top of page


Composition Date: 2017

Duration: 5'

Orchestration: Mezzo-Soprano and Piano



A setting of text on the subject of birds from bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith.

Premiered by Kitty Whateley (mezzo-soprano) and Simon Lepper (piano) at Three Choirs Festival in Worcester on 28th July 2017.

Programme Note:


music by Sally Beamish

poems by Alexander McCall Smith

for mezzo-soprano and piano




Doves in Acacia

Cocks and Hens

Birds (reprise)

Commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival, this short song cycle sets four of the poems originally written by Alexander McCall Smith for performance alongside Saint-Saens' 'Carnival of the Animals'.

I have chosen the four that describe birds. To these, the poet has added 'Doves in Acacia', which reflects the 2017 festival's theme of 'forgiveness'.

Each song takes as its starting point the calls and movement of birds. The first is an imaginary tropical soundscape. The second describes the gliding of a swan, and no.3 is based entirely on the interval associated with the cuckoo – the falling third. The accompaniment of the fourth song is created from the notated chanting of doves, referencing African doves* in the central section. Cocks and Hens begins with the crowing of a cock, quoting a theme from my recent work The Judas Passion – the crowing of the cock as Peter betrays Christ – again, highlighting the theme of forgiveness. But this song is light hearted, and the piano clucks and struts like hens in a farmyard.

After the fifth song, the first is sung again.

Birds was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival.

The first performance was given by Kitty Whately, mezzo-soprano, and Simon Lepper, piano, at. Huntingdon Hall, Worcester, on 28th July,2017.

*blue spotted wood dove

Sally Beamish 2017

Poems by Alexander McCall Smith

1. Birds

Electric blue, greens, reds, flashes of yellow,

Birds in trees, quick birds, songless birds,

And birds that trill; unintelligent birds,

Birds who make nests, birds who rob them;

Murderous birds, psychopathic birds,

Large birds with fierce eyes,

Birds that would look into the face of Papageno himself,

And catch him. But for the most part, small, twittering birds.

2. Swans

At the bend of the river, the reminder of beauty,

The swan moves slowly through the water;

And we stop, you and I,

And you say that there may be rain tomorrow,

That the reeds move so delicately in the wind,

And that we should speak our minds

And say the things we need to say

Or have our lifetimes to regret it.

3. Cuckoo

This is deep country, this, with its quiet hedgerows

And its fields and river and its ancient trees,

And its boys swimming in a pool

Where the trout are frightened

And the caddisflies dip over the water;

And where it is a quieter time altogether,

Say, yesterday, when we were so much more innocent;

All the woods and fields are suddenly silent,

And in the summer heat, and in the shimmer,

From across the waving fields of wheat,

Comes drifting the cuckoo call.

4. Doves in Acacia

The leaves are as delicate

As the feathers themselves

Of the two doves

For whom the tree

Is their home,

Their marital bed.

The sound of the doves,

Their morning conversation,

Is reminiscent

Of water, with only

A slight sense

Of the need to flow anywhere.

The language of doves

Is translateable

Only by those few

Whose vocabulary

Lends itself

Naturally to constancy.

Come, lovely doves

And move gentle among us,

Alight with delicate

Flutter at our side,

Brush us, gently,

With the breath of peace.

5. Cocks and hens

A Dutch master, painting the quietness of the fowl,

Makes them look so perfectly peaceful;

locates them in sylvan settings,

Where a bird with spurs may strut,

A hen may make her optimistic nest,

And other, flightier fowl

May dip and career across a crowded sky;

And they have their dignity, thus,

As much as any less-feathered creature;

Lords of tiny domains, the kailyard patch,

The clearing in the woods, the little places.

6. Birds (reprise)

Available Recordings:

(none available)

Search By Tags
Follow on Social Media
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Facebook - White Circle
  • Twitter - White Circle
  • YouTube - White Circle
bottom of page