To many musicians (by which I do not mean just those who practise music for a living, but all whose lives are enriched by music), one of the well-known things about birdsong is that the French composer Olivier Messiaen loved, studied and recorded it, and incorporated it in various ways into most of his music. As I knew Messiaen quite well, and was a visiting member of his class at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 1970s, he would occasionally write to me (proper letters still existed in those days) and ask me to get hold of books on ornithology for him – specialist books in English which were published here but not in France. This was before the ubiquity of the internet – let alone of Amazon or Abe books – and such things were less easy and instant than they are today. One of these books, if I remember correctly, was Volume 1 (Divers to Hawks) of Salim Ali & Ripley’s Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan.
Birdsong is one of the most magical of all natural phenomena, and Messiaen is by no means the only composer to have become fascinated by it. The title of Debussy’s solo flute piece Syrinx, written in 1913, refers to the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses of the nymph Syrinx, who was transformed into a river reed in order to escape the advances of Pan. When Pan’s hot lustful breath (or perhaps just the breeze) stirred the reeds into sounding, he cut a handful of them and made the first pan-pipe – hence the mythological origin of the flute. Much more recently, biologists used the word syrinx to describe the organ which allows birds to produce song – an organ far more complex than the simple vocal chords which mere humans use for speech and song; the vocal acrobatics of the greatest coloratura sopranos are child’s play compared with the flexibility, tonal variety and speed of birdsong.