Eric Salzman: Composer, Author, Music Theater Innovator



The Most Beautiful Bird Song

This is a piece about tramping the hot, sandy, piney back woods of Long Island looking for an obscure little brown bird and listening for its song.

We used to have a bit of solitary woodland where, in the fading light of a spring evening, we would go to hear the Hermit Thrush sing. The highway came right through the spot.

Why are we looking for this bird?

The song of the Hermit Thrush is exquisite, some say the most beautiful bird music we have. But it can only be heard in the woodland solitudes it prefers for its nesting grounds. That used to include much of Long Island but it is safe to say that few suburbanites are familiar with it today.

There was a Long Islander who knew the bird well. The voice of the Hermit Thrush inspired Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”; it is our avian singer of wilderness solitude that chants Whitman’s elegy to the martyred President Lincoln and the poetry echoes, not Old World literary skylarks and nightingales, but the cadence of a spring evening in the pine barrens.

So here we are in, not Shakespeare’s London or James Joyce’s Dublin, but Walt Whitman’s piney woods, straining to hear a lost and forgotten song. Are there any Hermit Thrushes left on Long Island? Does anybody care?

The Long Island pin; it is our avian singer of wilderness solitude that chants Whitman’s elegy to the martyred President Lincoln and the poetry echoes, not Old World literary skylarks and nightingales, but the cadence of a spring evening in the pine barrens.

So here we are in, not Shakespeare’s London or James Joyce’s Dublin, but Walt Whitman’s piney woods, straining to hear a lost and forgotten song. Are there any Hermit Thrushes left on Long Island? Does anybody care?

The Long Island pint be the deciding factors.

Catharus guttata, the spotted sweetsinger, is not a rare bird but if you want to hear its exquisite cantilena you must get to the breeding grounds where it generally lives up to its name, preferring the great forests of the north and west. But this bird of the northern wilderness also summers in the pine barrens of Long Island where a small, relict population survives, a leftover from the Ice Age, as it were, and now separated from the main centers of Hermit Thrushdom by many miles of swelling urban sea.

The Hermit Thrush is a relic of a much colder Long Island. Most of the flora and fauna now comes from the south; Homo sapiens itself is, biogeographically speaking, an intruder from the south.

Why are we so obsessed? Of course we want to hear the music for its own sake and we want to prove that the bird still exists. But we are also looking for Walt and his America; maybe some of his optimism in a time of tragedy will rub off on us. Or perhaps we just want some reassurance that, in an urbanized world, some bit of wildness remains.

In 1964, John Bull of the American Museum of Natural History estimated that fewer than 100 pairs of Hermit Thrushes remained on Long Island. Perhaps this was a low estimate but, given the apparent need of this species for territorial size and remoteness, it would be hard to know where to fit in 100 pairs today. Little by little, the Hermit Thrush is disappearing from most of its former haunts, its presence and its music missed only by the few who took the trouble or had the luck to know it.

Our human metabolism is a good deal slower that that of birds; we live longer and at a slower pace—quarter speed and a couple of octaves down. Not surprisingly, we miss the high fine points and, in order to catch them we must record these songs and play them back at a lower speed, bringing them down into the center of our hearing range and resolving details in a slow tempo. Only then do we become fully aware of the richness and complexity that lie hidden inside these dulcet harmonies.

Nevertheless, even at the risk of missing the subtleties, I would argue that the Hermit is best appreciated, not from recordings (at any speed) and certainly not from descriptions, but live on its native grounds. Nothing suits the bird and its incomparable song so well as its favored solitary woodland. Hermit Thrushes are common in migration and, unlike their congeners who hie themselves to Central and South America, they are late birds of passage, hardy enough to winter occasionally on Long Island and even further north. But they display their musical talents only on their breeding grounds and even then, only for a short season.

Even in apparently suitable territory, Hermits seem to be rather thinly and patchily distributed. As if in compensation—or perhaps in explanation—their long, high, incomparable songs carry over long distances in the spring breeze or on the dense, sound-translucent evening air. This silvery music, as it travels through the forest understory, is enhanced by the woodland echo—amplification by tree-trunk—which imparts the dreamy, ventriloqual quality.

The time of the Hermit Thrush is between the light and the dark. Darkness in the forest does not fall; it rises up from the ground and it is fast enveloping us. It would be embarassing but perfectly possible to become lost in these Long Island woods and have to spend the night. Suddenly a small gray-brown bird streaks out from under a pine in a clearing next to the trail. Instead of disappearing, it hovers nervously and uncertainly well inside a nearby thicket, refusing to identify itself. There is a nest here, artfully tucked away under a shrub in the pine duff; there are three flecked greenish-blue eggs inside. We feign departure and try to use a dense shrub as a blind but the bird sees through our clumsy charade and stays away. It will not return to its nest as long as we are watching and, loath to create any further disturbance, we decide to leave; the bird will slip back unseen.

The last edge of daylight is dissolving above as we retreat; fortunately the white sand road, which has now given up almost all the accumulated heat of the day, still holds enough light to guide us home. As we trudge back in silence, a bird begins to sing—an ancient hymn rising from the dark forest floor to some indescribable empyrean height where the last embers of the sky still glow over the dark but living woods.

It is almost dark when we finally hear the song as it rises up from the dark forest floor and scales the heights. For Whitman the magic of the song was an affirmation that, even in death, the great cycle of life goes on. And that, of course, is ultimately what we came here to find.

Walt Whitman’s Hermit Thrush

“It is,” Walt Whitman once said about the Hermit Thrush, “the sweetest, solemnest of all our singing birds” and it is through the song of this bird and its continuity with the landscape that Whitman gives vent to his feelings and comes to terms with the death of Lincoln:

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv’d us comrades three
And he sang the carol of death, and verse for him I love.

From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars and the hostly pines so still.

* * *

To the tally of my soul
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,
With pure deliberate notes spreading filling the night.

Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist and the swamp-perfume…

Passing over the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song,

As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warming and warming, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of heaven…

Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird,
Sing from the swamps,the recessess, pour your chant from the bushes,
Limitless out of the dust, out of the cedars and pine…
Sing on dearest brother, warble your reedy song,
Loud human song, with voice of utmost woe.

O liquid and free and tender!
O wild and loose to my soul—O wondrous singer!

Now this is not merely good poetry, it is also good ecology and a wonderful evocation of the Hermit Thrush song which indeed rises and falls in a long series of variations on a simple pattern (“varying ever-altering song”), starting with a low and “pure deliberate note” and then bursting up “liquid and free and tender” to a high warble or trill. The ascending tones are produced as two note chords giving a reedy effect. The song, typically delivered in the gathering dusk from a low perch inside the forest, is quite ventriloqual and far carrying, seemingly amplified and enriched by the trees themselves and the dense evening air.

The Music of the Hermit Thrush

Any music is hard to describe but I will try to give an impression of the transcendental quality of Hermit Thrush music.

Our earth-colored bird of the lower forest story has a glinting, ethereal melody that begins with a single pure note followed, in a very calm measured cadence, by ascending silvery trills. These trills are actually quite complex. More than one pitch is sounded simultaneously and these chords (for that is what they are) are quickly alternated or trilled with other tones or chords; each sound is itself a reedy, shimmering harmony. The ascent is not in a straight line but rather appears to climb in a series of steps or spirals.

This song is deliberate in tempo and, although far-carrying, not really loud. Compared with the brilliant inventions of the Mockingbird or Brown Thrasher (or, for that matter, Nightingale or European Song Thrush), it is rather set in form. The other thrushes are baroque artists, constantly elaborating, reworking and adding to their showy repertoire. The Hermit Thrush is a classicist, working on the principle of less is more, multum in parvo. Constantly changing variations appear within a simple, firm musical framework. Complex chords and high overtones climb and resonate between the tree-trunks to create a sense of space and depth: a song in three—no, four—dimensional space that seems to speak of eternal things.

A Note on the Hermit Thrush Song in Music

Several composers have used the song or referred to it musically. Paul Hindemith and Roger Sessions both set the Whitman poem itself. That indefatigable transcriber of bird songs, Olivier Messaien, treated it as one of his Oiseaux esotiques. The bird makes a guest appearance in my music on two occasions: once in my score for the American Museum of Natural History centennial exhibition, “Can Man Survive”, and again in Birdwalk, both times via tape recording. But my favorites are the transciptions by the turn-of-the-century American F. Schuyler Matthews who added piano accompaniments to these divine melodies in the style of Edwardian parlour music!

This article was accepted by the NY Times Magazine but never published. Another version appears in a Terra Nova collection of essays about art and environment.