Richard Collins: Finnish swan song is music to the ear

Finnish composer Eino Rautavaara's use of birdsong in Cantus Arcticus is music to one's ear
Richard Collins: Finnish swan song is music to the ear
Richard Collins.

Eileen Rees of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust has alerted swan researchers to an unusual piece of music. Cantus Arcticus, a ‘concerto for birds and orchestra’ by Finnish composer Eino Rautavaara, was premiered in 1972. It’s his best-known work.

From the Reading Rota, in the 13th Century, to Messiaen’s ‘Le Chant des Oiseaux’, in the 20th, birdsong has permeated European music. The blackbird skylark and cuckoo are celebrated in the Irish folk tradition. Nor is Rautavaara’s offering the first ‘bird’ concerto; Vivaldi’s flute one in D, known as the ‘Goldfinch’, mimics the colourful little seed-eater in its 1st movement.

But Cantus Arcticus breaks new ground; in it the birds themselves, not just musicians, perform. Sound recordings of selected Arctic species blend seamlessly into a plain-chant-like orchestral score. 

The principal soloist in the opening movement is the curlew, its wistful bubbling song being one of nature’s most evocative sounds.

Two shore-larks, answering each other’s calls, dominate the 2nd movement. These ‘little brown jobs’, familiar to twitchers, visit Ireland only occasionally. 

A vast choir of swans, migrant whoopers of Children of Lir fame, joins in the choral finale, a great pantheistic evocation of nature before the music fades into primordial Nordic stillness as the birds depart.

Introducing bird sounds is no mere gimmick; the Cantus is a most successful fusion of the natural and the artificial. Ironically, while woodwind players copy the cuckoo quail and nightingale in Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, Rautavaara has ‘real’ birdsong invade the artificial orchestral world.

The dawn chorus awakened our ancestors over the millennia. Indeed, birds provided much of the soundtrack of their lives. 

Swans & Signets in the pond at Saint Stephens Green, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Swans & Signets in the pond at Saint Stephens Green, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

We shared an ancestor with chimpanzees six to seven million years ago, and with the gorilla about two million years earlier. These, our nearest and dearest mammalian cousins, are not ‘musical’, nor are they great conversationalists, their utterances being largely confined to groans and grunts. Nor do the great apes tap their feet to music as we humans do. The most prominent primate vocalists are lesser apes and monkeys, much more remote from us on the evolutionary tree.

In The Singing Neanderthals, Stephen Mithen, prehistory professor at Reading University, argues that our pre-human forebears lived on their wits in extended social groups. They would have used body gestures, dance and song-like vocalisations to express emotions and induce similar feelings in others. Did the co-ordination needed for bi-pedal walking give rise to a sense of rhythm?

Our music and speech have distinct neural pathways and this separation, in evolutionary terms, is an ancient one. We might not describe the utterances of early humans as ‘music’ or ‘speech’, in the modern sense; they probably resembled miming song-like baby-talk. Music stimulates the emotions, triggering behaviour directly. Language, descriptive and prescriptive, is derivative. Speech probably appeared after modern humans arrived on the scene about 200,000 years ago.

Such is the fusion of birdsong and music in the Cantus, however, an ancient affinity between the two seems plausible.

Recordings are available on YouTube.

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