Vibrant Wingbeats

Several weeks ago in one of my posts about Niles Pond at Risk, I wrote about the beautiful Mute Swans at Niles. A reader wrote requesting a description of a phrase that I used, the “vibrant throbbing wingbeats” of the Mute Swan. I have shot hours of B-roll for both my Black Swallowtail and Monarch films at Niles Pond and at Brace Cove, so much so that I am making a mini film about Niles Pond. In organizing the Niles footage, I discovered some good audio of the swans throbbing wigbeats, filmed at sunrise.

The swans often take flight in unison, circling round and round the pond before returning. I patiently wait and wait and sometimes they don’t return, and as has happened more times than I care to say, while I am packing up my gear, they return and then I miss the shot for not being patient enough! Other times they will take flight and head over to feed at Brace Cove. A wedge of swans flying overhead is beautiful to observe, although a challenge to hold in my camera’s lens. Reviewing the footage I heard myself frequently cussing at the mosquitoes because their bite causes me to jag the camera sharply and then I lose sight of the swans. But one especially lucky dawn in September, I did manage to capture several flights.

Isn’t the music so swan-like? The composition is called “The Swan,” written by Camille Saint Saint-Saëns, and is the 13th Movement in a suite of 14 of the humorously themed Carnival of the Animals, Zoological Fantasy for 2 Pianos and Ensemble. See below for more about Carnival of the Animals from allmusic.

Watch on Vimeo if you prefer:

In 1885 Saint-Saëns wrote a witty, uncomplicated piece called Wedding Cake (1885), which to his chagrin became so popular that he gained a temporary reputation as a “light” composer. Because he wanted to be considered a composer of serious, substantial music, he suppressed Carnival of the Animals shortly after its premiere in the following year. However, this “zoological fantasy,” one of the most successful examples of humorously themed music in the repertory, has become one of the composer’s most popular works. Carnival of the Animals, cast as a suite of 14 short pieces, is scored for an ensemble comprising two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, and glockenspiel.

The work begins with a roar from the two pianos and low strings, an appropriate introduction to the “Royal March of the Lions.” The crowing and pecking of strings effectively evokes the clamor of hens and roosters, while the depiction of tortoises takes the form of a sly musical joke: a drastically slowed-down version of the famous can-can from Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers (1858). Saint-Saëns continues to parody his countrymen when he uses the “Waltz of the Sylphs” from Berlioz‘s The Damnation of Faust (1846) in depicting elephants. Graceful and rapid leaps on the keyboard naturally describe kangaroos. Liquid, rippling sounds on the piano and a magical, serene melody characterize one of the loveliest sections of the work, a sound portrait of an aquarium. Sliding string figures give voice to mules, whose braying is sharply contrasted with the deeply mysterious beauty of the clarinet in its imitation of a cuckoo. This single bird becomes an entire aviary aflutter with airy flute solos and rapid keyboard passagework. Saint-Saëns admits pianists themselves into the menagerie, good-naturedly mocking their hours of practice with a passage that unfolds as a ponderous keyboard exercise. “Fossils” pays homage to those creatures which have suffered extinction with the suggestion of rattling bones in the xylophone, including a quotation from the composer’s own Danse macabre (1874). This is followed by the most famous movement, one so lovely that the composer permitted its publication as a solo work. “The Swan” has become a staple of every cellist’s repertoire and a favorite accompaniment for dance works. The brisk finale includes a spirited, exuberant reprise of all of the animals’ themes.

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  1. Pingback: Birds of Massachusetts: The Majestic Mute Swan | Kim Smith Designs

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