Birdsong, Unending Source of Inspiration


by Benjamin Goron

Since time immemorial, humans have been fascinated by birdsong and its immeasurable variety of timbres, pitches, and melodic and rhythmic motifs. Composers have reserved a place of distinction for birds in the repertoire, imitating, parodying, directly transcribing or even integrating recordings of their sounds into compositions. The work by Andrea Tarrodi performed in the concert conducted by Dalia Stasevska is a recent link in the chain of a hallowed tradition reflected in the following succinct chronological selection.

In this Renaissance chanson, French polyphonist Clément Janequin vividly recreates the sounds of birds contextualized in a celebration of warm weather’s return, beginning with the words, “Awake, sleeping hearts.”

Many Baroque harpsichordists sought to reproduce the character and sound of birds, which they often associated with human characteristics (fidelity, frivolity, tenderness…). In this piece, Rameau more generally recreates the chirping and fluttering of birds with his omnipresent ornamental motif.

In his famous Carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals), Saint-Saëns introduces many species of birds, the swan, hens and the cuckoo among them. In “Volière,” the flute’s graceful, virtuosic melody uncannily seems to cut through the air of the concert hall.

The swan has inspired enough composers through time to merit its own article. Sibelius’ tone poem Tuonelan joutsen is part of the Lemminkäinen Suite, one of the composer’s major works. The music evokes a mythical swan embodied in the sound of the English horn, as it glides through Tuonela, the realm of the Dead in Finnish mythology.

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The “Tale of the Birds” is one of the Eight Russian Folk Songs Anatoly Liadov composed toward the end of his life. Its suspenseful melody contrasts with the array of chirping bird calls exchanged among wind instruments.

Messiaen spent a considerable portion of his life studying the songs of birds from around the world. We hear the echoes of this passion in his Treatise on Rhythm, Colour and Ornithology, the essence of this artist’s work and thought. Oiseaux exotiques for piano and small orchestra is inspired by bird songs from South Asia and North and South America.

For his work Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, Finnish composer Rautavaara specially recorded the sounds of Arctic birds. “Joutsenet Muuttavat,” is a skillful blend of orchestral sounds with those, recorded, of migrating swans.

A BBC documentary about birds of paradise inspired Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi to write Paradisfåglar for string orchestra, rearranged for symphony orchestra under the title Paradisfåglar II. This piece recreates the tropical atmosphere of forests sheltering these birds whose plumage is as astonishing as their behaviour.

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With your head full of bird songs, you can now book your concert Northern Lights: Dalia Stasevska conducts Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, webcasted from April 27 to May 11, 2021.