Sunday, March 22, 2009

'Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo'

Cuckoo: Down by 37%

'Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo' by Michael McCarthy (£16.99) is published by John Murray on 2 April.

From the

The cuckoo is vanishing. But its loss isn’t merely a wildlife tragedy – it’s the clearest possible sign that the natural world is changing for ever.

In two or three weeks' time, you should be hearing it if you get out into the countryside – the unmistakable two-note call, perhaps the most distinctive sound in all of the natural world, that tells you spring is well and truly under way. Even people who have never heard the real thing know the call of the cuckoo.

It's partly its sheer musicality, for those two abrupt, liquid notes – cuck-coo! – form an exact musical interval in a way hardly any other bird calls do: it is a descending minor third. At its simplest, in the key of C major, it is G to E. (And C major, you may be interested to learn, is a favourite cuckoo key.)

It's partly also its ethereal, disembodied nature. The cuckoo is a shy, secretive bird. You don't often glimpse it, you simply hear it, so you can't see where the call is coming from; but it also has a sort of ventriloquial quality, so you can't hear where it's coming from, either. It doesn't seem to come from anywhere. It exists, disembodied, in the landscape, in a quite magical way, captured by Wordsworth, who called it "the wandering voice".

Put them together – perfect musicality and a mysterious, floating resonance – and you have something unique: there is nothing else like the wandering voice in nature. And when, down the years, it was paired, as an aural signal, with the eagerly awaited change of the turning year, the coming of spring, it's not an exaggeration to say that in Europe it became one of the most significant, evocative sounds in human life. It produced a stream of folklore in every country, sayings and stories, proverbs and legends; it inspired composer after composer, from Handel in his The Cuckoo and the Nightingale to Beethoven in his Pastoral Symphony, to Saint-Saëns in his Carnival of the Animals, to Delius with On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.

In Britain, it was firing musical imaginations more than six centuries before Frederick Delius; the cuckoo inspired the oldest extant song in English, "Sumer is icumen in" (with its rousing chorus of "Lhude sing cuccu!") written in about 1250, probably by a monk in Reading Abbey. And in this country it did still more: it triggered what is perhaps the most celebrated newspaper correspondence in history, the "first cuckoo" letters to The Times, those succinct missives from gentlemen who, for a century or so, from about 1840 to 1940, laid claim to being the first to hear the double note echo across the woods and fields in any given year.

These engaging pronouncements – sometimes challenged, sometimes topped by rivals – are evidence above all of the real elation produced by hearing the call, the supreme signal of the soft days coming again and the burgeoning of new life, usually in the first two weeks of April. From about the 10th onward, say. A typical date would be 14 April. Two or three weeks from now, you should be hearing it.

Go to the link to hear a recording of a cuckoo and some other birds.

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