It’s been a cold spring here. The early flowers have come and gone at the usual times, and buds are opening on some of our trees (elder, horse-chestnut, sycamore), and the birds are in seasonal plumage and singing their hearts out, yet the grass is growing slowly. We had snow again last night, April 16th. It had mostly gone from the fields and gardens by half past eight this morning despite the frost, though it lingered on the hilltops for most of the day. It was nothing like the snowfall we had on March 4th-5th, which immobilized traffic in our town and blocked the roads over the Pennines, but it didn’t seem spring-like.
Among the singing birds are the summer migrants. The curlews are back from the marshes, flying in flocks of twenty or thirty, uttering their unmistakeable calls, gradually pairing up and seeking nests. The pair of oystercatchers that has bred beside the lake for many years is back, but this year there are five of them; I suppose some of their former chicks have joined them. The swallows are few so far this year, but they’re among us, and the lapwings are displaying – a strange and fascinating blend of aerial skill and apparent clumsiness. A reed bunting has taken up residence among the willows at the water’s edge. Its summer plumage is distinctive – white collar and bib, black cap, like a member of the clergy of some unidentified sect. And there are all the usual suspects – the finches, the tits, the blackcaps and the wrens, the thrushes and blackbirds, the ever-present robins, the occasional nuthatch… Oh, and of course the woodpeckers.
Listening to them and revelling in their sounds makes me think again about the effects of music on us. Spring birdsong lifts the spirits, provided it doesn’t wake you at dawn when you have a hangover. All the experts tell us it isn’t ‘music’ in the human sense, yet it has much of the same effect on us as the music we enjoy. I suppose, apart from the sheer aesthetic delight of (for example) a blackbird’s song, birdsong has pleasurable associations – open air, countryside, the approach of summer – and it’s to these associations that we respond. To what extent, I wonder, does the power of music to affect our spirits and elicit emotional and even physical responses depend on the sort of associations it evokes?
I spent much of the past week with a very dear friend whose musical tastes differ markedly from mine. What matters most, she says, are the words; the music is good if it enhances the impact of the lyrics. I suppose Schubert might have agreed with her, though – characteristically – I tend to enjoy Schubert’s instrumental music more than his justly-celebrated songs. Much (though not all) of the vocal music that affects me most powerfully is mediaeval and Renaissance sacred music, which I appreciate as a pattern of sound – refraining from translating the Latin text. To be fair, I do want to read the text and understand it, but only after I’ve heard the music and relished its effect. Associations again? Perhaps; when I listen to a CD of centuries-old church music, in the comfort of my sitting room, I can smell the incense and bask in the stained-glass light. But this is not quite the same as the effect of birdsong. From early childhood I’ve recognized the link between birdsong and the progression of spring. But I wasn’t brought up to attend either a Catholic or a High Anglican church, but as a Methodist, where the music is very different. So these associations have come to me at one remove; they depend on my knowledge of how old sacred music functioned in its own time – together, perhaps, with my appreciation of the architecture of mediaeval cathedrals and my awe at the masons’ skills.
Yet so much of spring’s progress across the land is silent and stealthy, taking us by surprise day by day. I walk with my neighbour’s fat dog and say to myself, “Two days ago, those lesser celendines weren’t in flower, and neither were those primroses… and those birch trees weren’t showing the first hint of green… but now they are”. The effect is magical, and no unseasonal snowfall or frost can chill it. The magic will continue until summer.