Animals in Music

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llustration by James MayhewThe sounds of animals have inspired many classical composers. The desire to capture birdsong – sometimes real and sometimes mimicked by instruments – has been around for a long time. The connection between animals and humans is strong. So it’s not really surprising that when a composer sits down to create a piece of music there may be some influence from the extraordinary sounds of the animal kingdom. We often don’t know what animals really mean when they make a noise. When you hear a bird call, you don’t always understand why it’s calling, or what it’s actually saying. Even if experts know what it means, as human beings we are outside the bird’s communication network – we don’t speak its language – so we will never hear its sound like one of its own species. This increases the mystery and beauty of the natural world, and all the sounds of its creatures become like an array of wonderful ingredients for a composer’s musical recipe! So here are some examples of animals found in music – from fleas to wolves, gnats to whales, sparrows to elephants!

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

1. The Wasps: Overture

Vaughan Williams’s The Wasps (1909) is incidental music for Aristophanes’ comedy of the same name. The overture is the most popular movement and evokes the dramatic buzzing of wasps right at the start. These actually represent a chorus of old, angry men in the play!

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Kees Bakels

Taken from Naxos 8.550734


George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)

2. Organ Concerto No. 13 in F major, HWV 295, ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’: II. Allegro

Handel was a famous organist, and played even after he became blind. This organ concerto was first heard within a performance of his oratorio Israel in Egypt in 1739. Listen for the cuckoo at 0.52, then see how many times you can hear it again in the piece. It even appears the wrong way round at 1.36… do you think the cuckoo is dangling upside-down at that point?

Performers: John Aratore, organ; Handel Festival Chamber Orchestra; John Tinge

Taken from Naxos 8.550069


Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

3. Lyric Pieces, Book 3, Op. 43: IV. Little Bird

Grieg published ten volumes of what he called Lyric Pieces for piano between 1867 and 1901, and there are 66 small pieces in total. The ‘little bird’ of the title is clearly present – the writing cleverly conjures up a bird-call just by some twiddling on the keys!

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550052


Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), orchestrated by Maurice Ravel

4. Pictures at an Exhibition: V. Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells

Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 for solo piano, summoning up images of paintings, models and drawings made by the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. The work has become famous in its version for orchestra, made by the composer Ravel. One of them was The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. The short, spiky (‘staccato’) notes in all the instruments help us to think of chicks and chickens hopping about.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Peter Breiner

Taken from Naxos 8.573016


Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)

5. Procession of the Cats on Solstice Night, H. 22

The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů drew on native folklore for this piano piece composed in 1919: the ‘cats’ of the title were actually transformed witches walking to a meeting to celebrate their powers.

Performers: Giorgio Koukl, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570215


Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)

6. The Four Seasons: Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 8 No. 1, RV 269, ‘La primavera’ (‘Spring’): II. Largo e pianissimo sempre

The Four Seasons are part of Vivaldi’s set of twelve Op. 8 Concertos, published in 1725. Each of the seasons depicts bits of poetry that he added to the score. In the central movement of ‘Spring’, a shepherd slumbers, but his dog is alert and barks: this is heard in the violas, which keep playing a pair of notes, beneath the lazy melody of the shepherd’s sleep. Can you hear the dog?

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, Violin; Capella Istropolitana; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.553843


Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

25 Norwegian Folk Songs and Dances, Op. 17

7. VIII. The Pig
8. XII. Solfager and the Snake King
9. XVII. The Horsefly and the Fly
10. XXII. Cow Call
11. XXV. The Raven’s Wedding

Grieg based all these pieces on Norwegian folk melodies (using a collection called Older and Newer Norwegian Mountain Melodies). Each one is quietly inventive: Grieg made the melodies his own.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550882


Harald Sæverud (1897–1992)

12. The Hare and the Fox

The Norwegian composer Harald Sæverud wrote some charming, compact character pieces for piano, such as this one called Haren og raven (‘The Hare and the Fox’). Both these animals react and move quickly – you can hear that in the music.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557050


Frederick Delius (1862–1934)

13. Two Pieces for Small Orchestra: I. On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring

From alert and lively animals to the relaxed beauty of a spring day… this whole piece sounds like another world. As well as a melody of his own, Delius uses here a Norwegian folksong called ‘In Ola Valley’, a tune that Edvard Grieg had used too. But where is the cuckoo? Cuckoos aren’t easy to spot, and you won’t even know this one is coming… see if you can find it! (Clue: listen carefully from 2.30.)

Performers: Royal Scottish National Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.557143


Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)

14. Le Bœuf sur le toit (‘The Ox on the Roof’)

Here is something a little more ridiculous: an ox on a roof! There is no specific description here, but the music is as fun and crazy as the title. The French composer Milhaud was influenced by Brazilian music (he lived in Rio de Janeiro for a while), which has lively rhythms and bright sounds – the title The Ox on the Roof is actually the name of a Brazilian tango. You might like to get up and dance…

Performers: Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.557287


Franz Schubert (1797–1828)

15. Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 114, D. 667, ‘Die Forelle’ (‘The Trout’): IV. Theme with Variations: Andantino

Schubert wrote many songs, and one was called ‘Die Forelle’ (‘The Trout’). It is used in his Piano Quintet as the main theme of this movement. Five variations follow it (where the theme is ‘dressed up’ – disguised within other notes) and they depict fishermen trying to lure the unsuspecting trout onto their fishing line.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; Kodály Quartet; István Tóth, double bass

Taken from Naxos 8.550658


Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)

Peter and the Wolf, Op. 76

16. II. The Bird
17. III. The Duck
18. XI. The Wolf Swallows the Duck

Peter and the Wolf was composed in 1936 to be performed in the Moscow Children’s Theatre. It is still one of the most famous classical works for children. Prokofiev used the instruments in the orchestra like characters in a play. He made up the story himself, and in these extracts you hear a bird (a flute), a duck (an oboe) and a wolf (French horns).

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335


Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)

Catalogue d’oiseaux (‘Catalogue of Birds’)

19. Book I: II. Le Loriot (‘Golden Oriole’)
20. Book III: V. La Chouette hulotte (‘Tawny Owl’)

Olivier Messiaen combined his love of birdsong with his skills as a composer. He would create the songs of different birds in music, by carefully selecting his notes, rhythms, dynamics and all other details. For him, a cuckoo wasn’t enough! His Catalogue d’oiseaux for the piano features 77 birds. Each one is named. Here, the golden oriole is represented by explosive little phrases, and the tawny owl with more disturbing, heavy music.

Performers: Håkan Austbø, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553532-34


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)

21. The Tale of Tsar Saltan: Flight of the Bumble-bee

Act II of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1899) features one of music’s most popular pieces: ‘Flight of the Bumble-bee’. The opera is a kind of fairy-story: the hero, Prince Guidon is transformed into a bee and succeeds in stinging not only his wicked aunts but an evil witch too. It’s not too difficult to hear the buzzing of the bee here!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Anthony Bramall

Taken from Naxos 8.553246


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

22. Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, ‘Pastoral’: II. Scene by the Brook: Andante molto mosso

Beethoven called his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, completed in 1808, ‘Memories of Country-Life’ and gave descriptive titles to all five movements. The ‘Scene by the Brook’is a calm, murmuring kind of movement; right near the end (11.49), Beethoven copies three bird-calls, one after the other (he even labelled them in his manuscript above the notes!): a nightingale on the flute, a quail on the oboe and a cuckoo on the clarinet.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.553224


Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)

Petites Esquisses d’oiseaux (‘Little Sketches of Birds’)

23. I. Le Rouge-gorge (‘The Robin’)
24. II. Le Merle-Noir (‘The Blackbird’)

Messiaen’s 1985 Petites esquisses d’oiseaux (‘Little Sketches of Birds’) is shorter than his Catalogue d’oiseaux. There are just six bird portraits, and three of them are the robin! Messiaen’s wife liked the robin, so he featured it in pieces 1, 3 and 5. Its song is subtle, and suggests the small bird that it is – close your eyes and see if you can picture a red-breasted robin as you listen. The blackbird sounds a little more bold and insistent.

Performers: Håkan Austbø, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553532-34


Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

25. The Lark Ascending

This shows Vaughan Williams’s love of folksong and of the violin. It describes the English countryside, and the flight of a bird called a skylark. In the closing bars, as the solo violin returns to the ascending phrases with which the work began, the lark’s song dies away.

Performers: David Greed, Violin; English Northern Philharmonia; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.553955


Elisabetta Brusa (b.1954)

26. Favole: III. The Ant and the Grasshopper

The contemporary Italian composer Elisabetta Brusa wrote her Favole (‘Fables’) during 1982–83. Full of fantasy, humour and exciting orchestration, the pieces feature well-known characters from tales by Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen and other popular sources. The Ant and the Grasshopper comes from a fable by La Fontaine. For her ant she writes hammering rhythms – ants are hard-workers! For her grasshopper, at 0.45, saxophone glissandi (sliding from one note to another), with its chirping imitated on the guiro, a Latin-American percussion instrument.

Performers: National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine; Fabio Mastrangelo

Taken from Naxos 8.555267


Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

27. Lyric Pieces, Book 3, Op. 43: I. Butterfly

This pretty, gentle piano piece is one of Grieg’s best-known Lyric Pieces: listen to how the rippling notes suggest the nervous fluttering of the beautiful butterfly’s wings.

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550052


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

28. Divertimento in F major, K. 522, ‘Ein musikalischer Spass’ (‘A Musical Joke’): IV. Presto

Mozart wrote this unusual work shortly after the death of his father, Leopold. Mozart had bought a pet starling years earlier and it too died at around the same time. Mozart gave the pet bird a funeral, wrote a poem for it, and also composed A Musical Joke: in this final movement there are birdlike chirps and trills (there is a very clear one from the horns at 3.15). The whole work makes musical fun of other composers – a bit like when you mimic people. Mozart had a fizzing sense of fun – and at the end comes the obvious ‘joke’: do pieces normally end like this? ‘So there!’ it seems to say.

Performers: József Kiss, oboe; Jenő Keveházi, horn; Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550437


Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)

29. L’Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant (‘The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant’) (extract)

A young elephant called Babar is taken to the city before returning to the jungle and being crowned King of the Elephants. Poulenc’s young cousins asked him to take this story by Jean de Brunhoff and put it to music one summer, so he made it up at the piano… that was the beginnings of his work The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, for piano and a narrator. This extract depicts a lullaby sung by Babar’s mother to little Babar; later in the story he will miss his mother when she isn’t there and remember her with tears.

Performers: Alexandre Tharaud, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553615


Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)

30. Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22: II. The Swan of Tuonela

‘The Swan of Tuonela’ is the third part of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite, which Sibelius based on the heroic character Lemminkäinen from the big Finnish poetic work called The Kalevala. The swan is depicted by the cor anglais – a large oboe, with a darker, more mournful sound. The orchestra has no flute, clarinet or trumpet but instead has a bass clarinet and a bass drum – this helps us to imagine the bleak landscape. We can hear the swan’s cries of longing as it swims around Tuonela, which is the land of the dead in Finnish mythology.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Schermerhorn

Taken from Naxos 8.550103


Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)

31. Flute Concerto in D major, Op. 10 No. 3, RV 428, ‘Il cardellino’ (‘The Goldfinch’): I. Allegro

Vivaldi wrote pictorial music for his time – it is before the big Romantic ‘tone poems’ came along, telling stories through descriptive music. But Vivaldi did like to depict nature in his music, and in this concerto – part of a set published in 1728 – the flute becomes a goldfinch, supported by a lively orchestra.

Performers: Jiří Válek, Flute; Capella Istropolitana; Jaroslav Krček

Taken from Naxos 8.554053


Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)

The Carnival of the Animals

32. I. Introduction and Royal March of the Lion
33. II. Hens and Cockerels
34. III. Wild Asses
35. IV. Tortoises
36. V. The Elephant
37. VI. Kangaroos
38. VII. Aquarium
39. VIII. People with Long Ears
40. IX. The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods
41. X. Aviary
42. XI. Pianists
43. XII. Fossils
44. XIII. The Swan
45. XIV. Finale

Saint-Saëns’s ‘Zoological Fantasy’ was written for two pianos and small orchestra in 1886. It is full of humour, and very descriptive of animals. Think of the slow tortoise, for example, and hear how Saint-Saëns conjures up our idea of the tortoise’s character with the low string instruments taking their time… Or picture the Elephant, as the double bass clomps along. You can almost see the elephant’s big ears flapping! Have you been to an Aquarium? The exotic, watery world full of colourful fish is in the ripples of the piano and the gentle strings. What a Carnival!

Performers: Marián Lapšanský, piano; Peter Toperczer, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335


Notes by Genevieve Helsby