Anne Fleming

The Most Beautiful Song

July 16

I was in the woods in Northern California about twenty years ago when I first heard the most beautiful, uplifting birdsong I’d ever heard. The song spiralled upward, rising up and letting off in a way that seemed to imply its movement went on to the infinite. It was not just a song but a launch. “What’s that bird?” I asked the people I was with. We were on a road trip down the coast from Vancouver to Big Sur with our best friends from Ontario and friends newly met at the campground, from LA. Nobody knew.

I heard it again in the BC woods and again over the years. It never lost its magic. I never knew what it was. No one I was with ever knew what it was. Some people seemed hardly to notice it. But it haunted me, or whatever the happy perpetual accompaniment equivalent of haunting is.  My dad had some records of birdsong he used to put on from time to time and is a pretty good auditory birder, but he didn’t know what it was when I described it. At a flea market, I found the LP, Sounds of Nature, Vol. 6, Finches. It’s not on there.

Then about ten years ago, Cornell Ornithology Lab went online. So exciting. But it was available only by subscription. I trolled the site through a friend’s university account, never finding that sweet song. (I was also always looking for a screech we heard on the north shore of Lake Superior in the middle of the night — not the screech owl — they don’t acutally screech — still haven’t found it.) One day on a hike through woods in which I was hearing the song, I saw a medium-sized brown bird, looked it up and identified it as the hermit thrush, and had a hunch. By now, the Cornell site had open access. I had found it: the song of the hermit thrush.

This spring, only a few years later, three, maybe four, I was telling people it was the varied thrush. Such is memory. One day it’s the hermit thrush. A couple months later, all the brain remembers is “thrush” and supplies the phrase “varied thrush.” But the song is the song, no matter if I know which bird sings it. And while you can easily find the song on the internet now, it still doesn’t sound quite the way it does in the woods themselves. Maybe it’s the particular birds. Bird dialect. Maybe it’s the acoustics of the outdoors. Either way, the recordings don’t do justice to the beauty of the song. But I do love how people have tried and try again to describe the sound and never quite succeed and how many other people have called it the most beautiful birdsong they’ve ever heard.

So of course I have to look it up in Birds of America:

“Of the Hermit’s song, at its best, it is difficult to speak with moderation, and it is quite impossible to describe it adequately in words. The quality of the tone is not reproduced faithfully by any musical instrument. There is in it perhaps more of the flute than of any other instrument, though the tone is much mellower, more velvety, and there is a distinct suggestion of the reed quality especially in the lower registers.

Elementally the song is very simple. Often it is reminiscent of the Wood Thrush. It differs, however, from all Thrush songs in that it is usually begun with a long, liquid, mellow note. This introductory tone glides into the first phrase, composed of several perfectly slurred tones in an ascending and descending scale. Within a few seconds the phrase is repeated at a pitch about a minor third higher; then it is delivered again and again in a steadily ascending sclae, until fairly dizzying vocal heights are attained. Here the singer pauses for a few minutes, ony to go back to the lower pitch and proceed as before.”

Then follows actual musical notation by one F. Schuyler Mathews, which I may have to scan, though not today because already the day has run away from me. He’s quoted on this site, which also has song samples. “The song of the Hermit Thrush,” he says, “is the grand climax of all bird music; it is unquestionably so far removed from all the rest of the wild-wood singers’ accomplishments that vaunted comparisons are invidious and wholly out of place.”

(Okay, one more link: “Hermit Thrush at Eve” by American composer Amy Beach.)

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