Greenly Thrush

A Tribute to F. Schuyler Mathews

photo of cover of "Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music" and photo of John GreenlyFor those who can read music, the Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music by composer and naturalist F. Schuyler Mathews is a real treat (the book was first published in 1904). Mathews worked very hard at converting the songs of our native birds into musical nomenclature, with varying degrees of success. One species with songs that translated pretty well is the Hermit Thrush. Mathews deciphered dozens of different song patterns, comparing certain ones to themes in classical music (such as the wild movement that opens the finale in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata).

My friend John Greenly, a Cornell physicist, musician, and birdwatcher, took on the task of playing some of Mathews’ transcriptions on his clarinet, with piano accompaniment by Bill Cowdery. I recorded their effort and then mixed it with a background of Hermit Thrush songs and a babbling brook (I love those babbling brooks!). The result is quite interesting. It is straightforward musically, but powerful in its naked simplicity—a relaxed and heartfelt tribute to one of our most beautiful avian songsters:

Clarinet interpretations of Hermit Thrush music as transcribed by F. Schuyler Mathews. John Greenly on clarinet and Bill Cowdery on piano. Nature sounds and final mix by Lang Elliott.

Pretty sweet, huh? Below is Schuyler’s musical score, with sections numbered to reflect the sequence in which John plays them.


  1. F. Schuyler Matthews sure was good at sounding like a Hermit Thrush through a flute. I’m sure if Hermit Thrushes were flutes, this is exactly what they would sound like.

  2. Lang, that is a beautiful piece of music and a wonderful recording. I was told about your work by a woman who owns an Audubon shop in Madison, CT. She knew I would love it, and she was right! I am a fiber artist and make portraits of birds using mostly fabric, but also occasionally paper. I recently started using music as a background for songbirds, and she suggested I put a piece of this music behind the fabric bird… hard to explain without you seeing my pieces. I’d love to have permission to do this. Please take a look at the birds on my blog (vdenegrequilts(dot)blogspot(dot)com. It would be wonderful to work out some sort of collaboration. Thanks! Vivika

  3. I’ve tried to duplicate Hermit Thrush sounds on a violin. Just fascinating that someone actually wrote it out.

  4. Lang, among the three music-to-scapes samples you blogged recently, this is *it* for me! And your thought: “It is straightforward musically, but powerful in its naked simplicity” perfectly captures it for me. Perhaps I am finding, via these samplings, that I prefer music danced to the tune of the birds, as in this entrancing collaboration between Mr. Greenly and the thrush. I really like this one; thanks for sharing it.

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