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Composers Datebook: For the Birds

Today on Composers Datebook, you can read about Messiaen's Oiseaux Exotiques, which will be performed by UMWO on our April 1 concert. The text is below and you can get audio of today's broadcast here. More information on Birds can be found elsewhere on this blog.

The song of birds has fascinated composers for centuries, and imitations of especially melodious birds like the lark or the nightingale are fairly common in musical works from the 18th and 19th centuries.In the 20th century, musical ornithology became more scientific -- and bolder.

The modern French composer, Olivier Messiaen recorded and notated the birds of rural France and elsewhere, and used birdsong as the core thematic material in many of his scores, such as his chamber work Exotic Birds from 1956.

But on today's date in 1924, an orchestral work premiered in Rome that included -- for the first time in musical history -- the actual song of an actual bird. On that occasion, over faint, muted strings and clarinet, conductor Bernardino Molinari, cued a member of his orchestra to start up a 78-rpm phonograph record of a real nightingale's song, as indicated in the score of Ottorino Respighi's orchestral suite titled The Pines of Rome.

This was the second of three suites composed by Respighi depicting Roman lanscapes: the others being The Fountains of Rome from 1917 and Roman Festivals from 1929. The British music critic, Norman Lebrecht, calls these three pieces, "God's gift to hi-fi salesmen," and, truth be told, ever since the early days of stereo, Respighi's colorful scores have served to show off many a newly-acquired audio system.

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