Birds were singing songs long before man was making music, so it is no surprise that their chirps and tweets have had such an inspiration on us. Vialma has decided to explore the place our feathery companions have in classical music. Open your windows; these pieces inspired by birdsong will turn your living room into a musical aviary!
In artistic hierarchy, birds are the greatest musicians that exist on our planet.
Olivier Messiaen, a passion for birdsong
Birdsong has inspired many composers, yet one remains an undisputed master in the matter: Olivier Messiaen! Did you know? Messiaen was a very keen ornithologist. No matter where he went the composer would musically notate any birds that he encountered, from a stroll in his hometown to an excursion to the forests of New Zealand. He poetically referred to them as “the musicians of God” and their song is found in many of his works. We have chosen to include in our selection Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird), written for flute and piano. This is his first piece dedicated entirely to birdsong.
Which instruments are best at imitating birds?
The high pitch and piercing timbre of the flute works perfectly for sweet chirping used to great effect by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Messiean and Saint-Saëns. Haydn mimics a lark with the violin and Rameau, a chicken with the harpsichord! Which instrument, in your opinion, best resembles birdsong? One of them is often forgotten: the human voice. French renaissance composer, Clément Janequin uses it rather comically in his, Le chant des oiseaux. The verses are interspersed with amusing onomatopoeic words like ‘ti’, ‘tar’, ‘coqui’ and even ‘frian’; it’s well worth a listen!
Birds in the orchestra
And why not use the birds themselves? Well, at least a recording of them! Composers like Ottorino Respighi and Einojuhani Rautavaara integrate recordings of real birdsong into their works. Respighi was the first to do so in 1924 with his work, Pines of Rome. A bird enthusiast, he also wrote a work called, Gli Uccelli (the birds), a collection of neo-classical pieces imitating four different birds. For Rautavaara, the recordings play a more central role, with tape loops of birdsong recorded in the Artic playing almost all throughout his work Cantus Articus.
Track by Track
Learn about each work in more detail and go further by clicking on the link to listen to the full work. You can also find more works by each composer and read their full biography and quotes.