A blackbird sings as I write this. Its evensong – to use Richard Smyth’s word – is surely the defining sound of early spring. A sweet, wild note, to borrow his title, which quotes Gilbert White’s description of the song of another bird, Smyth’s favourite, the blackcap.
Like blackbird song, A Sweet, Wild Note flows in a stream of consciousness. It eddies around subjects such as poetry and music, connecting the science with the lore and meandering into philosophical backwaters. It is a subject about which countless volumes have been written before, and in exploring the cultural history of birdsong, including some less clichéd subjects, Smyth has found a niche. So, alongside the necessary but predictable subjects of Beethoven and Delius, there is plenty of space for composers like Jonathan Harvey and Evan Parker. Smyth’s writing on poetry is insightful but less wide-ranging, with a preponderance of well-studied Romantics. Still, there is room for a Rumi or a Ciardi.
Humans' desire to possess birdsong in caged form is given an unflinching treatment, as is the impact we are having on the very future of birdsong. The impoverishment of natural soundscapes is an unsurprising consequence of the impact we have had on bird populations, but the fact that birds have retimetabled the dawn chorus to fit around flight schedules at Berlin airport was an eye-opener, and a shock.
From two fields away, I hear a blackcap’s free-form jumble of notes that just reach me in the gaps in the blackbird’s phrasing. Smyth loves blackcap song. “I love it so much,” he says, “that I can give you a list of my top three singing blackcaps.” Which he does, in ascending order. He does not explain what made those moments special, and one small fault I could find in this book is Smyth’s relative silence about his own direct responses to the experience bird song. Occasionally he comes out from behind the scenes: at one point he re-imagines his (presumably successful) marriage proposal with birdsong added in, having failed to notice any at the time. It is a quirky moment among many, a feature of an entertaining style that manages to avoid becoming a distraction from a subject that is itself, perhaps, the most ancient and enduring form of entertainment.
A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth is published by Elliott and Thompson on 13 April.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.