This book is not the proper medium in which to set forth evolutionary theories of birdsong, but I must emphatically say that the bird sings first for love of music, and second for love of a lady. I put the lady second, for, if he did not love music first he would not have sung to her, and birds, like the rest of us, are a trifle selfish. What we like most we think others will like as well, hence, in a moment of unselfishness we share the object of our selfishness!”
I’m still trying to decide what I think of this quote.
Lately I’ve been enjoying reading about animals. Which is funny, because I’m no animal lover. But still, this book, The Music of Wild Birds, and another, Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin, fascinate me.
Although I’m not particularly a bird watcher, I do appreciate the background music of birds out my window as I write this. This book on birds’ music caught my eye first because of the beautiful artwork on the cover. The lovely drawings throughout are a delight, whether or not one reads or understands any of the text. And then the book kept my attention because of the musical transcriptions and dialogue about each bird and its music. I was fascinated by the thought of someone taking the time to transcribe what they heard, and then make connections between bird songs and music of human composers.
Originally written in 1904 by F. Schuyler Mathews, this edition is illustrated and adapted by Judy Pelikan. Here are some of Mr. Mathews interesting observations and connections [The text is highly interspersed with musical transcriptions, which I cannot copy here, but will indicate with an [*]:
The charm, too, of the Chickadee’s singing lies in the fact that he knows the value of a well-sustained half note, another point which should be scored in the little musician’s favor. Truly, in this regard he is far ahead of the Canary, for the latter wastes his energy splitting into hemidemisemiquavers every tone within the compass of an octave….
[*] I may be overestimating the value of a melody so meager as that of the Chickadee, but if so it becomes difficult to account for the charm that underlies the music of all great composers, for constructively considered their melodies are mere elaborations of absolutely simple themes. (pgs. 56, 57)
Concerning a bird who, day after day, sang the same melody, but at times switched it from a major key to a minor one:
[*]The Song Sparrow has the ability to render a motive in both the major and minor keys, just exactly as Verdi has done in the ninth and eleventh bars of the “Di Provenza”. ( p. 138 )
It is not a stretch to imagine that the author is reading too much “psychology” into a particular bird’s musical expression, but I, for one, found his speculation quite fun:
In the summer of 1903 I heard in Nantucket a bird which sang with charming accuracy the following first two bars from Alfredo’s song in La Traviata [*]…But this was sung in the same pathetic way in which Violetta sings it a little later in the same act, when she finds she must give up Alfredo. There is an unmistakable pathos in the bird’s song.
It is not always the case, however, that the music is pathetic. One afternoon, while crossing the downs of Nantucket, I heard a bit which was decidedly reminiscent of the song and dance with castanets in which Carmen attempts, in the opera of her name, to lure Jose away from his duty: [*]
This, it must be admitted, was not sung in quite the lively way the libretto would demand, but the melody was correct: [*]
A moment later, however, another bird spoiled the whole effect by finishing the song the wrong way, thus: [*]…Meadowlarks, and birds in general, for that matter, are prone to take unwarranted liberties with operatic scores. ( pgs. 168-170 )
I think I find the birds being discussed, and the author himself, equally fascinating. I read something like this, and am fascinated with a person who not only notices bird’s songs, but writes them down, makes intuitive connections with human music, and feels powerfully, in connection with both. As someone who thinks with feeling, it is not completely foreign to me to understand how a bird’s song could connect with such specific feelings.
[The Yellow-throated Vireo] is never in a hurry, and after singing three or four clusters of slurred notes, thus, [*] he gives you plenty of time to think the matter over before he makes another remark. At the time of the Boer War I imagined this bird was telling me all about it [* with this text: ‘Mafeking. Modder river. Buluway. Molappo. Boer war!’] Certainly one finds the word Buluwayo fits a particular group of notes remarkably well. ( pg. 119 )
Though I’m not so good at analyzing or even always noticing birds’ music, I’d have enjoyed knowing and watching Mr. Mathews be himself. What a fascinating, interesting man he must have been to notice, in such detail and with such passion and enjoyment, the music of birds. Many thanks to Ms. Pelikan for making this book available today, and enhancing it so gorgeously with her drawings.