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Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan

The music of nature, particularly birdsongs, is described with surprising frequency in Freer’s correspondence with artists and friends. During the Gilded Age, the relationship between music and nature was a topic of general interest among writers and naturalists who catalogued and explained avian melody and its connection to music and auditory pleasure. This link between music and nature is a principal theme of The Four Sylvan Sounds, with its personifications of the woodpecker and the hermit thrush. The elusive song of the thrush was especially admired, and it became associated with transcendent beauty and imagination during the Gilded Age.

The American composer and pianist Amy Beach (1867–1944) wrote two pieces for piano that were inspired by the song of the thrush. In 1921, while in residence at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire (a short distance from Cornish), she heard what she described as the “most voluble thrush.” She immediately transcribed its song and played it back on the piano. This musical conversation formed the basis for “A Hermit Thrush at Morn” and “A Hermit Thrush at Eve.”

detail from F1897.27