NPR logo Classical Music for the Birds

Classical Music for the Birds

Parrots
iStock

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

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/33945288/27018288" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67

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

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Prokofiev: Peter And the Wolf/March In B Flat Major/Overture On Hebrew Themes/Classical Symphony
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

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Cover for Vivaldi: Flute Concertos

Concertos (6) for flute, Op.10

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/33945288/27049288" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Flute Concerto in D, RV 428 "The Goldfinch"

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

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Vivaldi: Flute Concertos
Album
Vivaldi: Flute Concertos
Artist
Patrick Gallois
Label
Deutsche Grammophon
Released
1993

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Cover for Handel: Complete Organ Concertos

Organ Concerto in F major "Cuckoo & the Nightingale"

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/33945288/32336288" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Organ Concerto "Cuckoo & the Nightingale"

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

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Handel: Complete Organ Concertos
Album
Handel: Complete Organ Concertos
Artist
Simon Preston
Label
Archiv
Released
2002

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Cover for Classical Zoo

Gli uccelli (The Birds), suite for orchestra, P. 154

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/33945288/46815288" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

The Birds, "The Hen"

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

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Classical Zoo
Album
Classical Zoo
Artist
Various
Label
Telarc
Released
1997

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Cover for Biber: Violin Sonatas

Sonata representativa

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/33945288/27017288" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Sonata, "Cock, Hen & Quail"

  • Song: Sonata representativa
  • from Biber: Violin Sonatas
  • by Romanesca

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Biber: Violin Sonatas
Album
Biber: Violin Sonatas
Artist
Romanesca
Label
Harmonia Mundi
Released
2002

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

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.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.