Birds of Maycomb by Timothy Hagen
“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” By writing those words into Atticus Finch’s mouth, Harper Lee framed Tom Robinson as an innocent songbird and made me wonder which birds might be embodied by other characters in her iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. This was the jumping-off point for Birds of Maycomb, wherein each movement imagines citizens of Maycomb, Alabama, created by Lee, as different species of birds native to Alabama, complete with the distinct calls of each bird. Rather than a retelling of the story, the piece is a reflection on the nature of the characters, an exploration of their identities as much as their actions.
As someone who grew up in the rural South, I find Lee’s characterizations to be vividly realistic. Calpurnia’s care for Scout and Jem, the Finch children, was alive in every nurturing Black woman in my childhood who loved me and held me accountable for my deeds and misdeeds, from my 3rd grade teacher, Ms. DuPree to my high school algebra teacher, Ms. Barnes, not to mention Mrs. Cowan, the mother of one of my best friends.
In Scout, I see myself: a kid who knew how to read too early and asked too many questions, unfazed by their own precocity and frustrated with adults who did not know how to handle it.
It is impossible to ruminate on the South without considering its longstanding, ongoing ties to racism. White people I know well, even some in my own family, used the N-word casually when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, representing the same cruelty and bigotry the Ewells and the jury aimed at Tom Robinson. Tom is the good man snuffed out by this cruelty, just as Michael Jordan’s father was robbed and murdered on the outskirts of my small hometown of Lumberton, NC.
Atticus Finch is presented as perhaps the most complex character. His desire for equity lives in my grandmother, who is proud that she was part of the first wave of women in the American military, during World War II, and in the civil service. She, however, helped instill in me the conviction that the work of creating equity must be continual, marking a departure from the beliefs of Atticus, who dismissed the Ewells’ hatred as ignorant, impotent, and unworthy of response, enabling Bob Ewell’s near-disastrous attack on Atticus’ children.
This is a lesson from Lee’s 1960 novel that still resonates particularly loudly: showing what we imagine to be mercy or pity toward those who espouse hatred may bring comfort, temporarily, but never justice. If Bob Ewell had been held accountable for abusing his daughter, for breaking and entering at Judge Taylor’s home, for stalking and threatening Helen Robinson, perhaps he would have been kept from endangering the lives of Jem and Scout. Perhaps he would still be alive.
Likewise, in the world where we live, if Derek Chauvin had been held accountable for his earlier misdeeds as an officer of the law, maybe George Floyd would still be with us. If Jeffrey Epstein had been truly, permanently held accountable for his heinous abuse of children, rather than being allowed to continue destroying lives for years, many young women would be spared unspeakable trauma. He is a real-life analogue to Bob Ewell, in that meaningful accountability might have saved his own life.
I do not have all the answers. I do not know what, exactly, accountability should look like, aside from carving out a space to answer for the havoc injustice wreaks on innocent lives and to repair what may be repaired. What I do know is that to realize equity and justice requires constant renewal and rededication on our parts. Without equity and justice, we will never have lasting peace and prosperity.
Birds of Maycomb was commissioned by the Elicio Winds (Virginia Broffitt Kunzer, flute; Kathleen Bell, oboe; Conor Bell, bassoon). This commission has been made possible by grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. The Elicio Winds and I would also like to thank the Auburn University College of Liberal Arts & Department of Music for their financial support of this project.
An outline of the four movements follows:
I. Calpurnia (Prothonotary Warbler) — The opening movement depicts Calpurnia as the center of the Finch household, the mother figure who by turns nurtures and disciplines those around her. Audubon.org refers to the female prothonotary warbler as “most like Martha Stewart,” who embraces her “heavy-duty homemaking” responsibilities.
II. Scout (Killdeer) — As described by birdwatching.com, “baby killdeer always come out running. They hatch with their eyes open, and as soon as their downy feathers dry, they start scurrying about….” No great leap of imagination is required to picture Scout in this description, expressed in a dizzying scherzo.
III. Tom Robinson (Northern Mockingbird) — Like the male northern mockingbird, who assumes the work of building the nest, Tom Robinson is industrious and harmless, completely undeserving of the cruelty visited upon him, as reflected in this slow, gentle movement that ends tragically.
IV. The Ewells & Atticus Finch (Great Horned Owl & Bald Eagle) — According to americanexpedition.us's Wildlife Forum, “great horned owls are very opportunistic birds…known to take over eagle nests…forcing the eagles to rebuild elsewhere.” The owl is also known “as a silent killer” that does not “make much, if any, noise when swooping down to strike at their prey.” These qualities echo the Ewells’ malevolence, expressed in the opening music that alternates between quiet unease and violence. Because eagles and owls are natural antagonists of one another, it would be Atticus, the eagle, who would step in to vigorously defend Tom and rectify the harm done by the Ewells’ accusations against Tom. However, a racist justice system allows the Ewells to escape accountability. As Atticus attempts to move on with his family’s life, the door is left open for Bob Ewell’s violent attack on Atticus’ children. It is only good fortune that allows an unstable peace to prevail at the end. We can and must do better than defer to luck in the pursuit of justice.
©2021, Timothy Hagen
Léo L. Fuchs/Universal Pictures/Photofest
meet the composer...
Timothy Hagen is an internationally acclaimed composer and flutist, praised for his "technical virtuosity and musical sensitivity" (NewMusicBox) and “real flair” (The Well-Tempered Ear). He won First Prize as well as the award for Best Performance of the Newly Composed Work at the 2016 Myrna W. Brown Artist Competition. Past awards include Second Prize at the Australian International Flute Competition, the Jack Smith Memorial Award for Most Promising Talent at the Pasadena Showcase House Instrumental Competition, two Artist Grants from the Léni Fé Bland Foundation, and a Graduate Scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. He was also the only American semifinalist named in the 2007 Jeunesses Musicales International Flute Competition in Serbia.
As a composer, Hagen has won awards from the National Flute Association, American Composers Forum and MetLife Creative Connections. His chamber and solo works for flute, published by Owl Glass Music, have been commissioned and performed by individuals and organizations throughout the United States, including the Texas Flute Society and Floot Fire. His pedagogical and scholarly work is published by Owl Glass and in national and international journals, such as the NFA’s Flutist Quarterly and the British Flute Society's Pan.