The swallow is the most iconic bird of summer here in Britain. I suppose that’s because, of all the summer migrants which come up from Africa, it’s the fastest, the most agile, and arguably the best looking. To see a group of swallows hunting midges over a cornfield or stretch of open water is to see speed, grace and power at nature’s finest. And when they hunt low and envelope you in the midst of their orchestrated frenzy, few thrills can compare.
So what of late swallows? One of the finest short works of the English Late Romantic canon is a piece by Frederick Delius called Late Swallows (actually it’s a movement from one of his quartets, but it’s mostly performed alone as a piece in its own right.) It’s a richly textured work that is more about mood than melody, and evokes the same sense of poignancy that you might feel when the swallows stay late at the end of an Indian summer, before leaving to return to their natural home on the South African veldt.
Why should it be poignant, you might ask; and why does the term ‘wholesome melancholy’ spring to mind? I suppose it’s because when the swallows linger into the shortening days and rich colours of October, it’s a fleeting means by which we can hold on to something we really don’t want to lose, even though we know that inevitably we must.