Magazine article Musical Times

The Theming Magpie: The Influence of Birdsong on Beethoven Motifs

Magazine article Musical Times

The Theming Magpie: The Influence of Birdsong on Beethoven Motifs

Article excerpt

Listen to the birds: they are the great masters


IT HAS BEEN SUGGESTED that birdsong 'has anticipated in a very simple way the development of human music." Composers have imitated birdcalls and used them ornamentally, rhythmically and symbolically. Some birds, notably blackbird and song thrush, are particularly sonorous and their song conforms to western music traditions. It is well known that Beethoven represented calls of the cuckoo, quail and nightingale in the 'Pastoral' Symphony and in his songs 'Der Wachtelschlag' (WoOi29) and 'Der Gesang der Nachtigal' (WoO141), but the extent to which he may have employed birdsong in thematic material has not been widely explored.

Beethoven's love of nature and his essential daily walks with the pocket sketchbooks point to a composer who gathered and formulated many of his musical ideas in the outdoors and, prior to the machine age, birdsong would have been a prominent feature of the aural environment. Beethoven's supreme gift of improvisation suggests his genius lies in the development of a motif rather than in the creation of divine melody. Just as Shakespeare borrowed from well-known stories, so Beethoven drew on the natural sounds and rhythms around him. He unashamedly took familiar, mundane motifs from his environs and transformed them into the unfamiliar and strange. This ability to take the listener from the ordinary to the extraordinary, to enable us to look beyond, is characteristic of Beethoven's writing.

Art can be defined as the transfiguration of the common place. The English Romantic poets worked in a similar vein, unveiling the familiar to reveal a hidden world of beauty and wonder. Wordsworth chose 'incidents and situations from common life, and to [...] throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.'1 Wordsworth found these Ordinary things' in rural life and like Beethoven sought inspiration from nature. The natural world provided Beethoven with a constant source of fresh ideas and his compositions show that what flowed from a motif was more important than the motif itself. This essay explores parallels between Beethoven motifs and birdsong and, in particular, suggests that Beethoven employed yellowhammer song and may also have woven blackbird and song thrush motifs into his compositions.

The yellowhammer conundrum

And tune his merry note unto the sweet bird's throat


In his 'Anekdoten iiber Beethoven', Czerny writes that 'the song of a woodland bird: the yellowhammer gave him (Beethoven) the theme for the C minor Symphony',' which he jotted down whilst walking in the Prater,4 a fashionable wooded park in Vienna.

Analysis of yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) song reveals a repeated note followed by a sustained note, which is 'higher or occasionally lower'5 in pitch. Peterson describes the song as 'chi-chi-chi-chi-chi..... ..chwee.'6

Sonagrams translate the language of bird sounds into visual patterns. Using a sound-spectrograph, a recording is slowed down, enabling the frequencies to be plotted. Ex. 1a a shows a yellowhammer sonagram,7 and at first glance we see that the contours bear some resemblance to the 'fate ' motif in the Fifth Symphony (ex.1b).

However, on listening to recordings of the yellowhammer8 (ex.ia),9 it becomes clear that the song bears a more striking resemblance to the sketch for the opening theme of the G major Piano Concerto (ex.zb),10 The 13-note quaver-pattern in Beethoven's original sketch is identical to the rhythm of this yellowhammer song, and the contours, including the final interval of a sustained rising second, also show a marked similarity.

Czerny's recollection of the yellowhammer as the source for the Fifth Symphony rather than the more convincing Fourth Piano Concerto can be explained. We know that Beethoven worked on different works simultaneously. …

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