Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Reflecting on “The Blue Bird”

[originally posted January 7, 2009;  reposted for technical reasons]

This Sunday, January 11, I’ll be singing in a memorial tribute for Catherine Stockman, arts advocate par excellence, who died suddenly in October. You can read more about her life here, and about the memorial service here.

One of the musical selections that CONCORA’s Artistic Director Rick Coffey has selected for the service is The Blue Bird by Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1954). Rick’s choice of this music for a memorial service is wholly appropriate, in so many ways. The evocative, ethereal verse is by British poet Mary Coleridge (1861-1907):

The Blue Bird


The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue,
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.

Stanford sets the text for five unaccompanied voices (SSATB); the lower four voices rise and fall gently, much like the surface of a lake, while the top soprano soars and floats over and around, catching and reflecting motivic fragments, much as Coleridge’s blue bird, and lake, and sky catch and reflect the “blue in blue.”

I saw some bluebirds last week and thought of this music, and about the fleeting nature of blueness. Did you know that blue birds (of any species) do not have blue pigment in their feathers? Their feathers are constructed in such a way as to reflect the blue portions of the light spectrum (as opposed to birds with other colors, where colored pigment is actually present). (You can read more about this at Cornell University’s wonderful web site, here.)

Truly, in the plumage of blue birds, we see a bit of the sky — and perhaps a bit of the Great Beyond. Coleridge's text gives us the image of the bird as reflected in the water, and contemplates (reflects) on what has been seen and is now gone. In Stanford's setting, the top soprano line captures and reflects fragments and colors from the music below, much as a blue bird's plumage captures and reflects the blue portion of the light spectrum. This poem — and this particular musical setting — are wonderful textual and aural images for a memorial service, where the gathered people will reflect on a life that has passed.


Here's a picture of a Mountain Bluebird, which I have seen in the U.S. Rocky Mountains. Coleridge was British, and I'm not sure what bird she might have seen that was blue. Perhaps she visited a distant clime and saw a blue bird over the water, in which the blue of the sky was reflected…

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