The Brazilian recording star Luiz Gonzaga made a career of singing about the drought-plagued northeastern Brazil countryside, where he is still revered as emblematic of the region.
For individuals who predict the weather based on natural patterns in the northeastern backlands, Gonzaga’s music continues to lend credibility, clarity, and local significance to the practice known as rain prophecy.
For example, his Acauãclearly conveys the meaning of the laughing falcon’s cry for the region’s inhabitants: it augurs and “invites” drought. “In the joy of the rainy season/sing the river frog, the tree frog, the toad/but in the sorrow of drought/you hear only the acauã.” The song ends with Gonzaga mimicking the bird’s call, evoking a sound that arouses powerful emotions in the region’s inhabitants.
When northeastern rain prophets cite Gonzaga’s songs, they add credibility to their own expertise, framing it in a context that most Brazilians can comprehend. Enhanced by his national fame and legendary status, Gonzaga’s voice continues to play a significant role in the maintenance of traditional ecological knowledge.
This according to “Birdsong and a song about a bird: Popular music and the mediation of traditional ecological knowledge in northeastern Brazil” by Michael B. Silvers (Ethnomusicology LIX/3 [fall 2015] 380–97).
Today is Gonzaga’s 110th birthday! Above, Gonzaga performing in the traditional costume of the northeastern rancheiros, in 1957 (Arquivo Nacional, public domain); below, his 1952 recording of Acauã.
BONUS: Gonzaga performs Acauã in a film intended for television broadcast. In his introduction he compares the local significance of the laughing falcon’s call with that of the purple-throated euphonia, which heralds rain.
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The vocalizations of the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) include calls (e.g., food begging [above], alarms, cat scolding), calls incorporated into songs, and pure songs. The latter category may include melismas, ostinatos, transpositions, inversions, variations, and rhythmic effects such as additive and divisive patterns.
Cultural manifestations include duets, antiphonal and canonic effects, and unisons. They also mimic other birds and unexpected sources such as dogs, cats, humans, and machines.
The Inventur und Schätzung der Joseph Haydnischen Kunstsachen—the catalogue of the auction of Haydn’s personal collection following his death in 1809—is preserved in the Musiksammlung of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.
One of the items listed therein was a living parrot. During the composer’s later years, the parrot enjoyed warm days in its cage in Haydn’s Vienna courtyard, mocking the sparrows on the neighbors’ roofs. It could whistle a full octave, sing the opening of the national anthem, and call out “Come, Papa Haydn, to the beautiful Paperi!”
This according to “Haydn als Sammler” by Otto Erich Deutsch, an article included in Zum Haydn-Jahr 1959 (Österreichische Musikzeitschrift XIV/5–6 [May–June 1959] pp. 188–194; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1959-648).
Today is Haydn’s 290th birthday! Below, perhaps a descendant.
Angelic concerts were an extremely popular motive in late medieval European painting. Music-making, singing, or dancing angels co-created an aura of beauty, happiness, and harmony that artistic tradition associated primarily with the figure of Mary. The nascent tradition was taken up by Gentile da Fabriano (ca. 1370–1427), who created an original vision of the Heavens filled with sweet unearthly music, reigned over by the Mother of God.
The most interesting is Gentile’s first work, painted around 1395 (Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie), which depicts Mary with her Child on a throne. There are two lilies, one on each side, and in the background are two trees hiding pink angels who hold musical instruments gleaming with gold light. The bird-like angels in the foliage are a visual reference for the poetic metaphor of birdsong as an earthly manifestation of Heaven’s angelic songs in eternal praise of Mary.
This according to “Bird-like angels making music in Mary’s garden: Gentile da Fabriano’s Madonna and child with saints” by Sławomira Żerańska-Kominek (Music in art XXXVI/1–2  pp. 177–190).
Above, the painting in question (click to enlarge); below, music by Francesco Landini accompanies a sequence of Fabriano’s paintings, including this one.
A lively musical culture existed in the second half of the 14th century at the court of Brabant during the reign of Wenceslas I, Duke of Luxembourg (above, right). This abundant musical activity makes it likely that a member of the court chapel, Nicolas de Picquigny, was Pykini, the composer of the much-admired four-voice virelaiPlasanche or tost.
The text of Plasanche or tost mentions that the audience will listen with pleasure to the parrot (le papegay). Although parrots are often mentioned in such texts to evoke springtime, and some scholars have guessed that here it is a punning reference to a Pope, archival sources show that Wenceslas had chosen the parrot as his symbol, having had its image embroidered on numerous furnishings with the coats of arms of Brabant and Luxembourg.
The bird was a very appropriate mascot for this duke and poet, who welcomed poets from so many different linguistic regions to his court and was himself fluent in multiple languages. The virelai’s listeners would have had no doubt about the identity of this particular parrot.
On 27 May 1784 Mozart purchased a European starling (Sturnus vulgaris, above). The pleasure he expressed at hearing the bird’s song—“Das war schon!”—is all the more understandable when one compares his notation of it with the beginning of the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G major, K.453, which was written around the same time.
Three years later the bird died, and he buried it with much ceremony. Heavily veiled mourners marched in a procession, sang hymns, and listened to a graveside recitation of a poem Mozart had composed for the occasion.
Although many questions remain about starlings’ vocal capacities, a recent study supports a definite link between their mimicry and their lively social interactions, illuminating Mozart’s response to his beloved pet’s death.
This according to “Mozart’s starling” by Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King (American scientist LXXVIII/2 [May–August 1990] pp. 106–114).
Below, the concerto movement sung by Mozart’s starling.
All human societies have music with a rhythmic beat, typically produced with percussive instruments such as drums. The set of capacities that allows humans to produce and perceive music appears to be deeply rooted in human biology, but an understanding of its evolutionary origins requires cross-taxa comparisons.
Drumming by palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) shares the key rudiments of human instrumental music, including manufacture of a sound tool, performance in a consistent context, regular beat production, repeated components, and individual styles.
Throughout 131 drumming sequences produced by 18 males, the beats occurred at nonrandom, regular intervals; yet individual males differed significantly in the distribution parameters of their beat patterns, indicating individual drumming styles. Autocorrelation analyses of the longest drumming sequences further showed that they were highly regular and predictable, like human music.
These discoveries provide a rare comparative perspective on the evolution of rhythmicity and instrumental music in our own species, and show that a preference for a regular beat can have other origins before being co-opted into group-based music and dance.
The song of the hermit thrush, a common North American songbird, is renowned for its apparent musicality and has attracted the attention of musicians and ornithologists for more than a century.
Recent research has shown that hermit thrush songs, like much human music, use pitches that are mathematically related by simple integer ratios and follow the harmonic series. These findings add to a small but growing body of research showing that a preference for small-integer ratio intervals is not unique to humans; such findings are particularly relevant to the ongoing nature/nurture debate about whether musical predispositions such as the preference for consonant intervals are biologically or culturally driven.
This according to “Overtone-based pitch selection in hermit thrush song: Unexpected convergence with scale construction in human music” by Emily Doolittle, et al. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America CXI/46 [18 November 2014] pp. 16616–16621).
Below, a hermit thrush video that will fascinate your cats; more recordings, including slowed-down ones, are here.
The importance of birds and bird song in Afghan culture is embedded in Afghanistan’s two official languages—Dari and Pashto—in which the nightingale, a central poetic symbol, occurs in texts sung by urban and rural singers.
The songs of particular birds are associated with calls to prayer, and mullahs confirm that birdsong is regarded within Sufism as a form of religious singing; birds are welcomed at Sufi shrines, where feeding them is considered an act of piety.
Sometimes caged birds are brought to musical performances in Herāt, and when they are stirred to sing by hearing music their sounds are heard as an integral and treasured part of the performance.
This according to “Afghan perceptions of birdsong” by John Baily (The world of music XXXIX/2  pp. 51–59).
Above, an Afghan dove with a friend; below, a nightingale competition in Afghanistan.
The serinette (after the French serin, canary) is a very small barrel organ that was used to teach repertoire to pet songbirds in the 18th century. These instruments were made in England, France, and Germany.
In 2007 an independent organ and barrel organ builder affiliated with the mechanical instruments center of Waldkirch in Baden-Württemberg embarked upon a series of modern reconstructions of the serinette. His main sources were the description of the serinette found in Dom Bédos de Celles’s L’art du facteur d’orgues (Paris, 1778) and two instruments from Mirecourt.
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