Music

Third Ear

What do composers hear in birdsong?

A Northern parula at Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Barry Chin/Globe staff/file 2005
A Northern parula at Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary.

“Das war schön,” Mozart remarked one day in 1784. That was beautiful.

Alas, we don’t know how the musician responded to the compliment. Because, quite simply, the singer was a bird.

No, not a man-bird of the species homo-papagenus. But an actual starling. What’s more, Mozart’s concise, three-word concert review appears in a notebook beneath a jaunty tune he had transcribed after hearing this starling sing in a store. And here’s the truly remarkable thing: The bird’s tune, save a sharp here and a pause there, was almost identical to one Mozart himself had just written in the finale of his own Piano Concerto in G (K. 453). It’s been speculated that the bird might have picked up the tune when Mozart, who often whistled in public, had made an earlier visit to the shop. Ultimately, Mozart did what any of us might have done on such an occasion. He brought the bird home!

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And of course this starling encounter is just one entry in the long history of composers’ romance with their winged contemporaries. Think of the “Scene by the Brook” in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, or Wagner’s “Siegfried,” or Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies, or Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” There are in fact far too many examples of birdsong-inspired passages in music to list — so many that the whole topic, by our own late date, may lead us in the direction of kitsch and cliché.

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Yet one modern composer refutes that tendency by sheer dint of his unmatched passion for the tessitura of the treetops. The French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) traveled around the world filling thousands of pages of notebooks with notated birdsong, which he later transformed into an endless array of gestures found within his own music.

Messiaen’s birds sing out from many of his scores, including his most famous composition “The Quartet for the End of Time,” but they appear most prominently in his piano works of the 1950s. These scores can be fearsomely difficult to play, but for the pianist ready to attempt them, Messiaen had some advice: Take a walk. Literally.

“I recommend walks in the woods,” he wrote, “especially early in the morning, to get to know the birds themselves.”

This week, Tanglewood and Mass Audubon will be joining forces to follow Messiaen’s advice. An imaginative four-day minifestival called “Tanglewood Takes Flight” is being billed as a celebration of birds and music. It starts up on Thursday at 5:30 a.m. with a guided bird walk in Lenox’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, followed by a 7 a.m. concert in the Pleasant Valley barn by the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a peerless interpreter of Messiaen’s music, who will be performing selections from the epic “Catalogue d’oiseaux.” The minifestival runs through the weekend, concluding in Ozawa Hall on Sunday morning with a chamber program that features Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques.”

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Interestingly, this composer’s birdsong galleries are not the place to find arboreal verisimilitude. While Messiaen notated birdsong in the field with immense precision, he employed them in his music with a certain creative license, making them sound dazzlingly pointed, rhythmically complex, at once ancient and avant-garde. Think of Messiaen’s birds as the urbane, Parisian cousins of the thrushes and warblers he encountered in the wild. Less National Geographic, more Cahiers du Cinema. Yet that said, Messiaen’s respect for the birds in the wild was unsurpassed.

“For me, it is here [among the birds] that music lives,” he once wrote, “[M]usic that is free, anonymous, improvised for pleasure, to greet the rising sun, to charm one’s mate, to tell all the world that this branch and this meadow belong to you, to put an end to all disputes, bickering and rivalry, to work off the excessive energy born of love and joie de vivre, to articulate time and space and join with your neighbors in constructing rich and improvised counterpoint, to solace your fatigue and to say farewell to another portion of life as the evening falls.”

What’s not to like? Yet beneath this charming avian tribute, one also senses historical forces at play. Composers in the 1950s were searching for new artistic certainties, new sources of spiritual anchoring, after the abyss of the war years. Arguing about these very topics, Messiaen’s young firebrand students at the Paris conservatory, as one composer recalled, would sometimes “reduce their teacher to tears.” Debates would end in a long, tense silence, after which Messiaen would humbly offer: “Gentleman, let us not argue like this. We are all in a profound night, and I don’t know where I am going; I’m as lost as you.” Birds, in other words, were one way out of the aesthetic-spiritual cul-de-sac for Messiaen — perhaps first and foremost because this music was external to the human mind and to human history.

Looking further back, however, that same sense of otherness could cut both ways. In Keats’s iconic “Ode to a Nightingale,” the narrator seems almost existentially dwarfed by the immortal scale of the singer’s own art. (“The voice I hear this passing night was heard/In ancient days by emperor and clown.”) For Shelley in “To a Skylark,” the bird’s song plainly outshines all human art. (“I have never heard/Praise of love or wine/That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.”) 

Move back one century further, however, and human music was still on top. There was a vogue in 18th-century Europe for owning caged birds and “teaching” them to sing. As David Rothenberg describes in “Why Birds Sing,” these bird keepers, equipped with a new high-pitched recorder (“the bird flageolet”) and a popular songbook of 1717 called “The Bird Fancyer’s Delight,” took pity on their captive woodlarks and finches. Why consign these birds to senseless chirps and twitters when they might be tutored in the wonders of human song?

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And by now we have come full circle back to Mozart. Perhaps this history, in some small way, holds a mirror to our own shifting fears and desires about the natural world, our hunger to both dominate nature and feel at home within it, our desperate craving for, and our subliminal suspicion of, a beauty that originates beyond ourselves.

We might even view the tale of Mozart’s starling as something of a parable. The bird was singing miraculously. Yet the tune was by Mozart. But the bird made some “improvements” of his own. Let’s call it a rare moment of collaboration. And that, in itself, is beautiful.

Tanglewood Takes Flight: A Celebration of Birds and Music with Mass Audubon

July 27-30. Most events at Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary or Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, Lenox. 617-266-1200, www.tanglewood.org

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.