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Outdoors: Concerto Grosso

Spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)
Spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

Scholars really don’t know much about dynamics in Early Music because until the late 1700s, composers did not include dynamic markings in their music. But it is just wrong to assume that during the Renaissance and Baroque Periods, musicians did not employ dynamic contrast in their performances.

In those days musicians apparently just worked out their own interpretations of volume. Singers and many instrumentalists could and presumably did produce a full range of loud and soft sounds. But some instruments could only produce sound a certain volume….and many early instruments were not very loud.

One way to increase volume was to add more instruments. That technique was used in the Baroque form called the concerto grosso, which is a composition in which musical material is passed between a soloist or a group of soloists and full orchestra resulting contrast in dynamic and color differences.

The frog concerts which is being performed in the wetlands almost every night time of year is, in my mind at least, a Concerto Grosso. It usually starts in late afternoon with a solo frog with a strong desire to mate.

To sing, a male frog forces air between his lungs and mouth. The air produces sound vibrations as is passes through the vocal chords, and the sounds are greatly amplified by his puffed-up throat.

When the frog exhales, the vocal sac looks like a deflated bagpipe. But an amorous male just re-inflates and peeps some more.

One tiny frog makes a tiny sound, but once they know it's safe, the whole pondful of frogs make their entrance. Researchers tell us in a wetland, spring-breeding frogs can produce sound at a volume of around 60 decibels.

If a female frog hears the evening frog chorus (and how could she not?) and if she detects the unique song of her species and is in breeding condition, she selects the most desirable male and initiates courtship.

But when a human gets close to the pond... then there will be a grand pause. Silence. Until one little peeper resumes his solo. And before long, the whole pond is again full of frog music.

What makes the peep of one frog more desirable than another? Length or pitch of peep? Volume ? Overtones? Stamina? I have no idea, but apparently female peepers know exactly what they are listening for.

And I know what I am listening for. The concerto grosso of the frogs is my prelude to true spring.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.