“As Kingfishers Catch Fire” is a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that was written in 1877. In this poem, Hopkins personifies animals and objects and details that their actions are taken by their own will. In doing so, he expresses that whatever is inside you is what you should present to the world; you must be true to yourself. John Mackey composed a piece inspired by this poem that describes a shy bird, a Kingfisher, that emerges into confidence, allowing its beauty to be seen.
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem uses one rhyme scheme in the first stanza then a different one in the second stanza. This signifies a shift within the poem as it moves from describing animals and objects in nature to then describing how their actions are unique and true to themselves. The Kingfisher (a bird), the dragonfly, the stones, and the bell all have a unique way of expressing themselves. Hopkins emphasizes that this unique expression is necessary because each animal or object must be true to itself. He then describes in the second stanza that being true to yourself will allow you to feel connected with the world around you and be at peace. Essentially, true happiness can only be felt if you express yourself in the way that you want and remain true to yourself.
The Kingfisher is a bird with brightly colored feathers that are often blue or green. In sunlight, its feathers appear iridescent and as if they are reflecting the sunlight. This iridescence is actually caused by the structure of the Kingfisher’s feathers, causing blue light to be scattered in a particular way. The bird’s unique feather structure makes its feathers appear to be different colors from different angles. Kingfishers are shy around humans, but when seen they are undeniably beautiful.
John Mackey’s piece inspired by Hopkins’ poem and the shy beauty of Kingfishers contains two movements. The first movement is entitled “Following Falls and Falls of Rain.” Throughout the piece, there is not a single moment where every instrument is playing at the same time. The opening of the first movement feels mysterious and somber. The lowest instruments of the band hold sustained notes underneath the melody, which creates dissonance (clashing notes) with the melody, adding to an eerie atmosphere. The first trumpet part is actually intended to be played offstage, which creates a feeling of distant and muffled hope as the first trumpet plays more happy and major melodies. The eeriness of the melodies happening on stage and the hopefulness of the melodies off stage signify the shyness of the Kingfisher in the midst of a rain storm, while also hinting at its growing confidence. The tremolos (on wind instruments, quickly switching back and forth between two notes) in the flute part simulate the Kingfisher attempting to fly and hinting at the bird’s hopefulness. The first movement switches between feeling minor and somber and feeling major and hopeful. Often when the brass has the melody, it is more regal and somber, but when the woodwinds have the melody, it is more light and mysterious and hopeful. The ending of the first movement feels incomplete, as the trumpet part does end on the original note of the key (tonic), so as to signify the incompleteness of the Kingfisher’s story.
The second movement is entitled “Kingfishers Catch Fire” and envisions the bird’s newfound confidence as it emerges into the sunlight and its beauty is revealed. The piece begins with a fluttering melody in the clarinet that is then repeated throughout the entirety of the piece by different instruments. A technique in which a bow is strung on the bars of the vibraphone creates a piercing, high pitched noise that is heard in the very end of the first movement and the very beginning of the second. The beginning of the second movement features fast, fluttering ostinatos (repeated melodies) in the woodwinds, then slowly adds more instruments and creates a fuller sound that signifies the Kingfisher gaining the confidence to be true to itself, as Hopkins’ poem emphasized. On top of the woodwinds’ ostinatos, the broad melodies of the brass part in the first movement return, yet this time they are triumphant and confident. The woodwind part sounds like the Kingfisher fluttering around unsurely, while the broad brass melodies confirm the Kingfisher’s confidence and beauty and that it doesn’t need to be unsure. Opposite of the first movement, there are few times in the second movement where every instrument of the band is not playing. Yet a lot of the piece is polyphonic, meaning that there is no clear melody. Often there are several different melodies happening at once, simulating the chaotic, unsure thoughts of the Kingfisher until near the end of the second movement when almost the entire band plays one unified and confident melody. Towards the end of the movement, the tempo returns to the slow tempo of the first movement, yet this time the brass melodies are beautiful and confident. Then the piece returns to a fast tempo and features fluttering melodies in the trumpet and woodwind parts. Throughout the piece, the trumpet part has conveyed the Kingfisher’s confidence or lack of confidence, and by the end of the piece, the bird flutters confidently in the trumpet part. The finale of the piece features big chords that grow continually clashy, signifying the Kingfisher’s internal self doubt trying to prevent it from expressing its true self. Yet the piece finishes with a soft and beautiful chord, affirming that the Kingfisher’s ability to be true to itself will always trump its inner doubt.
My school’s wind ensemble has taken on this piece for the semester. As a flute player in the first movement, adding the tremolos on top of the eerie and dismal melody makes me feel as if I am adding a sense of hopefulness to the piece. If I were a brass player, however, I might feel that the minor melodies I play signify that it is normal to be doubtful of yourself and that it is ok to express sadness. As a piccolo player in the second movement, my part switches between the fluttering ostinatos of the woodwinds and the confident, broad melodies of the brass, yet both must be played with confidence and emotion. Switching between these two melodic ideas simulates how confidence can often waver, but in order to feel true happiness, we must express ourselves in a way that is true to our own unique expression.
Listen to movement 1:
Listen to movement 2:
View the full score: https://www.johnmackey.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/KingfishersCatchFire-lock.pdf