This is for all musicians, music lovers and others on these boards who appreciate the offbeat (no pun intended).
Charles Schulz goofed big time. In one of his “Peanuts” episodes he had Charlie Brown insult poor Schroeder, the Beethoven buff, by saying that Beethoven never wrote any bird music. Boy, was he wrong! If you listen carefully to the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, near the end of the movement not one, but three birds—the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo—contribute, not once but twice. Yes, the great composer did write bird music. And I started thinking about this, and so I now present a little list of composers who did indeed write music for and about birds who, in the words of the great poet Ogden Nash, are “incurably philharmonic”.
Handel leads off with an organ concerto titled “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”. …
The early French composer Jean-Claude Daquin presents “Le coucou”, a harpsichord piece just about everyone has played at one time.
Camille Saint-Saens gives us a veritable aviary in his “Carnival of the Animals”: “Hens and Roosters”, “Cuckoo in the Woods”, “The Birdhouse”, and of course his famous cello solo “The Swan”, four movements of that suite. And the swan figures prominently in a number of other works: Tchaikovsky with his ballet “Swan Lake”, and Jean Sibelius with that lovely, haunting “The Swan of Tuonela” from his “Four Legends from the Kalevala”.
And there’s the lark. One of Haydn’s most famous string quartets is titled “The Lark” (because the first violin soars above the rest of the ensemble). Again, Tchaikovsky, who wrote two pieces about larks—both called “The Song of the Lark”, from his “Album for the Young” and the suite “The Months” (or “The Seasons”. And the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams portrays “The Lark Ascending”, for violin and orchestra.
Paul Hindemith gets into the act; in his piano suite “In The Night” he depicts a sort of dialogue between a cuckoo and an eagle-owl (the latter being a European cousin of our great horned owl): one could call this “learning a second language”, because the owl decides to try making a sound like a cuckoo, and the latter exclaims “nanu, nanu” (a German expression meaning “Well, whaddayaknow” or “How about that!”) and hoots like the eagle owl.
The Norwegian composer Grieg gives us, in one of his lyric pieces, “The Little Bird”. Carl Nielsen, who apparently lived near a chicken farm, contributes a Rooster Dance in his theater piece “Maskarade”. And speaking of roosters, there was one—“Le coq d’or”—who got composer Rimsky-Korsakoff into a heap of trouble with his government, because this was not one of his usual fairy tale operas but a blistering satire on said government!
And then there was the French composer Olivier Messaien, who was not only a composer but also an ornithologist who studied our feathered friends, collected bird songs—and incorporated them into his music. He gave us “Le merle noir”—“The Blackbird”, for flute and piano, and the exciting “Exotic Birds” for piano and wind orchestra; it should be noted that most of his exotic birds are of the North American variety, such as the robin which plays a central role in this piece, and the wild turkey of the Southwest. Not to mention several piano suites, all about birds.
No doubt there are many more, but this is a considerable sample of those who give the lie to Charlie Brown’s statement that Beethoven never wrote bird music.