CLASSICAL MUSIC / Now you hear it, now you don't: The echo has sounded through music since the Renaissance and before. Bayan Northcott considers the pleasures of reverberation

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HE tested the hearing of bees by hallooing at them through a speaking trumpet and listened in still weather for the boom of the evening gun from Portsmouth, some 20 miles away. He sought the most curious comparisons to convey the different songs of birds and wondered whether all owls hooted in the key of B flat. To 'fine music' itself, he confessed an almost dangerous susceptibility: 'I am haunted with passages therefrom night and day; and especially at first waking, which, by their importunity give me more uneasiness than pleasure. . .'

No doubt the very rarity of the experience actually heightened his responsiveness, since he cannot have heard larger-scale pieces more than a few times a year, on trips back to his old university, Oxford, or up to London. But we read Gilbert White now for what he heard - almost as much as for what he saw - in the tiny Hampshire village where he spent most of his life and died 200 years ago today.

'In a district so diversified as this, so full of hollow vales, and hanging woods, it is no wonder that echoes should abound,' he wrote to the Honourable Daines Barrington in Letter 38 of the second half of The Natural History of Selborne. Barrington, lawyer and polymath, must have pricked up his ears, for he had published treatises on birdsong and, nine years before receiving White's letter, a celebrated investigation of the youthful Mozart's musical prowess. White duly proffered an account of how he had discovered the focal point, and measured the length of many local echoes by shouting Latin verses, sounding a hunting horn, or a 'tunable ring of bells'; how the response seemed to vary according to the time of day or the 'elasticity' of the air; even how a gentleman of fortune might build an echo in his park by strategic placing of banks and walls - complete with quotations from Virgil, Ovid and Lucretius concerning the myths and superstitions the Ancient World attached to the phenomenon.

As a pioneering field worker before the parcelling-out and professionalising of the sciences had much advanced, White was bound to take an interest in the acoustic properties of his environment along with everything else. As an Oxford fellow he could scarcely resist disporting his classical learning in allusions to Echo as 'this loquacious nymph'. Yet had he been touched with the more speculative spirit of his enlightened contemporaries, the French Encyclopaedists, he would surely have gone on to consider the possible relevance of echoes to the origins of music itself. For while sounds of winds, waves and torrents might have been held up as sources of sonorous texture, and the songs of certain birds as models of decorative melody, it could be argued that echoes, alone among natural phenomena, produce an actual polyphonic structure: that of a round or canon.

Whether Western counterpoint actually arose this way - from the echoing, say, of plainchant in great cathedrals - or perhaps, more likely, from the very failure of people in groups to sing in unison, will presumably never be established. None the less echo effects, simulated or evoked for their own acoustic delight, as a compositional resource or as a carrier of picturesque, literary or emblematic implications, have run through music at least since the revival of ancient learning and the growth of scientific inquiry in the Renaissance.

The most obvious way of imitating an echo was to pass the music between two or more groups placed at varying distances. Though doubtless practised intermittently far earlier, this was first systematically developed in the instrumental canzonas that Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli bounced around St Mark's, Venice, in the later 16th century. And, without ever quite becoming a tradition, such spatial arrangements have recurred often enough since - from Mozart's elaborate if bland Notturno for four orchestras, K286, to Stockhausen's ricocheting Gruppen for three. Yet already by the 1680s madrigal composers - such as Lassus in his popular part-song, O la, o che bon eccho - had begun to explore the other obvious echo-equivalent of simply repeating a texture or phrase at a lesser volume. From the antiphony of diapason and echo in a Sweelinck organ fantasia to the loud and soft repetitions of a Vivaldi concerto ritornello, the device was to become one of the cliches of the Baroque - doubtless partly because it enabled composers to fill out twice as many bars from any patch of composition.

But it is Monteverdi we tend to think of as the first composer to explore the more expressive or iconographic correspondences of echoes. The flamboyant tenor duet, with one singer echoing the other, that crowns the Gloria of his Vespers of 1610 comes over not just as an embodiment of cathedral acoustics, but an emblem of the heavenly vault itself. Richer still is Act 5 of Orfeo, where the hero's lament on losing Euridice for the second time is punctuated by the dying falls of a male-voice Echo. Maybe Monteverdi was consciously emulating a tradition initiated by the echo-duet between the Soul and Heaven in Cavalieri's Rappresentazione di anima e di corpo (1600) - reminding us that one composer's borrowing from another can also be construed as an echo. In context, the Monteverdi not only seems to conjure up the desolate plain of Thrace in which the scene takes place, but, for contemporary audiences, would surely have insinuated an ironic twist to the classical myth of Echo and Narcissus.

Associations of echoes with pathos or remoteness were to run through Baroque music from Carissimi's Jephte to Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, before reemerging after a lull rather differently in 19th-century Romanticism. Now, with the enhanced technology of stage and orchestra, the effort was towards ever greater realism - the echoes of the chase in Berlioz's Royal Hunt and Storm; Wagner's reverberating fjords in The Flying Dutchman - yet on the other hand towards the weaving of echo imagery into the very fabric of symphonic discourse. The landscape-like spaciousness of Bruckner, Mahler or Sibelius surely owes as much to their continual deployment of reverberant fanfares and dying horn calls as to any vastness of form or forces. And with Debussy, for whom resonance became the very stuff of music, the motivic argument itself seems to dissolve into receding echoes of initial statements which, often enough, he seems to have withheld.

One could go on with Copland's prairie echoes and Tippett's antiphonal trumpets. The point is that, reconstituted or stylised, echoes seem to have touched off all manner of musical procedures; to have been heard, through a kind of pathetic fallacy, as expressive of all kinds of human emotion; to have symbolised innumerable dualities - from body and spirit to event and memory. For Gilbert White, pacing his hollow vales of a calm summer evening in the depths of a countryside undisturbed as yet by flight-paths, bird scarers and distant trains, there would have been still another, ultimate duality as the echoes of his hunting horn faded away; awareness of a silence more profound than many of us will ever know.

Twenty-five years ago this month, your critic - in an earlier incarnation as junior English lecturer at a south coast college of education - found himself in White's garden watching his students wander earnestly around with their sheaves of extracts from The Natural History. So intense was the noonday heat, so drowsy the hum of bees, there could be little thought of testing the reverberations from the slopes of the nearby Hanger. Far away, in London and Paris, Chicago and Prague, other students would be raising their clamour all that tumultuous summer. Yet no concatenation of 1968 has continued to echo in this pair of ears like the resonant stillness of Selborne.