Handel’s Musical Depictions of Birdsong

Sweet bird, that shun’st the noise of folly,
Most musical, most melancholy!
Thee, chauntress, oft the woods among,
I woo to hear thy even-song.
Or, missing thee, I walk unseen,
On the dry smooth-shaven green,
To behold the wand’ring moon
Riding near her highest noon.

-John Milton, Il Penseroso 

George Frideric Handel set these lines to music in his 1740 secular oratorio, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (“The Cheerful, the Thoughtful, and the Moderate Man”). The aria, “Sweet Bird,” features a time-altering dialogue with the bright song of the nightingale. Listen to the way the final lines take a hauntingly mysterious yet sensuous turn to the minor, opening the door to a stunning, ever-rising musical line.

This live performance from last March features soprano Amanda Forsythe, flutist Emi Ferguson, and the San Francisco-based early music ensemble, Voices of Music:

The text of “Mirth, admit me of thy crew,” the exuberant Air which precedes “Sweet Bird” in Part I of Handel’s oratorio, makes reference to the song of the lark. Perhaps this birdsong is depicted in the recurring violin figure? Regardless, listen to the thrilling and cheerful dialogue which unfolds between the orchestra lines and the soprano. Filled with the feeling of Spring, Handel wrote this music in the depths of one of London’s most frigid and brutal winters during which the Thames River froze.

Handel’s most famous musical depiction of birdsong is the Organ Concerto No. 13 in F Major, nicknamed “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale.” As the piece unfolds, you will hear the amazing musical conversation which develops between these two birdcalls:

Recordings

  • Handel: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, HWV 55, Maria Keohane, Benjamin Hulett, Julia Doyle, Andreas Wolf, Cologne Chamber Choir, Collegium Cartusianum, Peter Neumann Presto Classical
  • Handel: Organ Concerto No. 13 in F Major, HWV 295, Simon Lindley, Johann Aratore, Northern Sinfonia, Handel Festival Chamber Orchestra, Bradley Creswick, John Tinge Presto Classical

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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