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Outdoors: Not a Scarlet Tanager

Red-eyed vireo
Kelly Colgan Azar
Red-eyed vireo

Antonin Dvorak mixed up his birds in his famous American string quartet.

For years, I heard and, I confess, repeated the story of Dvořák, who spent the summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa. According to the legend, the composer would take nature walks in the morning, often forgetting his notebook. So, he wrote his musical ideas in black ink on the cuff of his shirt. That part of the story, which came from the diary of the woman who did his laundry, is probably true.

But the rest of the story—The composer claimed that he was inspired by a scarlet tanager and that he had included the bird song in the third movement of the American String Quartet….which I like a lot. But even after listening to the piece countless time….I just didn’t hear it.

Neither did nature writer and ornithologist Ted Floyd who published his belief that the tune was not the song of the brilliant and strikingly beautiful scarlet tanager, but instead closely resembled that of a drab little bird called a red-eyed vireo.

His hunch was confirmed by a Carlton College biology professor Mark J. McKone who published a paper titled “The Iowa Bird That Inspired Antonín Dvořák’s American String Quartet in 1893: Controversy over the Species’ Identity and Why It Matters.”

He and his husband David Beccue, who happens to sing the Vocal Essence Ensemble, combined their musical and biological interests by comparing the melody lines in the score to birdsong spectrograms of various species of birds found in the Spillville area. They concluded that phrases of a red-eyed vireo song occur throughout the work.

The pair speculates that the composer may well have seen a black-winged red bird, but he actually was hearing a red-eyed vireo.

Several sources mention that the composer eventually had become annoyed by the persistent singing of the inspirational bird.

I rarely see the red-eyed vireos at Interlochen, but I hear them. And can attest, the non-descript little birds indeed are persistent singers!

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