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8.578281-82 - ANIMALS IN MUSIC

Animals in Music


For classical composers, the sounds of animals have proved fruitful material. The need and desire to ‘translate’ birdsong has long been one of man’s strongest drives in music. Anyone who has seen a mechanical bird, indeed anyone who has seen a cuckoo clock, will be aware how craft and mechanism are closely interwoven to produce a facsimile of song. We no longer use flutes to ‘sing’ to our cattle or sheep, though shepherds do still whistle to their dogs. The connection between animals and humans, and the song or communication that exists between them, is still strong.

In the late fourteenth century composers began subtly to include animal imitations in their music, but these were so allusive as to be difficult to detect. In time this kind of stylisation gave way to the symbolic: the use of the cuckoo’s song, for example, often represented unfaithfulness. By the time of the virtuoso instrumental composers in the mid-seventeenth century, such as Heinrich Biber, we find a proliferation in the use of animals; Biber’s Sonata representativa is a positive farmyard of cuckoos, frogs, roosters, hens and cats, each animal being given a movement to itself. Clearly, by now, composers were bringing colour, panache and startling imitations into their music, even making animals the centrepieces of their compositions.

That master conjuror of sound, Vivaldi, brought cuckoos and nightingales—they were in fact often confused in depiction—into his music; he even used a barking dog motif in one movement from his famous Four Seasons. Baroque composers enjoyed these nature depictions but never allowed them to disrupt their smooth musical principles: they were elegantly and pictorially integrated into the fabric of the music-making.

In the later eighteenth century composers utilised an increasing variety of animal evocations; the mock solemnity of Mozart’s pet starling in his Divertimento in F major is a case in point. Beethoven wove woodland sounds into his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, giving the task to three woodwinds and helpfully noting the birds as nightingale, quail and cuckoo—all of which had been ‘depicted’ in music before, but never as organically as here, or as evocatively.

Romantic composers such as Smetana and Delius put birdsong to good use, the latter in On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. Poetry and folk verse that celebrated animals proved valuable for composers such as Grieg and Rachmaninov. They took simple verses and brought them to life through the fusion of words, music and allusion to animals in their song settings; Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Swallow’ from his Children’s Songs set, Op. 54, is an especially attractive example.

Elsewhere we find Chopin celebrating the butterfly, Lennox Berkeley insects, Martinů the gnat, and Poulenc the elephant. But of more recent composers it’s undoubtedly Messiaen whose extraordinary and virtuosic evocations and depictions represent some of classical music’s most intense, evolved and expressive commentaries on the natural world. For him, birdsong showed the blessing of God’s creation.

So, in the span of music written through the years, composers have sought to embody all kinds of creatures, from fleas to wolves, gnats to whales, sparrows to elephants—and it continues with each new generation of composers.

Jonathan Woolf

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