Thursday, October 23, 2008

Music for the unaccompanied parrot

I’ve been reading David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing (Allen Lane, 2005), and was charmed to learn of The Bird Fancyer’s Delight (1717): “Choice Observations and Directions Concerning ye Teaching of all Sorts of Singing-birds, after ye Flagelet and Flute, if rightly made as to Size & tome, with a Method of fixing ye wett Air, in a Spung or Cotton, with Lessons properly Composed, within ye Compass & faculty of each Bird, Viz. for ye Woodlark, Blackbird, Throustill, House-sparrow, Canary-bird, Black-thorn-linnet, Garden-Bull-Finch, and Starling”.

I cannot find this agreeable sounding and doubtless diverting book on the ECCO database, but I did ask a colleague if, as an 18th century specialist, she had heard of it. Not only had she heard of it, but down in her cellar, had an LP of performances by Richard and Theodora Schulze (recorders, sopranino), accompanied by a harpsichordist. Academics! – when you think you are being absurdly recondite, but there they are, way ahead of you, head full of knowledge, cellarage a latter day wonder cabinet.

I duly begged the loan of this venerable LP. It isn’t dated, but may be from the 60’s: Stereovox of New York:

for anyone unfamiliar with the technology. Apparently the 1717 collection of tunes for pet birds became important to the recorder player’s repertoire. Richard Schulze has added a second part and the harpsichord, but the original idea was that you played the music on your bird flageolet (they use a sopranino on the recording) until your bird had the tune off perfectly. You then might enter your bird in singing contests, etc.

As a parrot owner, I was especially pleased to find two tunes ‘for the parrot’. Now Barney, my African Grey (see him marking Renaissance Literature exam scripts for me here ) had a poor early upbringing. He can whistle ‘Half a pound of tuppenny rice’, but he then skips the boring bit, and seques straight into ‘Pop goes the weasel’.

Here, however, is a bird doing a very creditable Queen of the Night:

and here’s a rather less highbrow compilation of Leonard the parrot amid cries of ‘Exterminate!’ intermittently doing the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme and singing ‘Red Red What’ instead of UB40’s hit song, ‘Red Red Wine’:

Anyway, my MP3 is of the two tunes for parrot in The Bird Fancyer’s Delight, 1717. The first I recognize as ‘The Happy Clown’, which is such an appropriate choice. Like most birds, Barney has a syrinx rather than a larynx, and can make two sounds at once, but it will take a long time to get him up to this (and I think he’s out of his best learning age-range, which is closed in birds). I didn’t try to edit off all the pops and crackles, as they as so many, and they rather add to the parrotty ambience:

My image is ‘The Serinette’, the little hand-cranked barrel-organ people used to train their birds, with depicted in use by Jean-Siméon Chardin in 1751. I will have to get one of those, maybe.

To round off, here’s William Cowper’s ‘On the death of Mrs Throckmorton’s bullfinch’. A sad tale of the death of one of those trained birds – with a very apt moment of mock heroic in the final stanza:

‘On the death of Mrs Throckmorton’s bullfinch’

Ye Nymphs, if e’er your eyes were red
With tears o’er hapless favourites shed,
O, share Maria’s grief!
Her favourite, even in his cage,
(What will not hunger's cruel rage?)
Assassin'd by a thief.

Where Rhenus strays his vines among,
The egg was laid from which he sprung,
And though by nature mute,
Or only with a whistle bless’d,
Well-taught he all the sounds express’d
Of flageolet or flute.

The honours of his ebon poll
Were brighter than the sleekest mole,
His bosom of the hue
With which Aurora decks the skies,
When piping winds shall soon arise
To sweep away the dew.

Above, below, in all the house,
Dire foe alike of bird and mouse,
No cat had leave to dwell;
And Bully's cage supported stood

On props of smoothest-shaven wood,
Large built and latticed well.

Well latticed, - but the grate, alas!
Not rough with wire of steel or brass,
For Bully’s plumage sake,
But smooth with wands from Ouse’s side,
With which, when neatly peel’d and dried,
The swains their baskets make.

Night veil’d the pole: all seem’d secure:
When, led by instinct sharp and sure,
Subsistence to provide,
A beast forth sallied on the scout,
Long back’d, long tail’d, with whisker’d snout,
And badger-colour’d hide.

He, entering at the study door,
Its ample area 'gan explore;
And something in the wind
Conjectured, sniffing round and round,
Better than all the books he found,
Food chiefly for the mind.

Just then, by adverse fate impress'’d,
A dream disturb’d poor Bully's rest;
In sleep he seem’d to view
A rat fast clinging to the cage,
And, screaming at the sad presage,
Awoke and found it true.

For, aided both by ear and scent,
Right to his mark the monster went, -
Ah, Muse! forbear to speak
Minute the horrors that ensued;
His teeth were strong, the cage was wood, -
He left poor Bully’s beak.

O, had he made that too his prey!
That beak, whence issued many a lay
Of such mellifluous tone,
Might have repaid him well, I wote,
For silencing so sweet a throat,
Fast stuck within his own.

Maria weeps, - the Muses mourn; -
So, when by Bacchanalians torn,
On Thracian Hebrus’ side
The tree-enchanter Orpheus fell,
His head alone remain’d to tell
The cruel death he died.


Adam Roberts said...

A little belatedly, I wondered if you saw this recent parrot-related story:

"the tale of Ziggy, an 8-year-old parrot in Britain who exposed the secret affair that his owner’s girlfriend was conducting with a man called Gary. Ziggy made kissing sounds when the name Gary was spoken on TV and said, “Hiya, Gary,” when the girlfriend’s cellphone rang. She broke down and confessed after Ziggy said, “I love you, Gary,” in an imitation of her voice. The revelation of female infidelity is in fact an ancient staple of parrot literature. In a 13th-century Spanish folk tale, which derives from an earlier Arabic one, a suspicious husband buys a parrot in order to keep an eye on his wife while he is away. Upon returning from his travels, he questions the bird, who reports that the wife was indeed visited by a lover. But she triumphs by tricking the husband into believing that the parrot is a liar, and he has it killed."

DrRoy said...

Parrots are very alert to telephones, imitating the trill, and saying 'hello' as you pick up the receiver. Barney uses the sound of the phone from his previous house to try to get me back into the room if I am leaving him alone. So the yarn may have a small basis of truth to it, but is doubtless much improved upon.