Classical Music for the Birds

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From the 17th century's adventuresome Heinrich Biber (whose violin sonata mimics nightingales, hens, and quails) right up through today, composers have been fascinated with our fine-feathered friends, and have used their songs as a source of inspiration. The instruments imitating bird songs in these pieces range from the flute — which you'd expect — to some more unusual suspects. Here's a small sampling from the vast classcial music aviary.

Classical Music for the Birds

Cover for Prokofiev: Peter And the Wolf

Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67

  • Artist: Claudio Abbado
  • Album: Prokofiev: Peter And the Wolf/March In B Flat Major/Overture On Hebrew Themes/Classical Symphony
  • Song: Peter and the Wolf

Probably the best-known bird in classical music is Peter’s friend and sidekick, who helps our hero capture the wolf in 'Peter and the Wolf.' Sergei Prokofiev wrote the story and the music for this wonderful tale, which serves as a great introduction to the instruments of the orchestra.

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  • "Peter and the Wolf"
  • Album: Prokofiev: Peter And the Wolf/March In B Flat Major/Overture On Hebrew Themes/Classical Symphony
  • Artist: Claudio Abbado
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Released: 1990
 
Cover for Vivaldi: Flute Concertos

Flute Concerto in D, RV 428 "The Goldfinch"

  • Artist: Patrick Gallois
  • Album: Vivaldi: Flute Concerto in D, Op. 10/3, RV428; Flute Concerto in Gm, Op. 10/2, RV439
  • Song: Concertos (6) for flute, Op.10

Many of Antonio Vivaldi’s concertos can be played on a variety of solo instruments, but the concerto nicknamed “The Goldfinch” was specifically written for flute. Through a variety of swoops and trills, Vivaldi coaxes the flute into some great bird imitations.

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  • "Concertos (6) for flute, Op.10"
  • Album: Vivaldi: Flute Concertos
  • Artist: Patrick Gallois
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Released: 1993
 
Cover for Handel: Complete Organ Concertos

Organ Concerto "Cuckoo & the Nightingale"

  • Artist: Simon Preston
  • Album: Handel: Complete Organ Concertos
  • Song: Organ Concerto in F major "Cuckoo & the Nightingale"

This piece gives you two birds for the price of one concerto. The organ is a highly versatile instrument, with pipes that can sound like all kinds of things -- including a cuckoo having a conversation with a nightingale.

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  • "Organ Concerto in F major "Cuckoo & the Nightingale""
  • Album: Handel: Complete Organ Concertos
  • Artist: Simon Preston
  • Label: Archiv
  • Released: 2002
 
Cover for Classical Zoo

The Birds, "The Hen"

  • Artist: Various
  • Album: Classical Zoo
  • Song: Gli uccelli (The Birds), suite for orchestra, P. 154

Twentieth-century composer and master of orchestration Ottorino Respighi took a set of avian pieces by 17th- and 18th-century composers and updated them in a suite called "The Birds." In addition to a nightingale and a cuckoo, Respighi’s feathered friends include a dove and a hen. This CD gives you practically an entire aviary, with the overture to Gioacchino Rossini’s opera "The Thieving Magpie," "The Swan of Tuonela" by Jean Sibelius, and "The Carnival of the Animals," by Camille Saint-Saens.

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  • "Gli uccelli (The Birds), suite for orchestra, P. 154"
  • Album: Classical Zoo
  • Artist: Various
  • Label: Telarc
  • Released: 1997
 
Cover for Biber: Violin Sonatas

Sonata, "Cock, Hen & Quail"

  • Artist: Romanesca
  • Album: Biber: Violin Sonatas
  • Song: Sonata representativa

My favorite semi-obscure Baroque composer is Heinrich Ignatz Franz von Biber. He worked for a count who loved musical sound effects, and the "Sonata Representativa" is full of them. In addition to the obligatory cuckoo and nightingale, Biber has the violin cluck like a hen, crow like a rooster, and burble like a quail. For good measure, he also throws in a frog and a cat.

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  • "Sonata representativa"
  • Album: Biber: Violin Sonatas
  • Artist: Romanesca
  • Label: Harmonia Mundi
  • Released: 2002
 

Naomi Lewin is the midday music host at WGUC in Cincinnati, where she writes and hosts the award-winning program Classics for Kids. Lewin also produces the Cameo intermission features for the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.

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