Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge surrounded by fields around 1548
Man has always been enraptured by birdsong. The nightingale’s song is not only a thing of rare beauty but a complex affair. Naturalists have likened the nightingale’s musical talents to that of a jazz musician, who is able to improvise on several instruments at once!
I was therefore horrified to hear recently of the 90 per cent decline in the nightingale population. The statistics for birds are grim overall: 67 species have disappeared in the past 50 years amounting to about 40 million birds.
Of course we have all noticed how silent our city parks have become. If it wasn’t for the shrieking parakeets which have populated London in the last 15 years, our green spaces would be nearly silent.
With these sad thoughts running through my mind, I attended a bird-inspired musical event, Absolute Bird, held at Southwark Cathedral. It was hosted by our capital’s most forward-looking orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia. The orchestra, made up of 40 outstanding professional musicians, has always believed in the transformative powers of music in all sectors of our society and this evening was no exception. Their mission tonight was to educate, entertain and inspire us with bird-inspired works and BBC wild-life presenter, Miranda Krestovnikoff, seen on BBC Ones’s The One Show, and President of RSPB, was brought on board to provide us with essential bird facts.
We had all received digital downloads of familiar songbirds on our mobile phones. Krestovnikoff explained that from April, for two months, birds in the breeding season, speak to each other through birdcalls and songs to warn about danger, woo their mates or protect their nests. The bird with the best song, gets his pick of mates and prime nesting sites.
Asked to choose one bird song out of eleven on offer, I opted for the great tit, going for appearance as well as song. My friends either side of me, pressed ‘house sparrow’ and ‘nightingale’ (the Nation’s favourite).
We got up and were encouraged to take a walk around the Cathedral. Circling the nave, we started to weave in and out of the pillars (whose original design had been modelled on trees), our phones tweeting at full volume. Passing Shakespeare’s memorial, I stopped to admire the exquisite stained-glass window above it, inspired by his plays. I carried on along my way and focussed on the crescendoing dawn chorus we were in effect reproducing. Not since I was a teenager, had I heard the full orchestra of birds!
Shakespeare’s Window in Southwark Cathedral
Back in our seats, we settled down to the musical performance. First off, some early renaissance and baroque music by Daquin, Janequin and Couperin. Le Rossignol en Amour (The Cuckoo in Love) by Couperin, was particularly enchanting, played on flute and theorbo, a large, extended lute. The flute’s trilling mimicked perfectly the cuckoo’s song and showed how the simpler tune gets to the core of the bird’s sound.
Rameau’s Movement from The Hen (La Poule) was a joy, played with humour and gusto by the strings with first violinist, Alexandra Wood at the helm, ensuring precision timing.
Haydn’s Symphony no. 83, also named The Hen followed, this time with full orchestra. The second subject in the first movement artfully evoked the jerky back-and forth head motion of a walking hen.
More serious in tone was Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A Major, The Cuckoo and also the First movement of Spring, from The Four Seasons. The divine sound of soaring strings filled the airy Cathedral which had been so beautifully lit for the occasion, the stone of the upper galleries glowing in a warm yellow light.
At the end of this inspiring programme I walked over to a sound sculpture on a raised stage in the middle nave. On three branches perched three plump birds, carved of wood. A black box emitted tiny flickering lights beneath it.
Gawain Hewitt, proud author of this interactive, sonic piece has worked with young people of Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School on The Absolute Bird project, getting their musical input, recording it and coding it. The benefits of music on mental health is a growing field and City of London Sinfonia seem to be at the forefront of this very exciting initiative.
I picked up two birds and moved them to another branch. As I did so different ethereal sounds and snatches of birdsong came through the black music box. In all, there were 33 variations of a dawn chorus.
Not surprisingly the project has been a huge success with children who have suffered great trauma and brain injuries.
I left the concert feeling warmed and moved by what I had heard and the next morning found myself rushing into my garden to record a song thrush singing in my neighbour’s tree.
To find out more about City of London Sinfonia orchestra: https://cityoflondonsinfonia.co.uk
RSPB (Royal Society of Protection of Birds) : https://www.rspb.org.uk
Southwark Cathedral has perfect acoustics. What’s on : https://cathedral.southwark.anglican.org/whats-on/