The welcome sound of silence

For three days I listened to nothing but birdsong, marvelling at the variety and the volume

On Music

The soprano Elisabeth Söderström once observed that, when she made her debut in Stockholm, the loudest sound you could hear on earth was a soprano letting rip on an opera stage. This was 1947, before the onset of supersonic flights, road drills, heavy traffic and amplification. Stereo had yet to be released from the Columbia labs. Söderström was telling it as it was.

The birds were singing softer now they no longer had to compete with cars to send courtship messages to the other sex

And she was by no means the loudest, even in her own town. Birgit Nilsson, in Wagner, shattered glass. Jussi Björling, before he hit the bottle, frightened horses in distant fields. The north, for unknown reasons, produced the biggest voices. In Norway, Kirsten Flagstad outclassed all. While writing a postwar history of Covent Garden, I met untrained English singers who were cast with her in, as it happens, 1947. Constance Shacklock, a Nottinghamshire farm girl, first caught sight of Flagstad sitting in a rehearsal room corner,
quietly knitting. It was a warm summer’s day and the windows were open to the fruit and veg market.

Kirsten Flagstad

When her cue came, Flagstad put down her knitting, folded her sturdy arms over her Viking chest and sang out. Porters in the market dropped their loads. All work stopped. “I had never heard any sound like it,” said one English singer. “I just wanted to be like her,” sighed Shacklock.

The physical, visceral impact of a soprano singing at full blast is one of the sensations we have lost in the amplified age. The loudest operatic voice today belongs to Nina Stemme, another Swede, but formidable as she is I don’t feel that Nina delivers the paralysing shock to the senses that Flagstad or Nilsson so sleekly emitted at a time when nothing in the world beat their 100 decibels.

Our receptors got numbed by ambient noise in the second half of the twentieth century. Earphones let us listen to music much louder than we should, only for us to complain afterwards that live opera doesn’t excite us as it used to. The fault is ours. Frank Sinatra, who sang into a mike, can be seen on video with tears in his eyes as Luciano Pavarotti delivers “My Way”. Who owned that song? Sinatra’s tears sadly conceded that His Way was but a shadow of la verità.

And now the correction has dawned. Overnight, all noise ceased as the world went into lockdown. No planes, no trains, no cars. For three days I listened to nothing but birdsong, marvelling at the variety and the volume. Could it be that the birds were singing louder? Ornithologists, called onto the BBC, said that, on the contrary, the birds were singing softer now they no longer had to compete with cars to get their courtship messages across to the other sex. Whatever, it worked. Birds are nesting in my front garden for the first time since I’ve lived in central London.

If birds were the first beneficiaries of shutdown, we were next. Humans could hear that birds were maestros, offering a clearly stated theme, varied repetitions and an upbeat ending, often with a high final note to solicit a reply. Oh, so that’s how it’s done? Then French composer Olivier Messaien based much of his music on birdsong. Held in a German prisoner-of-war camp in Poland, far from home, Messaien composed a Quartet for the End of Time which twitters with simulated birdsong and embeds it in concentrated form in a movement titled “Abîme des oiseaux”, an abyss of birds. I have never been moved by this passage or by any of Messiaen’s other mimicries in his interminably long and irredeemably literal Catalogue d’oiseaux. Frankly, birds do it better.

I have similar reservations about Beethoven’s chirp of nightingales in the Sixth Symphony and Mahler’s in his Third. Ravel does it, Janacek does it, and so do Schumann, Grieg, Liszt and many more. Every time I hear the sound of birds imitated in classical music I feel diminished. Birds are perfect creatures, divinely wrought. Human composers are forceful strivers, mere contrivances.

What else have I learned from birds? Tempo, pitch and dynamics. No bird ever sings out of tune or out of time. In these weeks and months when I cannot hear opera singers in their natural domain I take voice lessons from thrushes and robins, observing the diaphragm and the throat as they float a note. When I revert to listening to opera recordings, I hear mostly stress and effort.

The British oratorio singer Isobel Baillie — member of a contralto species that is almost extinct — lived by a watchword that was the title of her memoirs. “Never Sing Louder Than Lovely”, trilled Isobel. That method served her so well that she sang more than 1,000 performances of Messiah and was still making commercial recordings at the age of 79, never louder than necessary.

Singers are not to blame for raising their voices. Many were bullied into singing loud by ruffians like Herbert von Karajan, who ruined many promising voices, and Georg Solti, for whom nothing was ever loud enough. Much as I liked Solti, his heavy-metal era at the Chicago Symphony forced the rest of America’s orchestra to compete on decibels, to the detriment of delicacy. An orchestra’s merit was judged primarily by volume. None dared play pianissimo.

The hiatus that has been forced upon us by coronavirus — no large orchestral concerts for the next year, no hard-of-hearing older listeners in whatever smaller concerts might be permitted — is a chance to correct the distortions of the past half-century. We need to retune our ears to listen quietly. In 2021 or 2022, whenever it is that I am next allowed to enter a concert hall or opera house for a Mahler Sixth or Strauss’s Salome, I am looking forward to recovering that lost sensation from pre-amplified times — the thrill of being attacked by a soprano on stage, the loudest thing on earth.

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