Visitors from Birdland

White Crowned Sparrows

White Crowned Sparrows

On a recent mid-afternoon, I was sitting in the backyard reading, absorbing the quiet and admiring the white roses. Then two visitors appeared: two fat grey sparrows.  They headed straight for the little water fountain which my housekeeper had filled that morning.  I was holding my breath trying to become invisible but they paid me no attention whatsoever. One plunged in the water and the other perched on a high branch and pip-pip-pipped softly as if to reassure his companion that all was well. Then bird #1 started splashing merrily, spreading his wings, dipping his beak to drink, then thrashing some more. This went on for a while until they reversed roles. Bird #1 went   to take up his position as sentry while bird #2  went through the same ritual in the basin. I felt as if I was watching an episode from Nature in real time.  Quite a magic moment.


Baby Sparrows

Baby Sparrows

Music and Animals


In Aesop’s fables, animals are chosen to convey a moral lesson. Children love animals and are more likely to heed their unspoken advice than listen to human exhortations. The animals that appear in musical compositions are  the result of a nostalgic effort to recreate this magical childhood world.

It is in this spirit that Maurice Ravel created his “Ma Mere L’Oye Suite” (Mother Goose Suite). He also produced “L’Enfant et les  Sortileges” in which  a squirrel, two cats, a frog and a dragonfly scold a naughty child.   Francis Poulenc composed the music for “The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant”  for a narrator and a piano in 1945. Later it was rearranged for wind instruments.

In 1886 the French composer Camille Saint-Saens in a few short weeks wrote the music for “Le Carnaval des Animaux” (Carnival of the Animals), a grand and witty zoological  fantasy in 14 short movements. The orchestration is different for each movement. Some highlights are:

–Royal march and roar of the lion

–Hens and roosters cacophony ending in a harmony

–Hermiones (wild asses) rapid and virtuosic air

–Turtles dancing a funereal French Can-Can

–Long-eared donkeys braying

–Pianists mangling their Etudes (exercises)

–Skeletons performing well known children’s songs (they sound like a xylophone)

–And finally : “The Swan,”  for two pianos and a cello, the piece de resistance, a beautiful and melodic piece which is every cellist’s dream, nowadays often associated with Yo Yo Ma. For some reason Saint-Saens forbade the performance of this work until after his death, except for “The Swan” perhaps out of a feeling that the whole enterprise was somehow unworthy of him.

It was not until 1921 that this work was widely diffused.

And we are lucky to still have it.

Editors note: Enjoy Carnival of the Animals. This is a personal favorite.






Tips from a Blogger


It used to be that you could only write an “opinion piece” if you were a regular contributor to a newspaper and had your own column. Social media now allows anyone to write what they want anywhere, anytime.  Short thoughts can be tweeted.   Daily events and pictures can be shared on Facebook. and more ambitious writers can start a blog.


Why would anybody want to write a blog? The comparison I can think of is not a very elegant one. Something is stuck in your mind and it wants out.  So perhaps you end up writing a school essay on a topic of your own choosing. In the act of putting down your thoughts and letting them out, something of your personality will inevitably emerge.




A few tips:

–A blog writer has to be scrupulously honest, because readers will detect any insincerity or posturing.

–And if you hate “The Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake” or something else that everyone loves, just say so!

–At the same time  you are not in the business of writing about yourself and you need to safeguard your privacy, so no nakedness. There are good reasons why clothes were invented. Keep  confessions for your diary.

–You also have to remember that you are not writing a novel. You do have to tell a story to keep your readers wanting to know more.

–There are no restrictions on what you can write about. I was asked once, “Why don’t you write about advice?”  So I wrote a blog about why I don’t give advice.

–Simple, concrete everyday words are more potent than abstract ones or circumlocutions. But if only an esoteric word can adequately describe your thought then use it. Some readers will know the word; others will guess or look it up.

–Avoid empty-calorie words like awesome, amazing or terrific. Their meaning has evaporated from overuse. Shun clichés like: “To make a long story short” or “The tip of the iceberg” or “Putting the cart before the horse” and many, many others.

And, most important, you need to enjoy writing your blog.

(I sure do)



Editor’s note: The word “blog” is a contraction of “weblog.”


Sing Out Birdies! (and the humans will follow)





From ancient times, birds have figured very prominently in all forms of human music. I think this is because the sounds they make are so much like musical trills, scales, arpeggios and even arias. Doesn’t the turtledove’s mournful cry resemble a musical lament?

Composers have featured birds individually and in whole flocks in their works, sometimes imitating them, other times incorporating actual recorded sounds and blending them in. Melodious calls like those of the nightingale, the cuckoo and the thrush are especially favored. One of Handel’s concerti is called “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale.” In Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” a single violin flutters like a bird. And in Messiaen’s “Le Merle Noir” a flute and piano capture the sound of a blackbird. Cuckoo calls have also been used by Daquin and Vivaldi.

More prosaic birds also strut in some compositions: Haydn has a symphony called “The Hen”
in which an oboe does the clucking. And in Elgar’s “Owls” an owl-like sound recurs in the night.

Then there are the whole flocks of various birds appearing together. The 16th century musician Janequin composed “Le Chant des Oiseaux” (Birds’ Songs). Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” features a storm followed by the sound of birds by a brook. But the most famous work about flocks of birds is Otterino Respighi’s “The Birds.” He went about collecting and recording various bird sounds and incorporated them into his composition.

A most subversive idea came to me as I thought about the concept of “birds singing.” Why do we believe that they are singing? A bird’s life is fraught with danger and necessity. At every moment, it needs to think of foraging for food while not becoming someone else’s food. A bird does not have the leisure and luxury of engaging in frivolous singing. For that you need calm, tranquility and serenity.

So here is my translation of their sophisticated language that sounds like song to us. (This is absolutely without evidence.)

Her to Him: Night is falling. The chicks are sleeping.
Come home.

Him to Her: Looking for more worms. Coming soon.

Her to Him: Watch out for the fluffy cat. It has become better at pouncing.

Early morning birds singing in unison: Get ready everybody. We are migrating this morning.

And at sundown. Omigod, the world is coming to an end!

Next time…More animals and classical music…..


Editors note: This video is not completely on point, but still a lot of fun.

Here’s a lovely rendition of The Lark Ascending