Ortolan’s symphony: Frank McNally on Beethoven’s feathered friend

The Brexit Yellowhammer connection and a bird of a different feather

If any songbird deserves a joint writing credit for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the ortolan bunting is the one. Photograph: Getty Images

If any songbird deserves a joint writing credit for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the ortolan bunting is the one. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Writing about Operation Yellowhammer – the UK’s emergency plan for a no-deal Brexit – some time ago, I suggested that the songbird referenced in the name had inspired the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

This was in line with what one of his pupils, Austrian composer Carl Czerny, once said, attributing the famous motif to an occasion when the maestro had heard a yellowhammer chirping in Vienna’s Prater Park.

But as I now know, thanks to avian song expert Richard Collins (with whom I discussed the matter on a recent episode of RTÉ’s Mooney Goes Wild), if Beethoven did indeed have an ornithological inspiration, it is much more likely to have been the yellowhammer’s near relative: the ortolan bunting.

Because, whereas the yellowhammer’s call – a trill of short cheeps followed by a long one – is vaguely suggestive of the Fifth Symphony’s opening, the bunting’s is uncannily so.

It has precisely four notes, for one thing, and the first three are identical, as in the symphony, with the fourth longer and lower by an interval musicians call a “minor third”. Thus it very closely resembles the second “da-da-da-dah!” of Beethoven’s intro (the first features a “major third” instead).

Other incidental examples of the minor third, I’m told, include the old-style ambulance sirens – the ones that went “Ni-na, Ni-na” (another four-note classic of dramatic power). And while we’re at it, the minor third also features in that quintessential playground song, known instinctively by all children, especially annoying ones: “Nah-nah-na-nah-nah!”

Anyway, I hereby correct the record – Beethoven’s record, that is – in favour of the ortolan bunting. If any songbird deserves a joint writing credit for the Fifth Symphony, that’s the one.

As for the yellowhammer, if it didn’t inspire the symphony, it does at least remain the undisputed author of the phrase “a little bit of bread and no cheese”. At any rate that’s what folk tradition and Enid Blyton, among other sources, insist the bird is saying.

Shortage

This, I suspect, inspired the codename of the no-deal Brexit plan. With French imports restricted in a post-EU Britain, cheese might indeed have been scarce for a while. But a shortage of dairy products has never caused a revolution anywhere, even in France, whereas bread has been implicated in several. Presumably the yellowhammer’s modest food order was the baseline for no-deal emergency provision.

Food is another area in which the ortolan bunting differs from its cousin. When not inspiring composers, historically, it was being chased for dinner.

It has been long known you can fatten up the tiny songbirds by keeping them in the dark. Cruelly, the Romans blinded them, so they would eat continuously. And in France over the centuries, it also became the unfortunate tradition, rather than marinate them posthumously, to dispatch the birds by drowning them in Armagnac.

Roasted

They were then roasted and eaten whole, with the bigger bones spat out. The practice of diners covering their heads with a cloth during the meal may have been to lock in the aromas, or to disguise the spitting. But the most popular explanation is that they were hiding their shame from God, as well they might. Infamously, the late President Mitterrand of France ate ortolan on his last New Year’s dinner, a week before he died in 1996.

Ortolan hunting was banned in France soon afterwards, but continued on a large scale. The birds are also legally protected by EU directives against trapping. Even so, they remain targets for poachers, and there are still gourmands taking the advice of chef Alain Ducasse, who wrote that everyone should experience the dish “at least once”.

Maybe when and if the UK ever does Brexit, die-hard supporters (assuming there are any left by then) should launch Operation Bunting to celebrate escaping the Franco-German cage.

There might even be a precedent in an event on which hard-line Brexiteers love to dwell: the second World War. BBC broadcasts to mainland Europe then were always introduced by the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. This wasn’t because the British were Beethoven fans, per se: he was German, after all, and the Nazis liked him too. It was intended as a musical version of the letter V (for victory): which in Morse Code, of course, is represented by the ortolan-like rhythm: “dot-dot-dot-dash”.

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