Wild Notes in the Age of Darwin is a true story about an itinerant singer (Simeon Pease Cheney) in Vermont in the age of Darwin and his eccentric 1892 posthumously published volume codifying bird song into musical notation; an artist’s manuscript he inspired; and his posthumous reward. The story is about cacophony (accident, disorder) and the human drive to shape it.  

“Now after the ‘flight of ages’, when the birds had emerged from the state of monstrosity, each raw singer having chanted continuously his individual tonic, there came a time when they must take a long step forward and enter the world of song.” SPC

In 1970, in Portland Oregon I pulled a book off a library shelf that smelled like a dried mushroom. It was stamped in gold with a butterfly and a harp. The frontispiece was a photograph of the author, Simeon Pease Cheney, whose grim profile was at odds with the book’s ecstatic prose. Wood Notes Wild: Notations of Bird Music was a collection of essays describing the musical character and temperament of forty birds of New England published posthumously by the author’s son in 1892. Each bird song was transcribed in conventional musical notation. The text is flanked by the author’s rapturous introduction in which he theorizes about the evolution of bird music and the son’s cautious appendix that is longer than the book itself. I borrowed the book from the library so I could excerpt passages to make a calligraphic and illustrated bound manuscript for my grandmother who seemed preoccupied at the time with the decline of songbirds in the forests.

Simeon Pease Cheney was born in New Hampshire on April 18, 1818, one of nine children born to Reverend Moses Cheney, all with a gift for singing. “Our family singing was considered very remarkable. Not that we were musicians of a high order, but because we were one and all born singers. We had the inspiration in us. It was always still the moment we began to sing. We sang without notes. There was not a poor or common voice among us nine children.” Simeon, three brothers and a sister all became known as the Cheney Family Singers, each taking up a life devoted to teaching as well as performing. Simeon became an itinerant song master, composer and teacher traveling to small towns all over New England.

“Singing families” were common beginning in the 1840’s in America. They practiced at home perfecting songs that were well known to their audiences around New England. They traveled from town to town stopping in churches and town centers to sing their patriotic tunes, popular hymns, ballads and glees. These musical performances often stood in marked contrast to the Sunday singing of the townspeople. Because of a scarcity of published hymnals in the early part of the century not everyone was hitting the tune, and the words were cobbled together from memory. Church singing had begun to devolve to the point that the authority and stability of liturgical texts was in jeopardy. At first, this prompted a practice known as “lining out” in which the preacher would sing and the congregation would repeat a line of the hymn, line by line. Services became interminable though, trying everyone’s patience. Even this call and repeat approach invited improvisational expressions that sounded more like the ‘roar of the tempest’ than church music.

In this fractured musical environment singing families like the Cheneys were a welcome vanguard of reform. With support from the clergy, singing families and teachers, traveled around the countryside to towns and set up singing schools in churches, schools and any available public place. Lasting anywhere from two to six weeks these schools were much anticipated social events for the young and old who would gather and sing together, refresh the repertoire and learn principles of harmony and note reading. It was in this New England climate of musical entertainment and learning that Simeon Cheney and his family found a receptive environment for their lifelong enthusiasm for song. Out of confusion they brought order.

Simeon Pease Cheney spent the last few years of his life in Franklin, Vermont, in his “bird-haunted grove” … “where”, according to his son, “the voices of the wood and field were as familiar as those of his own family.” Hidden in the understory of the woods, he could hear melody and order in birdsong where others could not. Primed by a lifetime of singing, Cheney was able to pull a confusion of tiny trills from the air and fix them in writing. He believed that if the human ear were acute enough to pick up its subtleties, almost any sound could be transcribed as music. By the time he was an old man, Cheney was hearing music everywhere, even in the old drying rack out back creaking in the wind.

When Cheney was not deep in the woods listening to and transcribing the sounds of living things, he was engaged in heated argument in print. In letters and essays, he joined a vigorous debate about the existence of music in Nature. His adversaries believed only human artistic intent could create music. Reputable journals of the day (Century Magazine / Nature) followed these arguments with interest.

William Pole, in his 1887 essay “Nature”, appendix WNW
“No one who has taken the very first steps in the philosophical study of the structure of music could entertain the idea that the sounds naturally emitted by birds … were entitled to be called either music or melody… the essential feature of music, its minimum component, must be a combination of sounds of different pitches, these pitches being moreover strictly fixed and defined, and their relations to each other corresponding to certain series agreed on and adopted as standard musical scales.”

Simeon Pease Cheney, letter, Appendix WNW
“What “component” of the “essential foundation” is lacking in this group of melodies?”
Chickadees, singing responses, line of music illustration
Meadow Lark, hermit thrush, line of music illustration        

W.J. Broderip, 1857 on Daines Barrington 1772, appendix WNW
“The Hon. Daines Barrington, who paid much attention to this subject, remarks that some passages of the song in a few kinds of birds correspond with the intervals of our musical scale, but that much the greater part of such a song is not capable of musical notation. He attributes this to the following causes…”

Simeon Pease Cheney, letter, Appendix WNW
“That sort of talk should come only from the fellows that find their cuckoo music in the top of a Dutch clock. The trombone blasts of the peacock are in melodic steps, the horse uses both the diatonic and the chromatic scale, and the ass jerks out his frightful salute in perfect octaves. All things have music in the rough, from the insect with a fiddle on his back up to the behometh.”

In 1892, two years after he died at age 72, his scattered notes and essays were compiled by his son and published by Lee and Shepherd Publishers, Boston, MA under the title Wood Notes Wild: Notations of Bird Music. John Vance Cheney, despite his father’s self assurance, felt it necessary to prepare an appendix of comment and opinion from his detractors whom he described as ‘more at home in the delightful field through which our author strolled … innocently absorbed, oblivious to the brilliant company before him and on either side.”

Twenty-five years after I discovered Wood Notes Wild in that Portland library and well after my grandmother’s death, I remembered and set out again to find that book with the intention of revisiting its themes in a series of paintings for a hand-bound book. I found it again through the detective work of a friend and chose nine birds to transcribe, including an edited version of Cheney’s introduction. The 40 pages of the manuscript are 17” by 10” and contain a calligraphic script of Cheney’s text and musical notation in stark relief against unbounded representations of sound in paint.

A year after I finished the project and the manuscript was sold to the Melbert Cary Collection in Rochester, NY, the same friend who located my copy of Wood Notes Wild, placed a slight, blue, cloth-bound book in my hands. It was titled Sixteen Perfective Laws of Art Applied to Oratory by Charles Wesley Emerson and published in 1892, the same year as Wood Notes Wild.

Emerson was a minister and founder of Emerson College in Boston. He was a teacher of oratory who in 1880 opened the Boston Conservatory of Elocution, Oratory and Dramatic Art, evidently finding it necessary to tame the lively cacophony of human speech and written expression of the day. He published several books including four volumes of the Evolution of Expression that became the core text in the Conservatory’s curriculum. One of these volumes was the book I was holding.

Simeon Pease Cheney never saw his papers on birdsong go to press, nor would he have seen this: There, in the company of Cicero, Daniel Webster and Longfellow, this small-town music teacher and lover of birds was held up as an orator of rare beauty and excellence on the strength of a passionate claim he makes for the birds in the introduction of his book, Wood Notes Wild: Notations of Bird Music. Reproduced in its full nine pages in Emerson’s book, here is a sampling:

“Fifty years experience as a singing master has taught me that there is nothing people think so much of, pay so much money for, and still know so little about as music. Most emphatically may this, save the money clause, be affirmed of the music of Nature. However thoroughly the birds are considered in every other point, when we come to their music – that is to the very life, the spirit – we must take our choice between silence and error. A modern English writer says for example, “There is no music in Nature, neither melody nor harmony.” ….No music in Nature! The very mice sing, the toads too and the frogs make music on the waters. The summer grass about our feet is alive with little musicians. Even inanimate things have their music. Listen to the water dropping from a faucet into a bucket partially filled: (musical notes) No music in nature! Surely the elements have never kept silence since this ball was set swinging though infinite space in tune with the music of the spheres. From the hugest beast down to the smallest insect, each creature with its own peculiar power of sound, we come in their proper place upon the birds, not in their present dress of dazzling beauty, and singing their matchless songs, but with immense and uncouth bodies perched on two long, striding legs, with voices to match those of many waters and the roar of the tempest. We know that in those monstrous forms were hidden the springs of sweet song and the germs of beautiful plumage, but who can form any idea of the slow processes, of the long, long periods of time that Nature has taken in her progressive work from the first rude effort up to the present perfection? So far as the song is concerned, the hoarse thunderings of the elements, the bellowings of the monsters of both land and water, the voices of things animate and inanimate, — all must be forced, age on to age, through her grand music crucible, and the precious essence given to the birds. It would seem then that our bird music is a thing of growth, and of very slow growth. When the birds had emerged from the state of monstrosity, each raw singer having chanted continuously his individual tonic, there came a time when they must take a long step forward and enter the world of song…He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”  Simeon Pease Cheney

Cheney likely saw himself in his later years as a naturalist, inspired by the methods of direct observation that invited many enthusiasts with eyes to see and ears to hear to become citizen scientists. And, in that era of Darwinian discovery, many adopted a millennial view of time that pictured evolution as a gradual march toward perfection. Cheney’s own life’s missions – to improve upon the notes uttered by his fellow humans and to delight in the ‘long step forward’ taken by the birds – were right in tune with that optimism. And, in the arc of his own life, how fitting that his ultimate reward would be for the music of his sentences.