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Cuckoos, Ducks, Swans and Nightingales – Birds in Music

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The days are getting longer and the temperatures warmer – what an ideal time to talk about birds. In this blog, let us explore some NLS resources that will bring you a little closer to our feathered friends. Call numbers and links to BARD are listed below.

In 1606 Renaissance composer John Bartlett found fame when he published his Booke of Ayres with a Triplicitie of Musicke. This book contained four-part madrigals. Number 10 is entitled “Of all the birds that I do know,” a metaphorical poem by George Gascoigne (1542?-1577). In this madrigal, words get repeated in a way that clearly evokes the chatter of birds.

Yellow Billed Cuckoo Drawing
Yellow Billed Cuckoo. Library of Congress Fb1C%CPhRWzdciYk

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) composed the “Spring” of his Four Seasons between 1716 and 1717. Just 14 measures into the first movement, he marked the score on top of the violins with the words “Canto de gl’uccelli,” which means birdsong. Trills, triplets, repeated eighth notes and descending 16th-notes and 32nd-notes follow and let us imagine the birds’ calls, chatter and tweeting. What could be a better indicator for spring than those birds chirping away in the brilliant key of E major!

Around the same time period, French organist and composer Louis-Claude Daquin (1694-1772) wrote a very charming piece entitled “Le coucoû” (“The Cuckoo”) for harpsichord. The main motif unmistakably represents this bird’s call. This composition has been popular since its first performance and continues to be performed today. Did you know that the cuckoo is one of the few bird species that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and is therefore classified as a brood parasite?

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) chose three different kinds of birds to include in his famous Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral.” They appear in the second movement “Scene from the Brookside” (“Scene am Bach”), towards the end. In the score, Beethoven not only wrote out the music of the birds, but clearly stated within the score which bird the music is representing. He designated the flute part as the nightingale (“Nachtigall”), followed by the oboe who represents a quail (“Wachtel”), then joined by two alternating clarinets making the sounds of the cuckoo (“Kukuk”).

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) dedicated entire movements of his Carnival of the Animals to birds. This 14-movement “grand zoological fantasie” from 1886 dedicates No. 2 to chickens and roosters (“Poules et Coqs”), represented by two pianos and a clarinet. No. 9 belongs to the cuckoo (“Le coucou au fond des bois”). Here the clarinet repeats the cuckoo-motif by repeating exclusively the falling third interval with the notes of C and A-flat. No. 10 is entitled “Aviary” (“Volière”). The flute and piano use trills and ascending chromatic scales to imitate the sounds of our feathered friends. The most famous bird of this composition may arguably be No. 13, the “Swan,” (“Le Cygne”), written for cello and accompaniment. The melody creates a musical image of the long-necked bird elegantly gliding over a lake.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wrote his only work for a capella choir, Trois Chansons (Three Songs) around 1914. The second song is entitled “Trois Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis.” The three birds represent the colors of the French flag, as Ravel’s text to the song shows: “The first was more blue than the sky, The second was the color of snow, The third red, bright red.” The composition is in the key of F minor.

Summer or Wood Ducks. Drawing
Summer or Wood Ducks.

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953) musically painted a smart little bird (flute) chirping away in the tree and a rather clumsy duck (oboe) waddling around and swimming in the pond in the musical story of Peter and the Wolf from 1936. Prokofiev wrote this wonderful work for children.

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) took the composition of birdsongs to another more realistic level. He meticulously listened to recordings and transcribed a whole range of birdsongs to be played on the piano. Most famous are his Catalogue d’oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds) with 13 bird songs written between 1956 and 1958. In 1985 he captured six more bird songs transcribed for piano in his Petites esquisses d’oiseaux (Little Sketches of Birds).

Here are selected call numbers for accessible music materials referenced above:

Bartlet, John. “Of All the Birds That I Do Know.” Part song for S.A.T.B. Words by George Gascoigne. Line by line and short score formats. (BRM23891)

Beethoven, Ludwig van.

Symphony no. 6 in F Major, op. 68, Pastoral. In open score format. 6 volumes. (BRM35201)

-Symphony no. 6 in F Major, op. 68, Pastoral. Arranged for piano 4 hands in bar by bar format. (BRM26508)

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, op. 68, Pastoral. Talking Book. Jeremy Siepmann analyzes and discusses this masterwork. (DBM03419)

Daquin, Louis Claude. The Cuckoo. Rondo for piano solo. In bar over bar format. (BRM19833)

Messiaen, Olivier. Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird). For flute and piano. (BRM35730)

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus.

-Papageno’s Song. Birdcatcher’s Song (Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja) from The Magic Flute. For unison and piano. Bar by bar format (BRM01968)

-Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja from The Magic Flute. Nr. 36 in: Arien-Album. Berühmte Arien für Bariton und Bass mit Klavierbegleitung. For medium or low voice with piano in section by section format. (BRM35608)

Mussorgsky, Modest. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks from Pictures at an Exhibition. Arranged for piano in bar over bar format. (BRM20966)

Prokofiev, Sergey. Peter und der Wolf. Arranged by Wesley Schaum for piano in section by section format. (BRM32835)

Ravel, Maurice.

Trois Chansons for mixed chorus. No. 2: Trois beaux oiseaux de paradis (Three Birds from Paradise). In bar over bar format. (BRM24644)

Miroirs. Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds). For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM04538)

Saint-Saëns, Camille.

The Swan. Arranged for cello and piano in single line and bar over bar formats.  In: Everybody’s favorite series no. 40. Cello solos edited by Jay Arnold. (BRM20669)

The Swan. Arranged for Piano. In bar over bar format. (BRM00415)

The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns. Arranged for flute and taught by Bill Brown. Flute by Ear. (DBM03556)

Vivaldi, Antonio.

Spring from The Four Seasons. First Movement for Violin in line by line format. In: 101 Classical Themes for Violin (BRM36690)

Spring from The Four Seasons. Arranged for Guitar in single line format by David Burden. (BRM36186)

The Four Seasons. Transcription for Piano Solo in bar over bar format. (BRM35873)

The Four Seasons. Talking Book narrated by Jeremy Siepmann. Gives a complete analysis of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with musical examples. (DBM02887)

In addition to our NLS Music Materials, you can also download the following Talking Books from BARD that will teach you about birds:

Elliott, Lang. A Birdsong Tutor for Visually Handicapped Individuals. An auditory guide to the sounds made by birds and other wildlife. (DB 29485)

Halafoff, K. C. The Lyrebird. A Documentary Study of Its Song. From the Annotation: “The Australian Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandia) is the world’s most accomplished mocking bird, capable of imitating perfectly not only all the birds’ voices, but also any other sound which the bird considers worth reproducing.” (DBM03695)

Kroodsma, Donald E. Birdsong by the Seasons. A Year of Listening to Birds. Locally produced Talking Book containing actual birdsong recordings interspersed within the text. (DBC11301)

Stokes, Donald W. A Guide to the Behavior of Common Birds. Naturalist Stokes introduces us to the complex patterns of twenty-five common birds’ social behavior and communication, translating them into a language we can understand. He includes behavior calendars, display guides, and behavior descriptions. (DB 16552)

We could add more birds to our list: once you start looking, they just seem to be everywhere! If you want to find out about additional resources from the NLS Music Section or for download from BARD, give us a call at 1-800-424-8567, then press option 2 for the Music Section. You may also email us at [email protected].

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