Birds’ lament

A month of Strange Flowers! And they said it wouldn’t last…

Today: songs for dead birds.

Specifically: four composers who were sufficiently moved by the death of a winged pet to put pen to score. Birdsong is said to have inspired humanity’s earliest attempts at music-making, so is it some portent of their own demise that these songsmiths imagine when they see Polly talons-up at the bottom of the cage? Can we draw anything from the fact that the quartet below, all of whom wrote funeral odes for deceased birdlife, were in their own individual ways a little stranger than your average composer?

French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan started the odd micro-trend of musically memorialising a feathered friend in 1859 when he wrote Marcia Funèbre sulla Morte d’un Pappagallo (Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot). Alkan, born this day in 1813, is one of the great “lost” composers, who first found fame as a pianist and then retreated for years at a time to compose in isolation, prompting outlandish stories of his supposed eccentricities. When visitors tried to call on the misanthropic Alkan and inquired of the concierge when the reclusive virtuoso might be in, he was drilled to reply “never”.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Funeral March for a Pet Bird features in a group of entry-level piano pieces for children. “The little bird was a personage in his way,” according to the accompanying notes, “on terms of close friendship with the maiden, who kept him prisoner because she loved him so well, but now the sweet song is forever stilled; the cage is empty, and the heart of the little mistress is desolate.” By which time the pint-sized pianist is presumably so traumatised that they abandon the keys forever.

In 1916, the superbly odd Gerald Tyrwhitt Wilson, Lord Berners to you, wrote Trois Petites Marches Funebres, which included a piece dedicated to another ex-parrot. That the 14th Baron Berners should choose to eulogise an avian companion amidst the unparalleled devastation of the Great War is indicative of either a) the attention-seeking frivolity of a professional eccentric with no thought for those worse off than him (i.e. just about everyone), or b) an admirably blithe spirit who could summon a light heart in the darkest hour. Tough call.

Finally there’s Moondog, whose wigged-out wardrobe we recently rummaged through, who in 1955 wrote what was to become one of his best known works, Bird’s Lament. It wasn’t technically an ode to a perished pet, rather a moving tribute to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. It’s a piece which manages the rare feat of being breezy and melancholic at the same time.



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