In 1972, a young Finnish composer named Einojuhani Rautavaara was commissioned to write a short piece of classical music by the University of Oulu. The university was then fairly new, and the occasion was the awarding of its first doctoral degrees.
Instead of composing a typical fanfare, Rautavaara created one of the most extraordinary pieces of classical music in the late 20th century. The work, in three movements, was entitled Cantus Arcticus.
What makes it so striking is that it incorporates the recorded songs of arctic birds.
Though many composers have been inspired by birdsongs, few have dared to include them in their works. Making tape recordings in the shores of Oulu, in the marshes of Liminka, and near the Arctic Circle, Rautavaara brought back sounds of nature and wove them into his composition.
In the first movement, two solo flutes call and reply with various twittering shore birds. In the second, the calls of the horned lark (Eremophila alpestris) are slowed down two octaves (Rautavaara called it the sound of a “ghost bird”) and the accompanying melody is absolutely gorgeous and sad as it crescendos in the strings. The third movement features vast flocks of whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus) that compete with the strings and woodwinds, eventually building to a choral-like finale.
The whole thing is stunning and has to be heard to be believed.
One other thing I love: the opening performance notes for the first movement:
Think of autumn and of Tchaikovsky
Illustration by Mary Mapes Dodge (1830-1905), courtesy Wikimedia Commons.