Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Skylarks and Nightingales

Skylarks and nightingales are two of the more artistically resonant birds in Western literature. But very few Americans have probably ever heard either, because they're not native to North America. In these days when so many of us grow up without a knowledge of the natural world, it's questionable how many people, even in Europe, could identify either of these birds by their songs alone. Which leads to the question: why do we have such strong associations with birds we've never actually seen?

For the record, a skylark sounds like this:

And a nightingale sounds like this:

Both had major poems exploring the duality of joy and melancholy written about them by British Romantic poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "To a Skylark":
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert—
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. ... 
And Keats wrote the "Ode to a Nightingale":
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,
That thous, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. ... 
Both had jazz standards written about them. Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael wrote "Skylark," which in this Ella Fitzgerald recording has a delightful little onomatopoetic flute solo at the beginning

Around the same time (a bit earlier, in fact), British songwriters Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin wrote "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square":

Both Schubert and Brahms set the poem "An die Nachtigall," by the German poet Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty, to music. The Schubert is somewhat easier and therefore more frequently sung, but the Brahms is as beautiful:

And the British love Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending":

And the list goes on. There are the nightingale myths going back to the story of Philomele in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the invocations of that myth in Titus Andronicus, then The Waste Land. The French children's song "Alouette" is about plucking a lark. By anthimeria, the lark has become the very act of reveling in insouciant spontaneity. That most ornithophilic of composers, Olivier Messiaen, wrote both larks and nightingales into his piano pieces in the "Catalogue d'oiseaux," (Catalogue of Birds), and rhapsodized about the nightingale, or rossignol, in his Traité de rythme, de couleur, et de l'ornithologie:
It is superior to all by the quality and power of its voice, by the beauty of its timbre, by its virtuosity, and especially by the marvelous art with which it moves from one tempo to another, from one nuance to another, from one attack to another, opposing or intermingling with an indomitable ease: the slow in the fast, the pianissimo in the fortissimo, the staccato in the legato
Still, it's hard not to wonder exactly what it is like to simply hear one of these birds on its own, without the cultural associations surrounding them. Would we bother to pay attention if the birds didn't have names, if no one had told us to listen before? Or would they just blend with all the others?

And I didn't even get to mention the blackbird, or the wren, or the swan...

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