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The Theming Magpie: The Influence of Birdsong on Beethoven Motifs

Author(s): Sylvia Bowden

Source: The Musical Times, Vol. 149, No. 1903 (Summer, 2008), pp. 17-35
Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.
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Accessed: 12-12-2016 11:20 UTC

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The theming magpie: the influence of

birdsong on Beethoven motifs

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.'1 Composers have imitated bird
calls 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' Sym
phony and in his songs 'Der Wachtelschlag' (W0O129) and 'Der Gesang der
Nachtigal' (W0O141), but the extent to which he may have employed bird
song 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 sup
reme gift of improvisation suggests his genius lies in the development of a
motif rather than in the creation of divine melody. Just as Shakespeare bor
rowed 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 colour
ing of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind
i. Rosemary Jellis: Bird in an unusual aspect.'2 Wordsworth found these 'ordinary things' in rural life
sounds and their meaning
(London, 1977), p.195. and like Beethoven sought inspiration from nature. The natural world pro
2. Preface to the second vided Beethoven with a constant source of fresh ideas and his compositions
edition of the Lyrical show that what flowed from a motif was more important than the motif itself.
ballads, quoted in Maynard
Solomon: Late Beethoven: This essay explores parallels between Beethoven motifs and birdsong and, in
music, thought, imagination particular, suggests that Beethoven employed yellowhammer song and may
(Berkeley, 2003), p. 18. also have woven blackbird and song thrush motifs into his compositions.

the musical times Summer 2008 17

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The theming magpie: the influence of birdsong on Beethoven motifs

Ex. i a: Sonagram of yellowhammer song. The frequency

(in kiloHertz) and time span, in seconds, are shown on the
vertical and horizontal axes respectively. A considerable
mark at a particular point on the vertical plane represents
a sound of steady pitch (considered a musical note).
A thin vertical line represents a sound without definite
pitch (considered a noise).

Ex.ib: Symphony no.5 in C minor, 'fate' motif. The

recurring quavers leading to a sustained note follow a
similar pattern to the yellowhammer sonagram. I0

The yellowhammer conundrum

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

In his 'Anekdoten ?ber Beethoven', Czerny writes that 'the song of a wood
land bird: the yellowhammer gave him (Beethoven) the theme for the C
3- Carl Czerny,
ed. P. Badura-Skoda: minor
?ber Symphony',3 which he jotted down whilst walking in the Prater,4 a
fashionable wooded park in Vienna.
den richtigen Vortrag der
s?mtlichen Beethovenschen
Klavierwerke: Anekdoten und
of yellowhammer {Emberiza citrinelld) song reveals a repeated
Notizen ?ber Beethovennote followed by a sustained note, which is 'higher or occasionally lower'5 in
(Vienna, 1963)^.18. pitch. Peterson describes the song as 'chi-chi-chi-chi-chi.chwee.'6

4. Yellowhammers thrive translate the language of bird sounds into visual patterns.
in hedgerows and open
Using a sound-spectrograph, a recording is slowed down, enabling the fre
countryside. The vast
area of the Prater, although quencies to be plotted. Ex.ia shows a yellowhammer sonagram,7 and at first
extensively wooded, also glance we see that the contours bear some resemblance to the 'fate' motif in
has open spaces containing
hedgerows, providing the the Fifth Symphony (ex.ib).
yellowhammer with an ideal However, on listening to recordings of the yellowhammer8 (ex.2a),9 it
habitat. In associating the
becomes clear that the song bears a more striking resemblance to the sketch
yellowhammer with the
Prater, Czerny mistakenly for the opening theme of the G major Piano Concerto (ex.2b).ID The 13-note
assumed the yellowhammer
to be a woodland bird.8. Jean Roch?: All the bird where A is tuned to 440 I knew him (i860) (London,
songs of Britain and Europe cycles per second. In exx.2a 1966), p.351, n.212. Modern
5. S. Vere Benson: The (Sittelle, 1990, CD no.4, & 11 a the pitch of the day pitch is also rising, with
Observer s book of British track 88, Embeba citrine Ha). birdsong notations appears the US and Japan leading
birds (London, 1952), p.38. The first recording of the sharper than Beethoven's the way. In addition, recent
complete songs from the CD motifs, but pitch is relative research shows that birds
6. Roger Peterson, Guy was used for the notation. In
Mountfort & PAD Hollom: and variable. It is interesting are also singing at a higher
Roche's recordings, the last to note that the Viennese frequency, which, it is
Birds of Britain and Europe,
note is consistently higher, pitch had increased from A= argued, enables them to
fifth edition (London, 1993),
and this appears to be the 422cps (Mozart's piano) in compete with mechanical
p.234. noise.
more common ending, as 1780 to A= 456cps in 1859
7. Jellis: Bird sounds, p.49. noted by Benson. (as noted by Grove); a rise
The author has undertaken of more than one semitone in 10. Gustav Nottebohm:
exhaustive enquiries to 9. The yellowhammer and 80 years; in Anton Schindler, Beethoveniana, Aufs?he
contact the copyright holder, blackbird songs were notated ed. Donald MacArdle, trans. und Mittheilungen (Leipzig,
without success. using a B?sendorfer piano, Constance Jolly: Beethoven as l872),V,p.I2.

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Ex.2a: Approximate notation of yellowhamer song. Although
a single note, the monotone is oscillating and therefore there
is slight variation in pitch. The last note is approximately one
semitone higher and sustained.

J = i44

Ex.2b: Sketch for the Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, bars 1-5. Beethoven appears to
take the raw material of the yellowhammer song and extends the phrase. He modifies
the repeated note by moving down by step to A in the middle of the quaver-pattern,
thus balancing the rising second to C at the end of the yellowhammer song. A sustained
note is inserted at the beginning, allowing the motif to unfold, and the melodic line is
completed by establishing the dominant. These simple additions combine to transform
the fragment into a balanced and well-structured phrase, forming the basis of the first
movement (ex.2c).

Concert. (tempo moderato)


Ex.2c: Piano Concerto no.4 in G, bars 1-5. In the final version, Beethoven makes some
adjustments to the sketch. He omits the last quaver of the yellowhammer motif (bar 3),
condensing the B into a crotchet. The dominant chord (bar 4) is embellished with a scale
passage in grace notes and the semiquaver is converted into a quaver, consistent with
the pattern of the yellowhammer motif. Czerny's metronome mark for this movement
is: J = 116, a more relaxed tempo than yellowhammer song: J = 144.

Allegro moderato. (M.M., mit Czerny: J = 116)

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 simul
taneously. As Nottebohm points out,11 the interrelating pages of sketches
from c.i805 show that Beethoven worked on both the opening theme of the
ii. ibid., V, G major Concerto and the 'Fate' motif of the Fifth Symphony at the same

the musical times Summer 2008 19

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20 The theming magpie: the influence of birdsong on Beethoven motifs

Ex. 3 a: Approximate notation of yellowhammer song with altered emphasis

J = I44

ft f " ~"J
$t*t r r r r r r \*
Ex.3b: Piano Sonata in C op.53, bars 1?3. Beetho
in the bass line. The repeated note and rhythm
song, but Beethoven postpones the sustained note
thereby giving it more weight. The rising int
the phrase to modulate to the dominant. The tempo marking, Allegro con brio (J = 135),
also equates closely to yellowhammer song (J = 144).

time, the one theme evolving from the other and becoming a separate entity.
Nottebohm presumed that the lyrical, G major theme had grown out of the
primitive 'Fate ' motif. Beethoven's apparent use of full yellowhammer song
in the Fourth Piano Concerto suggests that this may have been conceived
before the Fifth Symphony. This makes chronological sense as the concerto
was completed before the Symphony (1806 and 1808 respectively).
Not only did Beethoven work on different compositions simultaneously,
but he would also return to the same motif ? like a dog returning to a bone.
The Finale theme from his ballet music The creatures of Prometheus is used in
the op.35 piano variations and again in the last movement of the 'Eroica'
Symphony (it had originally appeared even earlier as a set of quadrilles).12
On the completed manuscript of the string quartet op. 131 in C| minor,
Beethoven wrote 'Pilfered from a bit of this and that'.13 Although this com
ment was written in response to the publisher Schott's request for an original
work, there is more than a grain of truth in his jesting. With this in mind, let
us take another look at the notated yellowhammer song, but move the bar
lines so that the motif starts at the beginning of the bar (ex.3a). As we can
see, the yellowhammer template now becomes a near perfect match to the
opening theme of the Piano Sonata in C op. 5 3 (ex.3b).
The time signature (C) is the same in both the Fourth Piano Concerto and
12. Schindler: Beethoven,
the Piano Sonata (op. 53), but in the 'Waldstein', Beethoven kickstarts the
phrase at the beginning of the bar, letting it bounce off the L.H. tonic. In the
13. Elliot Forbes, ed.:
Thayer's Life of Beethoven more languid Piano Concerto, the motif begins halfway through the bar. By
(Princeton, 1964), p.983. moving the bar lines in this way, the rhythmic emphasis is shifted.

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Sketches for the Symphony no. 5 in C minor, op.67

Ex.4a: Scherzo
j j j u > > u j j ////

Ex.4b 'Fate'motif EX.4C: Motif from th

'Appassionata' sonata * .

In Forbes's list of main works sketch

of 1806, we see that the C major Piano
Sonata op. 57 are also contemporaneo
minary work had been done by this
Pianoforte Concerto, Op.58, [...] and th
look at Beethoven's sketches for the thi

Symphony (exx.4a & 4b),15 we can see

yellowhammer song could have fragm
motifs. Now let us compare the 'Fate' mo
first movement of the Piano Sonata op.5
similar features, and although a scra
punches above its weight in the climax o
Therefore we can presume that these
stages of development, were conceive
siblings, certain parental features are hi
the Piano Sonata op. 5 3 is almost a clo
quaver-pattern, whereas the Fourth
characteristic sustained rising second of
in the Fifth Symphony op.67 and the
diluted, suggesting that the four-not
earlier C major Piano Sonata op. 53 or
Exx.1-4 give us an insight into Beet
14- ibid., p.406.follow the likely process from his fir
15. Gustav Nottebohm:
committing it to paper, incorporating it
Zweite Beethoveniana:
to the final harmonised score. Once t
nachgelassene Aufs?tze
(Leipzig, 1887), it lost its identity and became t
532. Nottebohm (p.534)
being absorbed into the new phrase.
notes that the first sketches
for the Fifth Since it appears that Beethoven was i
were made in 1803.
it is probable that he used other birds

the Musical TIMES S

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22 The theming magpie: the influence of birdsong on Beethoven motifs

sonority and strong melodic content, it is argued that he may also have been
drawn to blackbird song.


I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly
them fruit for their songs
(Joseph Addison)

THE common blackbird {Turdus meruld) is widespread through

Europe, and as a songster it is unsurpassed. Blackbirds have a var
repertoire with a rich tone-quality, and they continue to learn
songs throughout their lives. Adult male blackbirds can have a
repertoire of 40 motifs which may develop into a similar number of vari
demonstrating 'rhythmic symmetry and balanced melodic line'.16

The mystery bird in the ?PastoraV Symphony

The 'Scene by the brook' is described by Jander as a 'conversation am
three partners: the brook, the birds and the composer.'17 In the exposition
development, Beethoven replicates general bird-twittering in the vio
and in the coda the appearance of the nightingale (flute), quail (oboe)
cuckoo (clarinet) are specifically named in the score by Beethoven him
(see ex.5). But there is another bird whose identification is still under deb
In the spring of 1823 Schindler accompanied Beethoven outside Vienna
his favourite Kahlenberg walk. Schindler describes how the composer
if he could hear a yellowhammer {Goldammer) singing in the trees: 'This
where I wrote the "Scene at the Brook" and the yellowhammers above,
quails, nightingales, and cuckoos all around, composed with me.' Wh
Schindler asked Beethoven why the yellowhammer had not been qu
along with the other birds in this movement, Beethoven is supposed to ha
seized his sketchbook and notated the following G major arpeggio (ex
ascribing it to the 'Goldammer'.18
i6. Joan Hall-Craggs: 'The
development of song in the Jander suggests Schindlern 'Goldammer' may have been a goldfin
blackbird, Turdus merula*, yet neither the yellowhammer or the goldfinch are true songsters and th
in Ibis 104/3 (r9^2)? p-296.
song does not match this motif. As we have already seen, the yellowhamm
17. Owen Jander: 'The
call is simply a repetition of one note, the last sustained and hig
prophetic conversation in
Beethoven's 'Scene by the (occasionally lower) in pitch. The song of the goldfinch is no more
Brook', in Musical Quarterly suasive. Vere Benson describes this as 'a high tinkling twitter, reminiscen
Japanese wind-bells.'19
18. This account is found
Clearly, there is little musical evidence to suggest that either the yello
in Schindler: Beethoven,
pp. 144-45. hammer or the goldfinch were the birds which influenced the arpeggio m
19. Benson: Observer's book, in the 'Scene by the brook' (see ex.7), but further investigation supports
p.30. blackbird as a more convincing candidate.

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Ex.5: 'Szene am Bach': 'Pastoral' Symphony, II, bars 129-32, depicting the nightingale, quail and cuckoo


Solo cello

& Basses

Ex.6: The Goldammer arpeggio in Schindlern biography. This motif is identified in

! qjTf
the development of the slow movement of the Sixth Symphony, first as a flute solo
(ex.7) before transferring to the violas (bars 69?71) and again in the recapitulation,
where it appears as a trio between the violin, clarinet and bassoon (bars 91?94).

Writing in the age of Enlightenment, Hawkins put forward the notion that
man's development of music was strongly influenced by birdsong, both
in melody and harmony. Hawkins not?tes a particular blackbird song as a
rhythmic ascending broken-chord in F major (ex.8).2?
This notated blackbird phrase appears closer to the relevant passage in the
'Scene by the brook' than the repetitive call of the yellowhammer ? so let us
explore how this confusion may have occurred.
20. Sir John Hawkins:
A general history of the
Both Czerny's Ammer [ling] (Fifth Symphony) and Schindlern Goldam
science and practice of music mer (Sixth Symphony) translate as yellowhammer21 and it seems more than
(London, 1776; cited from
mere coincidence that the yellowhammer should appear in both the Czerny
1853 edition), quoted in
Mathew Head: 'Birdsong
and the origins of music', in 21. Elizabeth Weir, ed.: part of the word derives as it is more commonly
Journal of the Royal Musical Casse II's German-English, from the German word for known is a member
Association 122 (1997), English-German dictionary bunting and the yellow of the bunting family
pp.i-23,atp.i4. (London, 1907). The 'ammer' bunting or yellowhammer (Emberiiidae).

the musical times Summer 2008 23

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24 The theming magpie: the influence of birdsong on Beethoven motifs

Ex.7: 'Pastoral' Symphony, II, bars 57-58, identifying Schindlern 'Goldammer' motif

1 & 2 in Bb

Ex.8: Hawkins1
blackbird song. ci776 ^ ^^ ^?J

and Schindler accounts. Anecdotes are usually rooted in the truth but become
twisted in the telling. Confusion may have arisen because the ordered num
ber of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies was reversed in the premiere concert
in 1808. However, Schindlern biographical account is noted for its inaccura
cies. Tovey describes the passage as 'poor Schindlern giraffe-throated
yellowhammer'.22 Czerny wrote his notes (dated 1852) for the scholar Otto
Jahn, who passed them on to Schindler for comment. In view of Schindler's
22. Donald Tovey: Essays
dubious reputation, it cannot be ruled out that he may have seized Czerny's
in musical analysis, vol.i:
symphonies (London, 1935), story, embellished it and claimed it as his own (finding a
p.51. natural habitat for it alongside the other birds in the 'Pastoral' Symphony).

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Ex.9: Symphony no.9 in D
minor scherzo, bars 1?4 r f f ir r r 1^^
Beethoven was scathing about him, nicknaming him 'Papageno' (presu
mably a reference to his character, not his profession) and Schindler proved
to be more of a 'Schwindler', destroying and altering some of the conver
sation books after Beethoven's death. Therefore, on balance, Schindler's
'Goldammer' account lacks credibility whereas, as we have seen, Czerny's
'Ammerling' anecdote can be substantiated.

The chorus in the Ninth Symphony

As well as the yellowhammer reference, Czerny also mentions a chorus of
birds in his Beethoven memoirs. He describes how Beethoven was inspired
to write the theme for the scherzo of the Ninth Symphony (ex.9) as ne walked
in the Augarten one spring morning, while listening to a cacophony of
Clearly, this anecdote is woolly. Czerny has not given us much to work
with: a medley of birdsong one spring morning, in a park in Vienna. But the
European spring dawn-chorus (reputed to be the best in the world) is worthy
of our attention. Blackbirds (with robins) are the first to sing in the dawn
chorus, and blackbird song, lower in pitch and more resonant than other
birdsong, tends to anchor the sound of a chorus, making it stand out from the
higher-pitched warbling and twittering of other birds which are difficult to
decipher with the human ear. The opening notes of this scherzo are certainly
within the range and scope of the blackbird and we know that Beethoven
(himself an early bird) was fond of walking in the Augarten (a haven for
birds). It is therefore feasible that the essence of this motif could have been
sung by one or more blackbirds, notated by Beethoven in his pocket
sketchbook and stored for later use in the Ninth Symphony.24

The blackbird and the late Beethoven quartets

23. Czerny: ?ber den richtigen
Vortrag, p.18. For some years several dominant male blackbirds have been recorded in a

24. Although work for this

rural area of Hampshire, UK, singing what appears to be two themes from
Symphony was not begun the late Beethoven quartets: the Grosse fugue op. 133 (ex.iob) and the Finale
until 1822, an early sketch
of the scherzo theme dates of op. 135 in F, 'Es muss sein!' (ex.nb).
from 1815, when it is argued Approximate musical notation of these motifs is shown in exx.ioa and 1 ia.
Beethoven still retained some
The first of these motifs {Grosse fugue) is particularly complex and is prac
hearing, making it a plausible
tale. See Forbes, ed.: Thayers tised in sections by the younger, less-experienced birds. Although the rhyth
Life, p.894. mic pattern can be plotted, due to the furious tempo and high pitch it is

the musical times Summer 2008 25

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26 The theming magpie: the influence of birdsong on Beethoven motifs

J. = 176
Ex.ioa: Approximate 8??.-?^.--^-----^

difficult to pinpoint the precise pitch and intervals of this phrase with the
human ear. The use of a sonagram seems inappropriate, as this facility would
not have been available to Beethoven.
The repeated 6/8 rhythmic pattern25 appears identical to the Grosse fugue
(see ex.iob, bars 11?13). The exact intervals and pitch (one octave higher
than notated) are difficult to determine with the human ear, but it is clear that
the contours are similar to the Grosse fugue-, a four-note motif, repeated
higher. In this particular recording, the blackbird is consistent and sings a
falling second at the end of both of these short phrases. Beethoven incor
porates a falling second the first time, but uses a rising minor second at the
end of the phrase and chromatic intervals throughout (ex.iob).
Beethoven uses the same material in the opening theme of the A minor
quartet op. 132 (first movement), employing a different key, a contrapuntal
texture, a contrasting dynamic and slower tempo (see ex.ioc). Both the A
minor and Bl? quartet op. 130 (of which the Grosse fugue was originally the last
movement) form the second and third 'Galitzin' quartets, completed in the
25. Clearly, the case for summer and autumn of 1825. As we have already seen, Beethoven worked on
arguing that blackbird song
appears in the Grosse fugue different works simultaneously and Nottebohm confirms that these two
may be helped if a phrase movements are contemporaneous and also that this theme dates from an
similar to ex.8a were found
in one of the sketchbooks. earlier period.26
However, only 14 leaves of The second blackbird song motif, taken from recordings made during
sketches for the Grosse fugue
March?July 2001-04 (see, is clearly linked in pitch, intervals and
are known to exist, which,
considering the extra rhythm to the opening theme from the Finale of the string quartet in F op. 135,
ordinary complexity of this 'Es muss sein!' (ex.nb).
movement, indicates that
some sketches are missing. The above notated examples suggest a possible link between blackbird
It is interesting to note in motifs and Beethoven themes. The next section explores parallels between
this regard that Beethoven
the blackbird's tonality and Beethoven's compositions.
sketched an eight-bar phrase
(Deutsche Staatsbiliothek,
Berlin, autograph 44, folio 1)
which has not been connected Keys and structure
to any particular passage
Then sing, ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song! (Wordsworth)
but whose 'rhythmic shape
strongly suggests the Grosse
Fugue op.133'; see Douglas
In June 2001 there was animated correspondence in the London Times about
Johnson, Alan Tyson & the blackbird and his extensive repertoire throughout the UK. Although this
Robert Winter: The
Beethoven sketchbooks evidence is anecdotal, it nonetheless shows how prominent and attractive
(Oxford, 1985)^.481. blackbird song is to the human ear. The initial correspondent (Essex, 2 June)
26. Zweite Beethoveniana cited the case of an old blackbird which sang a four-note phrase in A major
(Leipzig, 1887), p.5. and enquired 'was this handed down or invented by the blackbird?' In sub

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Ex.iob: Grosse fugue op. 133, bars 1?30.

Violin 1

Violin 1



/ if

Meno mosso e moderato


the musical times Summer 2008 27

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28 The theming magpie: the influence of birdsong on Beethoven motifs

Ex.ioc: Quartet in A minor op. 132,1, bars 1-9

sequent correspondence, the keys of A and F majors were reported to be the

common choice amongst the blackbirds (Hawkins's notated blackbird song,
ex.8, corroborates this). The Reverend Dr Clarke (15 June) hypothesised:
'Blackbirds are joyful in May and sing in A major. In July they are content
and sing in F major.' He went on to connect Beethoven's Seventh and Sixth
symphonies, regarded as 'happy' works and written in the corresponding
keys of A and F majors. The Symphony no.8 op.93, also in F, is described (in
his CD notes) as 'smiling' by Adelaide de Place, supporting this view.
We must of course tread warily when attributing the emotions of joy and
contentment to the ornithological world, but as Thorpe writes: 'The idea that
birdsong is often an expression of irrepressible joy can be supported with
some plausible arguments and is certainly not without some scientific justifi
cation'.27 But whatever the emotional argument, it is clear that the keys of A
27- WH Thorpe: 'The
learning of song patterns by and F majors encompass the natural range of the blackbird, whose song is
birds with special reference usually interpreted by the human ear as joyful, and Beethoven chooses these
to the song of the chaffinch
Fringilla coelebs , in Ibis ioo keys in his light-hearted and exuberant works.
(1958)^.535-70. F major is also the chosen key for the 'Pastoral' Symphony. Beethoven
28. Gustav Nottebohm: heads the first movement: 'Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the
Thematisches Verzeichnis der
im Druck erschienenen Werke
country'.28 It is also interesting to note that Katherina Fr?hlich describes
von Ludwig van Beethoven how, as a child, she delivered Beethoven's newspaper and, when in a cheerful
(1868; repr. Leipzig, 1925), mood, he would improvise: 'He would like to strike chords in F with his left
hand and run up and down the keyboard with his right.'29 Beethoven also
29. Gerhard von Breuning,
chooses F major in two of the piano sonatas, no.2 and op.54, both of
ed. Maynard Solomon, trans.
Henry Mins & Maynard which are in a 'fr?hlich' mood, and of the ten violin sonatas, the one in F,
Solomon: Memories of op.96, certainly lives up to its name, the 'Spring'.
Beethoven: from the house of
the black-robed Spaniards As well as the question of tonality, the Times blackbird symposium raised
(Cambridge, 1992), p.49. a new issue when another correspondent (Fife, 7 June) reported that he had

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Ex. 11 a: Approximate notation of the second blackbird J=. 32 gva
motif. This motif is comparatively easy to plot with
the human ear. Apart from the additional crotchet
in bar i and the grace note in bar 2, it bears a striking
l%u _ ^
resemblance to the 'Es muss sein!' theme in both pitch
and rhythm (ex.nb).

Grave Allegro

Ex. i ib: String Quartet

Muss es sein?the
F, finale,
Es mussclipped

Es muss sein! th
J If J
note motif by adding
sequence one tone low
(bars 13?15). Allegro

Violin i m

Violin 2
g?*- J
mm mm
^^m r fTT ?e?
Cello ^m
wmJ r l'f 'JE ??=?

Ex.12: Violin Concerto, III, bars 1?4. Beethoven repeats the five-note a
arpeggio motif and descends in thirds, arriving on the dominant. This
then repeated but leads to a perfect cadence the second time. Once ag
achieves a well-balanced phrase by incorporating simple techniques.

heard several Scottish blackbirds sing the opening two bars f

of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D op.61 (ex.12). On a trip to
the same correspondent visited Beethoven's birthplace and he
singing the identical phrase.
A number of other correspondents recognised blackbird mo
the classical and jazz repertoire, ranging from Beethoven
to Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong, confirming that

the musical times Summer 2

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3 o The theming magpie: the influence of birdsong on Beethoven motifs

Ex.13: Sonagram of part of a song

thrush motif, showing repetition
% V U V w ' ' ?

Ex. 14a: Approximate notation of the song

thrush call. The exact pitch is difficult to
. = 100
pinpoint, but the song thrush 8??'repeats the
interval three times and uses a similar tempo
to the Presto in Beethoven's finale. Unlike
Beethoven's simple duple time signature, the
(1$ ? h?Tv3E?
, k.^?l
song thrush appears to sing in triple time,
thereby reducing the gap between the top and
bottom notes.

Ex. 14b: Piano Trio in El? op.i no.i, finale, bars 1-8. Beethoven balances the song thrush's as
interval with a descending arpeggio on the tonic, which leads to the violin and cello entries
with a repeated descending pattern leading to the dominant. This phrase is then repeated, ar
the second time.


^^ WEgSS?
'w -^

^ *=P p?fp

resembles our own phrase structure. The debate then reverted to the initial
correspondent's question of plagiarism or originality, when a Middlesex cor
respondent intervened (15 June): 'Surely Beethoven and Beiderbecke have
cribbed from the birds in the first place.'
This notion is discussed in the next section, but before moving on, let us
conclude the notated examples with some rhythmic fragments from a close

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J. = 184
Ex. 15a: Approximate notation of the second song thrush

g ,f g f g ,
motif. Unlike the violin sonata, the anacrusis appears
to rise by step to the repeated note, but the rhythm is
identical to the last movement of the 'Kreutzer', and the
tempo also equates with the Presto in Beethoven's finale.

Ex. 15b: Violin Sonata in A, 'Kreutzer', finale, bars 1?6. Beethoven des
slow movement by inserting a huge, chunky chord of A major in the o
with a bump. The violin sets off with the song thrush motif, taken up
violin moves by step across the bar line (bars 3-4) and this three-note
parts interweave, ducking and diving at breakneck speed as they rom
hearted ending to complement the earlier weightier movements.


relative of the blackbird, the song thrush, which are also echoed in Beet
hoven motifs.


The wise Thrush, he sings each song twice over (Browning)

The song thrush ( Turdus ericetorum) is unusual in that it starts to sin

midwinter, when other birdsong has waned. Like the blackbird,
song is clear and projected, but unlike its distinguished cousin,
male song thrush sings in short repeated phrases (ex.13).30
Recordings of a male song thrush (made in Hampshire, UK, in Augu
2003) include two phrases which appear to be convergent with Beetho
motifs: the first, a repeated compound interval (ex. 14a), resembles the op
ing of the last movement of Beethoven's Piano Trio op.i no. 1 (ex. 14b), an
30. Edward A. Armstrong:
Discovering birdsong the second (ex. 15a), a repeated note, consisting of the 'te-tum-te-tu
(Aylesbury, i975),p.4. rhythm used in the Finale of the 'Kreutzer' Violin Sonata (ex. 15b).

the musical times Summer 2008 31

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32 The theming magpie: the influence of birdsong on Beethoven motifs

The above notated yellowhammer, blackbird and song thrush examples

show interesting parallels with Beethoven motifs. Let us now consider the
likelihood of Beethoven having woven birdsong into his compositions.


Nature was like food to him, he seemed really to live in it (Neate)

As a child, Beethoven sought solace in the Bonn countryside and af

his move to Vienna in 1792, he continued to walk in the parks an
fields of his adopted city, but he particularly looked forward to the
summer months when he would retreat to the rural villages where t
Wanderlust could be satisfied. Beethoven's love of nature and his lo
rambles in the countryside with manuscript paper always to hand, are well
documented. Ries describes how he would arrive at his teacher's summe
residence for an 8am lesson, and Beethoven would first suggest a short wal
often not returning until the late afternoon.31 Beethoven depended on natu
for healing and inspiration. Stumpf describes a visit to Beethoven, whom h
found ranting about his brother, Johann. Beethoven needed to calm do
and invited Stumpf for a walk. 'I must recuperate amid unspoilt nature and
cleanse my mind'.32
The natural world was Beethoven's thematic playground. Wh
Schl?sser quizzed him on his composing methods, Beethoven replied: 'Y
may ask me where I obtain my ideas. I cannot answer this with any certaint
they come unevoked, spontaneously or unspontaneously; I could grasp th
with my hands in the open air, in the woods while walking.'33
Beethoven had a particular affinity with trees, a prime location for bird

31. This account is found in

song. In an entry in his notebook (1815), he writes: 'Almighty in the forest
Franz Wegeler & Ferdinand am happy, blissful in the forest.'34 On all his excursions, whether urban or
Ries: Biographische Notizen rural, Beethoven was never without his pocket sketchbooks. Beethove
?ber Ludwig van Beethoven
(1838,1845), translated as writes from his summer residence in M?dling (1818): 'As for me, in th
Remembering Beethoven parts I wander about the mountains, crevices and valleys with a sheet
(London, 1988), p.86
(Frederick Noonan). manuscript paper, scribbling down many things for the sake of my da
bread.'35 In that same summer, the artist Kl?ber writes that he often met Be
32. Michael Hamburger, ed.:
Beethoven letters, journals hoven on his walks in M?dling and observed 'how frequently he stoppe
and conversations (New York, with a sheet of music paper and a pencil-stump in his hands, as if listening,
1984), p.220.
looked up and down and then scribbled notes on the paper.'36 Among
33.ibid,p.i95. sketches for the Piano Sonata op. 106 in Bl? ('Hammerklavier') are som
34. ibid, p. 136. musical scraps of this period (1818) which Beethoven heads, 'written w
35. ibid, p. 166. walking in the evening between and on the mountains.'37 Beethoven us
36. Forbes, ed.: ThayersLife, these walks as a resonant soundboard from which he would jot down music
p.703. ideas, and one of the most prominent and melodious sounds in the country
37. ibid, p.715. side is the songs of birds.

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Beethoven was a thematic magpie collecting any odds and ends which
took his fancy. Czerny relates that many of Beethoven's motifs came from
chance occurrences and impressions. Once, when walking with Countess
Erdody and friends, Beethoven stopped to listen to some country musicians
and was amused by the poor intonation of the players, particularly the cellist
who, attempting to play a C major chord, was so flat that he produced the
leading-note instead. Beethoven noted it down and used the motif in the
Credo of his Mass in C op.86.38
Beethoven clung to these sketchbooks obsessively throughout his life.
Thayer suggests that Beethoven also brought a large amount of unpublished
material with him when he moved to Vienna, which he dipped into for later
compositions. In a waspish account Abb? Gelinek, a rival virtuoso and com
poser, described Beethoven's working methods:

he (Beethoven) had always been in the habit of noting every musical idea that occurred to
him upon a bit of paper which he threw into a corner of his room, and that after a while
there was a considerable pile of the memoranda which the maid was not permitted to touch
when cleaning the room. Now when Beethoven got into a mood for work he would hunt a
few musical motivi out of his treasure-heap which he thought might serve as principal and
secondary themes for the composition in contemplation, and often his selection was not a
lucky one.39

Czerny also notes how Beethoven would use motifs which had lain
dormant for many years.40 In nos.2?5 of the set of eleven Bagatelles op.119
for piano, Beethoven used material sketched from around 1800 or earlier, a
time lapse of at least 20 years. According to Nottebohm, the principal
opening theme of the last Piano Sonata in C minor was also sketched
38. Czerny: ?ber den richtigen
Vortrag, p.19.
some 20 years before in the key of Fjt minor41 and, as we have already seen,
the scherzo theme of the Ninth Symphony was noted down several years
39. Forbes, ed.: Thayers Life, earlier.
40. ibid, p.227. He was It might be argued that Beethoven could not have notated birdsong when
reliably informed of this he was deaf, but he had a phenomenal musical memory: 'I carry my thoughts
by the violinist Krumpholz,
who remained in Beethoven's about with me for a long time, [...] before writing them down. I can rely upon
close circle until his death in my memory in doing so and can be sure that once I have grasped a theme I
1817. shall not have forgotten it even years later.'42 In addition, it seems that
41. Gustav Nottebohm: Beethoven may have retained some hearing in his left ear until late in life. Von
Ein Skiftenbuch von Beethoven
Breuning gives a touching account (c.1825) of how his sister, seated at the
(Leipzig, 1865), p.19. It
is interesting to note that table with Beethoven 'let out a high piercing shriek, and the fact that he heard
Frimmel traces the origin of
this motif to Sacchini's 18th
it after all made him so happy that he laughed out loud'.43 It is possible, then,
century opera Dardanus. that under the right conditions birdsong may still have been audible to
42. Hamburger, ed.:
Beethoven letters, pp.194?95. The information presented above suggests the feasibility of Beethoven
43. Solomon: Late Beethoven, using birdsong in his works. However, it could equally be argued that the
p. 72. birds are imitating the composer. Some birds (not yellowhammers) are

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34 The theming magpie: the influence of birdsong on Beethoven motifs

renowned mimics. There is the account of Mozart's pet starling who whistled
the theme from his piano concerto in G K.453, as tne composer was writing
it. No one is quite sure who should take the credit. For Slater44 there would
be no doubt - Mozart. He argues that similarities with our own music
traditions are coincidental, as birds are programmed to mimic sounds rather
than create melody. Schubart writing in the 18th century also dismisses the
idea that man learnt melody from the birds, although he concedes: 'birdsong
indeed contains the seven notes: but what man has done with them!'45

Imagination and thought processes separate us from the animal world, but
it has been shown that some birds are musically aware and their songs can be
regarded as 'a first step towards true artistic creation and expression.'46 In
early spring, blackbird song consists of simple repeated fragments, but as the
season progresses, blackbirds show a marked preference for certain motifs,
which are then embellished and woven into the completed phrase. These
developed phrases are structurally balanced, showing repeated rhythmic
patterns and climax, conforming to our own concept of a musical frame
work. As we have seen, blackbirds sing in scale and arpeggio motifs and they
also share our own ensemble techniques of chorus, antiphonal and counter
singing. They can transpose to a pitch within their own range and, like
humans, practise in sections until complete phrases are mastered, illustrating
common ground between music making in man and birds.


Thus birds instructed man,

And taught them songs before their art began (Lucretius)

Like birds, humans also imitate the sounds around them. Singing is
both enjoyable and good for us; it exercises the larynx (or syrinx i
birds) and oxygenates the system. Birdsong can be exquisitely beau
tiful and perhaps goes beyond the call of nature for territorial or breeding
purposes. In fact blackbirds have usually mated and marked territories befor
they begin to sing. It is also interesting to note that birds continue to sing
during peak times of activity, which could indicate that they also take plea
sure in song.
44- PJB Slater: 'Animal
Musicians have a highly developed auditory sense and are acute listene
music', in New Grove
(London, 1980), pp.682-86. and receptors of sound. Birdsong has been employed by other composers
45. Christian Schubart: Ideen notably Bruckner, Dvorak, Bartok and, of course, Messiaen. It is possibl
lu einer ?sthetik der Tonkunst that birds and humans share an interactive relationship, dipping into the sam
(Vienna, 1806; repr. Leipzig,
organic stock-pot of melody and rhythm. In 1924 the BBC recorded a du
1977), pp.35-36, quoted in
Head: 'Birdsong', p.19. between a cellist and a nightingale in a wood in Surrey. The performance wa

46. Thorpe, quoted in Jellis: remarkable, showing that the bird was both listening and responding to the
Bird sounds, p. 20 5. cellist - true chamber music.

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The essence of Beethoven's genius lies not in divine melody, but in his
transformation of a simple motif. Beethoven's supreme gift of extempo
risation and his mastery in writing variations on a simple theme are un
surpassed. As Kamien writes, 'These early notes [in the sketchbooks] often
seem crude and uninspired when compared with their final versions',47 and
this is because the material itself is not the crucial factor in his writing.
Beethoven could have taken the sweepings of other composers and
transformed them into towering, cohesive musical structures.
Beethoven connected with nature; it nourished him and fed his works.
Like many artists, Beethoven used walking as an essential element of the
creative process and birdsong would have accompanied Beethoven on many
of his daily rambles. It is known that Beethoven made use of folksong,
particularly in his most intimate writing, the late quartets, and it is not such a
huge step from folksong to birdsong.
Birds have been used by artists as a symbol of the soul, and Beethoven
believed that his music must ultimately uplift and restore the spirit: 'Why,
Daedalus when confined to the labyrinth invented the wings which lifted him
upwards and out into the air. Oh, I too shall find them, these wings.'48 Like a
bird in flight, his music begins to rise. Resting a while on a thermal, it hangs
in the air and then soars eagle-like towards the heavens. This is particularly
apparent in his late writing, when he appears to have one foot in another
47- R. Kamien: Music: In summary, it is suggested here that Beethoven used yellowhammer song
an appreciation, third and that he may have drawn on blackbird and song thrush motifs, indicating
edition (New York, 1984),
pp.258-259. that further research could reveal other Beethoven/ birdsong parallels. The
notated examples in this essay point to the yellowhammer as the likely source
48. Emily Anderson, ed.:
The letters of Beethoven for the 'Waldstein' Piano Sonata op. 53 (I) and the Fourth Piano Concerto
(London, 1961), vol.1, p.359, op.58 (I). The 'Appassionata' op.57 (I) and the Fifth Symphony op.67 (I &
Letter no.349, to Zmeskall,
19 February 1812. III) probably evolved from this motif. In addition, we are left with the notion
that the common European blackbird may have played a small part in a
49. Paraphrase from
Schubart 's Ideen ^u einer masterpiece of western civilisation, the Grosse fugue, together with 'Es muss
?sthetik der Tonkunst (see sein!', the finale theme from Beethoven's last work.
n.44), of which, amongst his
small collection of books, 'Birdsong indeed contains the seven notes; but what [Beethoven] has done
Beethoven owned a copy. with them!'49

Sylvia Bowden teaches piano in the music department at the University of


the Musical TIMES Summer 2008 35

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