Classic Mornings

Cuckoos and Kid Stuff

graphic of a bird singing with text classic mornings

You know it’s not going to happen. He’s sitting in an easy chair, which is facing away from the clock’s face. And he’s relaxing with a book, awaiting the sound of the cuckoo. At that point, he dashes up a ladder in an attempt to paint the cuckoo, which appears only briefly to sound its hourly greeting, before the door to its hiding place closes.

Why would anybody want to paint the cuckoo of a clock? We’re not supposed to ask questions like that when we’re watching The Three Stooges. We’re just supposed to be amused at the far-fetched stories, the setups for gags and the trio of familiar faces. The scene is part of a 1938 Three Stooges film titled Tassels in the Air. It starred Moe, Larry, and Curly as a team of inept office painters mistaken for interior decorators.

That came to mind last week when I played a keyboard piece by the French organist/composer Louis-Claude Daquin titled Le coucou (The Cuckoo) on Classic Mornings. And it led me to look into the history of cuckoo clocks. There are suggestions that early versions were made in the 1600s, with refinements in the early 1700s. The area in southwest Germany known as the Black Forest is particularly well-known for its cuckoo clocks.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen and heard them – with and without a little tune that’s played by a music box mechanism after the cuckoo sounds. I noticed that the clocks are still being made and sold. Besides the attraction of the cuckoo, many are uniquely hand-carved and hand-painted.

Classical music composers have been inspired by the cuckoo throughout music history. Scholars often refer to the 13th century English song known in modern English as “Summer has come in, loudly sing cuckoo.” When the familiar two note tune appears in a piece of music, often it’s part of a larger work, just as the cuckoo of a clock is one standout component.

Curly and company paid little attention to the clock itself, or to the interior of the house, which they managed to destroy. It would be just as absurd to listen to the famous “cuckoo” compositions only for the moments when the bird is heard. Antonio Vivaldi included the sound of the cuckoo – a rather frantic one – in the “Summer” Concerto of The Four Seasons. A cuckoo appears in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, which he called the “Pastoral.” Ottorino Respighi’s 20th century orchestral work Gli Uccelli (The Birds) was inspired, in part, by a keyboard toccata by Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710), which portrays the sound of the cuckoo. Even Rodgers and Hammerstein had the von Trapp children imitating cuckoos in the introduction to the song “So Long, Farewell,” which Fräulein Maria taught them in The Sound of Music.

Gustav Holst taught music to the girls at the St. Paul’s Girls School in London. He was the director of music there from 1905 until his death in 1934. I learned from a new recording that Herbert Howells held the post from 1936 to 1962. On Matthew Schellhorn’s second CD of piano music by Howells (Naxos 8.571383), he includes works written for children and inspired by childhood. There are two “Promenades” from 1938, which were written as test pieces for the Enfield Festival: one for boys and the other for girls. Both are delightful. There’s also a minuet, which Howells wrote for one of his students at St Paul’s: his daughter Ursula. She would go on to become the British actress Ursula Howells, who died in 2005.

March 2 was the 110th anniversary of the birth of the late Celedonio Romero. He taught the guitar to his three sons, with whom he would later perform as the famous quartet: Los Romeros. And on the eve of Vivaldi’s birthday, March 4, I revisited a collection of violin concertos written by the composer well after his years of teaching the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà. The works were recorded for the first time just over 20 years ago by violinist Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra (Sony 87733). 

On February 24, I came up with a couple of children’s book titles during the program: How the Moonlight Got its Name and There’s a Harmonium in Your Home. Poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab was reminded of the moon over Lake Lucerne with the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. That’s how it came to be called the “Moonlight.” And Dvorak’s Bagatelles included a harmonium because the music amateur who commissioned them had one at his house. The explanations are not as much fun as the titles, which struck me as having the momentary charm of a cuckoo.

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