Nature has inspired composers and other artists to create. Birds are no exception, either through their song, their nature or even their companionship.
From the haunting melodies of the nightingale to the joyful chirping of the sparrow, classical music about birds has explored the many moods and expressions of avian life.
This article explores some of these compositions.
Classical Music About Birds
1. ‘The Silver Swan Rag’ by Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin is perhaps best known for his ragtime piano music with The Entertainer or Maple Leaf Rag coming at the top of his extensive catalogue of work.
This delightful rag was composed around 1914 and was only released as a piano roll recording. It didn’t come into print until the early 1970s when interest in Joplin’s music was revived. There are many unusual aspects to this rag.
The form is not typical of Joplin’s style although it broadly could be described as a rondo. (Intro, AA, BB, A, CC, Intro, A). The harmonic changes are also daring along with phrasing that you would not expect to hear in his music.
2. ‘Le Chant des Oiseaux’ by Clément Janequin (1480-1560)
Janequin may not be a name familiar to you yet his music, often inspired by nature is something of remarkable beauty. Unlike many composers of his time, Janequin did not work in a high position for nobility or distinguished members of the Church.
He was a leading 16th Century composer remembered and celebrated for his chansons. Janequin’s scores and this piece is no exception, demonstrate intelligently crafted melodic lines that weave effortlessly through the polyphonic textures.
His experience as a singer and choral director is clearly evident in this work.
3. Concerto in D major; Op.10, No.3, The Goldfinch by Antonio Vivaldi
Almost from the outset of this piece, you hear the goldfinch. Like so many of Vivaldi’s scores, he instantly captures the thing he’s bringing to life through his music.
The scoring for this concerto is simple with a solo flute, small string ensemble and continuo. The work falls into three movements in the typical fast-slow-fast pattern.
It is in the opening movement that the unmistakable sound of the bird sings in the flute melody. There is an appealing interplay between the soloist and ensemble in this movement where Vivaldi creates the impression that many birds are engaged in a playful dialogue.
As is expected, the second movement offers a lyrical contrast to the opening whereas the finale returns to the exuberance of the first. With it, the goldfinch’s song takes us on our journey to the work’s bright close.
4. Concerto in F for organ: HWV 295 by George Frederick Handel
Handel was ever the master of mustering audiences. This early organ concerto in four contrasting movements he ingeniously included as an interlude during the opening performance of his oratorio Israel in Egypt.
He did this knowing full well that people were always interested to see the great Handel play the organ and this would bring them to his new oratorio.
It is in the second movement that the birds can easily be heard. The solo chamber organ (one without pedals), takes on the roles of the two chattering birds.
You’ll hear the characteristic cuckoo interval interspersed with florid passages that conjure the melismatic song of the nightingale. They intertwine and merge for only a brief moment before the movement concludes.
5. Symphony No.6; The Pastoral by Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven toiled over the score of his 6th Symphony for nearly six years. When completed it presented a complete contrast to the stormy, tumultuous fifth symphony.
It is in the second movement of this nature-inspired symphony by Beethoven that we discover the birds. The sub-title of the movement is Scene by the brook, and it is written in the key of B flat major.
This is in contrast to the opening and subsequent movements that are in what is often described as Beethoven’s pastoral key of F major.
Beethoven marks the second movement as Andante molto moto. It is in sonata form with a time signature of 12/8. The scoring is sparse with the strings evoking the gentle flowing of the stream. Beethoven waits until the end of the movement to allow the birds to sing.
A quasi-cadenza passage for the woodwind is where we hear the birds. Marked in the score you’ll find the nightingale in the flute part, the quail in the oboe part and two clarinets imitating the cuckoo.
6. ‘The Birds’ (Gli uccelli) by Ottorino Respighi
Scored for a chamber orchestra this charming homage to our feathered friends was composed around 1928. To hear the piece without knowing its background you could be forgiven for thinking it was a Baroque suite.
There is truth here as each of the five movements is based on the keyboard music of several 17th Century composers. The opening movement is titled Prelude and this takes its inspiration from a harpsichord work by Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710).
Respighi’s interest in the music of the Baroque began way before the composition of this orchestral work. In the second movement, we hear the dove’s lament played by the oboe.
The original music, not in any way bird related was written by Jacques de Gallot. The third movement called the hen draws on the work of Rameau and the fourth (the nightingale), is thought to come from a folksong titled Engles Nachtengaeltje.
In the final movement, we hear the cuckoo based on Pasquini’s original music.
7. The Carnival of the Animals’ by Camille Saint-Saëns
This ever-popular work by French composer and pianist Saint-Saëns includes plenty of music for and about birds.
The humour intended by the composer comes through beautifully in this work, especially in the second section he called Poules et coqs (Hens and Roosters). The brilliant orchestration speaks for itself.
Later in the work, the familiar voice of the woodland cuckoo makes an appearance in the clarinet’s response to the heavy chordal question played by both pianos. There’s a sense of mystery here with the tone of the music taking a slightly haunted quality.
Just before the piece finishes the Swan makes an elegant entry. This piece is perhaps the best-known of all the movements in the Carnival. It paints a serene picture of this noble bird gliding effortlessly on the glistening water.
8. ‘Le Merle Noir’ (1952) by Olivier Messiaen
The intricacies of Messiaen’s music and his admiration for birds are well documented. Messiaen devoted much of his working life to the study and inclusion of bird songs into his work.
At only six minutes in length, this is one of the briefest pieces in this collection. Interestingly, this work for flute and piano was one of the first where Messiaen interwove bird song.
It was written as a test piece for flautists hoping to enter the Paris Conservatoire where Messiaen worked. Technically, it is demanding but also in its need for interpretation.
Messiaen’s score doesn’t have any time or key signature that brings with it a great opportunity for freedom of expression.