An American Choir in Lincolnshire: A Quest for the Birds We Sing
Updated: Aug 7, 2018
My upcoming choir residency in the UK this July will present me with an opportunity to see hear some of the old-world birds I've sung about and read about all my life in European literature and music. Will I see them and, more importantly, will I hear them? It hit me when I first started researching my bird list that the birds in England have simpler names because they’re the old-world birds, the originals, the ones in all the songs and all the poems and all the fables. Where I live, we have Belted Kingfishers - a stunning bird that looks like it's dressed up in a tux to work a party. But in the UK, they have just a Kingfisher. I saw a picture of one and it shatters the stereotype of all British birds being a shade of brown. It’s turquoise and rust-red and iridescent and fabulously splendid, but it’s a “common” Kingfisher or (as the science people labeled it) a Eurasian Kingfisher. There's apparently one of these at the place we're staying. !!
Whether or not I encounter these birds, I thought it would be fun to research and write about them and the literature and music they inspired.
I started looking at bird reports and saw all these creatures I’ve sung about and heard about but never encountered: rook, curlew, tawny owl, skylark, carrion crow, nightingale, robin, blackbird, wagtail, cuckoo, greenfinch and linnetbird, partridge, quail, etc, etc, etc. So what I’m thinking is to see how many of these I can find, see, and most importantly, hear. I want to link it to the music or poems or tales we know. I don’t know if anyone will join me on this quest, but I think it has some potential to be exciting.
Now: I can't think of any songs or poems about kingfishers except one from The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Andrew Earle Simpson, a chamber opera in which I premiered the role of Cassie in 2012. That's definitely about an American bird, since the opera is set in Colorado.
Some of the birds I hope to encounter, with their corresponding literature:
"When rooks fly homeward" Beautiful, contemplative piece for unaccompanied chorus by Arthur Baynon (1889-1954), with words by Joseph Campbell (1879-1944) (not THAT Joseph Campbell, but rather the Irish one). Interesting that Campbell (and by extension, Baynon) feels peace upon seeing the rooks flying to their evening roosts, whereas Wikipedia states that "The rook is a very social bird; in the evenings they gather in large flocks, often in thousands; this is felt by some, especially in cities, to be disturbing." Maybe I'll get to weigh in with a personal experience, but in the meantime, here is the song:
European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) appears along with other birds in "Fern Hill," poem by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), read here by Richard Burton and, just for fun, here by Prince Charles. Set to music by John Corigliano (b. 1938).
I'll be posting about some of these other favo(u)rites, so stay tuned!
Greenfinch and linnetbird