 1995).
Benjamin Britten - Spring Symphony (CD - London, 1989) .
James Fassett - Symphony of Birds (LP - Stillwell, USA).
Johan Dalgas Frisch - Symphony of the Birds (LP - MGM, USA).
Beatrice Harrison - on BBC 1922-1972 (LP - BBC, 1972).
Henri/Schaeffer RAI Bird - on Panorama of Musique Concrete, vol. 2 (LP- Ducretet Thomson, 1957).
Trevor Hold - The Lilford Owl (CD - Continuum, 1993).
Olivier Messiaen - Catalogue d'Oiseaux (CD - Unicorn, 1988).
Einojuhani Rautavaara - Cantus Arcticus (CD - Catalyst, 1994).
Michael Tippett - Shires Suite (LP - Unicorn, 1981).


This article first appeared in the programme for "Birdsong and Music: A celebration of spring in music", a concert staged as part of the arts and environmental charity Common Ground's project Confluence.

[1] In June 2003 we recieved a fascinating post-script to this article, from Ted Pittman of Sidcup in Kent:

I read with interest the references that Darren Giddings makes to Beatrice Harrison and the BBC recording of her playing the cello to a nightingale singing. However I fancy that this is not quite the case.

Whilst not doubting that Beatrice Harrison oft sat in her garden playing her beautiful music to the birds and occasionally their song and her music matched, what really happened in that garden in Surrey was that an extremely well known bird impressionist - Maude Gould, sometimes known as Madame Saberon - was contracted by the BBC as a 'backup' to things not working. The trampling around of all the technical staff and all the heavy equipment scared any birds off and the recording is actually that of Maude Gould whistling to Ms Harrison's playing.

Maude Gould was my great grandmother. She whistled at concerts to the Royalty of the day and was in great demand - people laugh nowdays, but whistlers - or souffleurs as they were called - were in good demand on variety bills.

Ted Pittman, Sidcup, Kent 23.6.03