The title of course comes
from William Wordsworth; he who wandered lonely as a cloud, composed upon
Westminster Bridge, wrote poetry about nature and was born in the same year as
Beethoven. One such poem is about the cuckoo. So I am sorry if you were
expecting a scholarly article about the troubadours and minstrels of France in
the 12th century.
This one is about cuckoos. Or to be more precise, it’s about music about
The feathered theme
came to mind the other day on hearing someone play The Cuckoo Waltz.
This old-fashioned piece was a favourite of my mother, who could perform it
on the piano with considerable panache, especially after a couple of glasses
of sherry. The song was popular for years and even today is still a
favourite among Swedish lady accordionists. The puzzling fact is that
hardly anyone knows where it came from.
All we know is that
the music was composed by one Johan Emanuel Jonasson (1886-1956), a trumpet
player in the Swedish military. In the days of the silent movies, he played
in a make-shift cinema in Stockholm called the Gyllene Goken or The
Golden Cuckoo. The “cinema” was evidently in a saloon which also had a
cuckoo clock. Jonasson noticed that it chirped its two notes in C major and
to cut a slightly predictable story short, he wrote The Cuckoo Waltz in
the same key. But it seems that’s all he did write, which is perhaps why we
know so little about him.
Incidentally, one of
Thailand’s most common birds is related to the cuckoo and known as the
Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis, since you asked). Thai people
call them nók graboot and there’s even an old romantic folksong about
them. A few of these big ungainly birds live in shrubs behind our house and
spend the day stumbling about in the undergrowth. They are not particularly
good flyers, which must be disappointing for a bird. In fact, they can
barely fly at all and instead lurch heavily from one shrub to another.
Their song, if such it can be called, consists of forlorn hoots.
The sound of the
European cuckoo is easy to imitate. The first cuckoo piece to be written,
as far as I know was by the French composer Louis-Claude Daquin who was a
child prodigy. He’s now remembered only for a toccata-like piece which
contains cuckoo-like sounds. He called it, with breath-taking originality,
Le coucou. There are cuckoo sounds in one of Bach’s keyboard sonatas
and in the tiresome Toy Symphony possibly by Leopold Mozart (once
thought to be composed by Haydn). One of the most famous cuckoos flies into
the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and of course
another one appears in The Carnival of the Animals, by Camille
Frederick Delius (1862-1934): On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.
do Centro Pavilhão Centro de Portugal cond. David Wyn Lloyd (Duration 08:55;
Video 1080p HD)
If the Australian
composer Percy Grainger hadn’t introduced Delius to a Norwegian folk song
called In Ola Valley, this cuckoo-inspired tone poem may never have
been written. Composed in 1912 and based on the same folksong, it’s the
first of Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, the second being the equally
evocative Summer Night on the River. The composer’s parents were of
Dutch origin, which explains his rather un-English name. He was born and
brought up in Bradford and evidently spoke with a noticeable Yorkshire
You would perhaps
expect the piece to be bright, sunny and optimistic but instead it’s
reflective and laden with nostalgia. Even the cuckoo imitation, played
somewhat sadly on the clarinet sounds steeped in melancholia. But don’t let
this put you off; it’s a superb work and a wonderful introduction to the
musical landscape that Delius created.
Johann Strauss II (1825-1899): Im Krapfenwald’l op. 336.
Orchestra, cond. Carlos Kleiber (Duration: 04:34; Video 480p)
This polka was
composed in 1869 and features a very different cuckoo. The title refers to
the Krapfenwald district of the Vienna Woods which is a popular recreation
area with the locals.
In this piece, the
cuckoo sounds are created by a cumbersome wooden contraption, considerably
larger and far less attractive than the bird it’s supposed to be imitating.
These fine Viennese musicians probably know the piece so well that it hardly
needs conducting, but just listen to the magic that the impeccable Carlos
Kleiber brings to this rather inconsequential trifle.
I’ve just remembered
that the British writer and illustrator Frederick Henry Townsend wrote a
delicious parody on the opening of Wordsworth’s cuckoo poem, couching it in
the style of an English literature exam question:
Cuckoo! Shall I call
Or but a wandering
State the alternative
With reasons for your