Museum Week Music
Did you know that there is one degree of separation between Gilbert White and Mozart?
Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne is made up of a series of letters addressed to two individuals. One of these is Daines Barrington; Barrington was a lawyer, naturalist and antiquarian. He was vice president of the Royal Society for a period where he might have met Gilbert’s brother Thomas and established a format for a naturalist journal, which Gilbert used to make his observations and was published by another of Gilbert’s brother’s Benjamin.
Barrington was very interested in people with unusual talents such as Dolly Pentreath the last monoglot speaker of Cornish, and a boy prodigy called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who at just 9 years old had travelled to England to perform.Mozart who was a child genius had gained a reputation in Europe and Barrington wished to see if the child was as remarkable as the reports. He saw Mozart in concert and had a one to one session with him where the Mozart family were staying where Barrington, Barrington tested Mozart first by giving him some difficult sheet music to sight read, which of course he performed amazingly. Barrington then tested Mozart by asking him to compose on the spot love songs, symphonies and songs of rage. All these tests were accomplished masterfully and Barrington wrote up his findings as part his Philosophical Transactions for the Royal Society.
Barrington also published a work entitled Experiments and Observations on the Singing of Birds and an essay on the language of birds. A subject very close to the heart of his friend Gilbert White, who once said ‘The language of birds is very ancient, and like other ancient languages very elliptical, little is said but much is meant and understood.’ Barrington attempted cross-fostering experiments on birds and noted that young linnets raised with foster parents could be induced to learn the songs of various lark species. Bird song was one of the ways that Gilbert White distinguished that the chiff chaff, willow warbler, wood warbler were different species from their birdsong, and is constantly noting the songs of birds and when he heard them. Here is letter 2 of the Barrington letters. The letter was sent around the time that Barrington was writing up his notes from his meeting with Mozart a few years previously. Barrington clearly very much had music on his mind whether it be human made or from nature.
To The Honourable Daines Barrington
Selborne, Nov. 2, 1769.
When I did myself the honour to write to you about the end of last June on the subject of natural history, I sent you a list of the summer birds of passage which I have observed in this neighbourhood; and also a list of the winter birds of passage; I mentioned besides those soft-billed birds that stay with us the winter through in the south of England, and those that are remarkable for singing in the night.
According to my proposal, I shall now proceed to such birds (singing birds strictly so called) as continue in full song till after Midsummer; and shall range them somewhat in the order in which they first begin to open as the spring advances.
Raii nomina: Alauda arborea:
In January, and continues to sing through all the summer and
2. Song-thrush, Turdus simpliciter dictus: In February and on to August, reassume their song in autumn.
3. Wren, Passer troglodytes: All the year, hard frost excepted.
4. Red-breast, Rubecula: Ditto.
5. Hedge-sparrow, Curruca: Early in February to July the 10th.
6. Yellow-hammer, Emberiza flava: Early in February, and on through July to August the 21st.
7. Skylark, Alauda vulgaris: In February, and on to October.
8. Swallow, Hirundo domestica: From April to September.
9. Black-cap, Atricapilla: Beginning of April to July 13.
10. Titlark, Alauda pratorum: From middle of April to July the 16th.
11. Blackbird,Merula vulgaris:Sometimes in February and March, and so on to July the twenty third; reassumes in autumn.
12. White-throat, Ficedulcae affinis: In April and on to July 23.
13. Goldfinch, Carduelis: April and through to September 16.
14. Greenfinch, Chloris: On to July and August 2.
15. Less reed-sparrow, Passer arundinaceus minor: May, on to beginning of July.
16. Common linnet, Linaria vulgaris: Breeds and whistles on till August; reassumes its note when they begin to congregate in October, and again early before the flock separate. Birds that cease to be in full song, and are usually silent at or before Midsummer:
17. Middle willow-wren, Regulus non cristatus: Middle of June: begins in April.
18. Red-start, Ruticilla: Middle of June: begins in May.
19. Chaffinch, Fringilla: Beginning of June: sings first in February.
20. Nightingale, Luscinia: Middle of June: sings first in April.
Birds that sing for a short tune, and very early in the spring:
21. Missel-bird,Turdus viscivorus:January the 2nd, 1770, in February. Is called in Hampshire and Sussex the storm -cock, because its song is supposed to forebode windy wet weather: is the largest singing bird we have.
22. Great tit-mouse, or ox-eye, Fringillago: In February, March, April: reassumes for a short time in September. Birds that have somewhat of a note or song, and yet are hardly to be called singing birds:
23. Golden-crowned wren, Regulus cristatus: Its note as minute as its person; frequents the tops of high oaks and firs; the smallest British bird.
24. Marsh titmouse, Parus palustris: Haunts great woods; two harsh sharp notes.
25. Small willow-wren, Regulus non cristatus: Sings in March and on to September.
26. Largest ditto, Ditto: Cantat voce stridula locustae: from end of April to August.
27. Grasshopper-lark, Alauda minima voce locustae: Chirps all night, from the middle of April to the end of July
28. Martin, Hirundo agrestis: All the breeding time; from May to September.
29. Bullfinch, Pyrrhula:
30. Bunting, Emberiza alba: From the end of January to July.
All singing birds, and those that have any pretensions to song, not only in Britain, but perhaps the world through, come under the Linnaean ordo of passeres.
The above-mentioned birds, as they stand numerically, belong to the following Linnaean genera.
1, 7, 10, 27. Alauda.
2, 11, 21. Turdus.
3, 4, 5, 9, 12, 15, 17, 18, 20, 23, 25, 26. Motacilla.
6, 30. Emberiza.
8, 28. Hirundo.
13, 16, 19. Pringilla.
22, 24. Parus.
14, 29. Loxia.
Birds that sing as they fly are but few: Skylark, Raii nomina. Alauda vulgaris: Rising, suspended, and falling. Titlark, Alauda pratorum:
In its descent; also sitting on trees, and walking on the ground.
Woodlark, Alauda arborea:
Suspended; in hot summer nights all night long.
Sometimes from bush to bush.
Uses when singing on the wing odd jerks and gesticulations.
In soft sunny weather.
Sometimes from bush to bush.
Birds that breed most early in these parts:
Hatches in February and March.
Builds the beginning of March.
Hatches in April.
Lays the beginning of April.
All birds that continue in full song till after Midsummer appear to me to breed more than once.
Most kinds of birds seem to me to be wild and shy somewhat in proportion to their bulk; I mean in this island, where they are much pursued and annoyed: but in Ascension-island, and many other desolate places, mariners have found fowls so unacquainted with an human figure, that they would stand still to be taken; as is the case with boobies, etc. As an example of what is advanced, I remark that the golden-crested wren (the smallest British bird) will stand unconcerned till you come within three or four yards of it, while the bustard (otis), the largest British land fowl, does not care to admit a person within so many furlongs.
I am, etc.