Week 386: “The Bluebird” by Charles Stanford

Bluebirds have a habit of popping up in music more frequently than most birds.

Judy Garland sang about wanting to fly over the rainbow like the pretty little bluebirds. In Britain’s most popular WWII-era song, Vera Lynn famously sang that there would be Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover. The irritatingly catchy Disney song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” features a bluebird, as do songs by Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler, and David Bowie.

Two things strike me about this: first, it’s interesting that Bluebirds have come to symbolize not only freedom, as birds typically do, but also hope and happiness. Second, many of the musicians who have sung about Bluebirds are British, which is a bit odd given that Bluebirds don’t live in Britain.

However, if Bluebirds knew the wonderful piece of music that Charles Stanford had composed in their honour, they might consider emigrating.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way the sopranos float in and out at various points on the word “blue.”

2. The way they hit the high A at 2:55.

3. The way it stretches minimal lyrics into a full four minutes. The poem, by Mary Coleridge, describes the briefest moment – the story is basically, “I saw a bird today” – and yet Stanford’s music allows that bird to float in our imaginations for as long as we want it to. The final line repeats the first (The lake lay blue below the hill), and the music doesn’t end on a resolved cadence, so we’re left feeling as if it could loop infinitely.

Recommended listening activity:


Buy it here.