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Yale Symphony Orchestra Rediscovers an Almost Forgotten American Treasure

Oct 9, 2014

"This is not a retrospective lament for the passenger pigeon. This is a contemporaneous rejoicing in the flight of the birds."
Neely Bruce

Art, science, and history intersect this weekend, when Yale University commemorates the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

In the 19th century, massive migratory flocks of passenger pigeons were a familiar site in the United States. By the turn of the 20th century, their numbers had plummeted due to a combination of deforestation of their natural habitats and hunting. The last known passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

Yale University is hosting an interdisciplinary commemoration of the passenger pigeon's demise on Saturday. Biologists, science historians, and literary scholars will gather for a day-long symposium called "Extinction: Biology, Culture, and Our Futures."

The day culminates with a performance by the Yale Symphony Orchestra of a work inspired by the passenger pigeon, "Columbiad," by Bohemian-American composer Anthony P. Heinrich. The piece was written in the mid 1800s, and was performed only once in Prague in 1858, with Heinrich conducting.

"'Columbiad' was a tribute to the bird from someone who actually saw these migrations," said Neely Bruce, a professor of music at Wesleyan University, and an expert on Heinrich's music. "This is not a retrospective lament for the passenger pigeon. This is a contemporaneous rejoicing in the flight of the birds."

Anthony Heinrich is hardly a household name, but Bruce said he was America's first important musician and composer. "He conducted the first complete performance of a Beethoven Symphony in the United States," Bruce said. "He was also the chairman of the committee that founded the New York Philharmonic in the 1830s. The main thing about Heinrich is that his music is wild and extravagant, and unlike anything that anybody else was doing in Europe or the United States."

"Columbiad" is divided into nine sections, each depicting a scene of passenger pigeons. Brian Robinson, managing director of the Yale Symphony, said Heinrich used the colors of the various instruments of the orchestra to paint a vivid picture of the migrating birds. "When there's a thunderstorm, or a big flock of pigeons zoom up in the air and blacken the sky, the orchestra does that musically, and you really do feel that happen," Robinson said.

"Columbiad" will be heard for the first time in 156 years on Saturday night at 7:30 pm in Woolsey Hall on the Yale University campus. Saturday's symposium is sponsored by the Franke Program in Science and Humanities, and gets underway at 10:30 am at the Whitney Humanities Center Auditorium.