Wednesday 16 January 2019

Music influenced by nature's rich aural tapestry

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Purest musical sound: Birdsong
Purest musical sound: Birdsong

George Hamilton

Birdsong - quite probably the purest musical sound there is. No wonder then that musicians have been inspired by the aural tapestry that nature has woven around them.

Here in Ireland you don't have far to look. Think of one of the most engaging of the traditional melodies, 'The Lark in the Clear Air'. Each time I hear it, I'm back to Dublin in the 1970s, down from Belfast for the rugby.

Back then, there'd be two nights in the Shelbourne around the Saturday afternoon at Lansdowne Road.

The morning after, looking out over St Stephen's Green, the only birdsong may have been the cawing of the gulls circling over the empty streets, but on the radio 'The Lark' soared.

Mo Cheol Thú, the latest page in Ciarán Mac Mathúna's unique encyclopedia of Irish music, was on its way, his soothing tones and subtle selection the perfect mix for a Dublin Sunday morning.

The lark that stirred the musical imagination of the Irish bard back in the mists of time was also the inspiration for one of the finest of English works.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, following the lead of a poem by a Victorian writer, George Meredith, took not the bird's song, but its flight, as the starting point for his composition.

The Lark Ascending with the violin out front, deploys the soloist's range to reflect the skylark's ability to soar, circle and hover high in the sky.

Ottorino Respighi, an Italian violinist and contemporary of Vaughan Williams, was fascinated by the music of earlier times. One suite of his based on compositions by writers from the 17th and 18th centuries is Gli Uccelli (The Birds).

Here Respighi attempts to turn the sounds of avian life - not just the songs, but the fluttering of a dove's wings, the scratching of a hen's feet - into music.

But birds haven't simply been a source of inspiration, they also have a history as part of the drama.

Back in 1711, Handel - who would give us the Messiah 30-odd years later - was new in London and keen to make his name. He produced an opera - Rinaldo - which was like nothing that had been seen or heard there before.

The cast included a flock of live sparrows, which were let loose in the theatre, to provide the birdsong the score demanded. How they were recaptured is anybody's guess!

Right across musical history, you'll find birds represented. Johann Strauss has a polka, Im Krapfenwald'l, which features considerable twittering.

The cuckoo's distinctive call - in musical terms, a falling third - features extensively from Vivaldi's Concerto in A, which takes the bird's name as its subtitle, through Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony to Delius's On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.

And we haven't even touched on Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals, where four of the 14 movements feature birds.

Mozart, who gave us a birdcatcher - 'Pappageno' - in The Magic Flute, famously had a starling as a pet.

Listen to the opening bars of the third movement of his Piano Concerto No.17 and you'll hear its song.

Mozart got so attached to the tiny bird that when it died, he gave it a proper funeral, complete with mourners dressed in black.

They sang hymns and listened to a tribute in verse as the starling was being laid to rest in Mozart's back garden.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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