Classical Composers' Feathered Influences Did Beethoven cop from a warbler? Did Mozart plagiarize a starling? NPR's Wade Goodwyn speaks with Talkin' Birds host Ray Brown about these musical mysteries.
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Classical Composers' Feathered Influences

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Classical Composers' Feathered Influences

Classical Composers' Feathered Influences

Classical Composers' Feathered Influences

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Did Beethoven cop from a warbler? Did Mozart plagiarize a starling? NPR's Wade Goodwyn speaks with Talkin' Birds host Ray Brown about these musical mysteries.

WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

Time now for some "Talkin' Birds."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "TALKIN' BIRDS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's a bird show. I like that. I love birds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

GOODWYN: Ray Brown is the host of the radio show and podcast "Talkin' Birds." He joins us now from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Welcome back, Ray.

RAY BROWN: Thank you, Wade, good morning.

GOODWYN: Good morning. Aside from "Talkin' Birds," you also do some talking for classical station WCRB there in Boston, right?

BROWN: Right you are, Wade. Yeah, on the weekends here that's part of the WGBH family, WCRB.

GOODWYN: So today, we want to explore the way birds have inspired classical composers. And to get us in the mood, here's one of the best-known examples of that, Respighi's "Pines Of Rome."

(SOUNDBITE OF RESPIGHI SONG, "PINES OF ROME")

GOODWYN: So the score to this piece actually called for a phonograph recording of the nightingale, right?

BROWN: Yeah, that was the first time that was ever done, as I understand it, with an orchestra. In the last part of the "Pines Of Rome" they call "The Pines Of The Janiculum" - one of the hills outside of Rome - and Respighi thought it would be kind of cool to have the actual sound of a nightingale in there. So that's what they did.

GOODWYN: Next up, let's listen to a bit of Beethoven.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOODWYN: Word is that Beethoven may have taken a queue from this feathered friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF CETTI'S WARBLER CHIRPING)

BROWN: Yeah, that's the Cetti's warbler. It's a kind of an elusive European warbler. And at least some theory goes that he was inspired by that for the first notes of the last movement of the "Second Symphony." Some people think it really does sound like that and others not so much. But the pattern certainly is there. It's that dum da-da-da da-da (ph). You might have to kind of want it to sound like that. I'm not sure.

GOODWYN: And there's also a story about Mozart and a pet starling.

BROWN: Yeah, Mozart bought a starling and he made this entry in his expense book about buying the bird and later on it turned out that the opening theme of the third movement of his "Piano Concerto No. 17" sounded a lot like the bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOZART SONG, "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 17")

BROWN: Mozart seemed to think that it was a very similar sound to the starling. It's a little bit unsure whether, you know, which came first, the starling song or Mozart's music. But they were certainly connected there and he became very connected to that starling. In fact, he had it three years in his home, and when it finally died, he buried it in the backyard and wrote a little commemorative poem in honor of that starling.

GOODWYN: Ray, do you have a personal favorite of classical music that's been inspired by birds?

BROWN: Well, it's kind of hard to pick because there are so many, but if I had to choose one I'm pretty sure it would Ralph Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending." Just a beautiful, sublime piece, and it captures not only kind of the sound - the beautiful sound of the skylark - but also the flight. It does this amazing territorial and mating flight way up into the sky, and he captures that so beautifully in the music there "A Lark Ascending."

(SOUNDBITE OF RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS SONG, "THE LARK ASCENDING")

GOODWYN: Ray Brown is the host of "Talkin' Birds." Ray, thanks very much.

BROWN: My pleasure, Wade, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS SONG, "THE LARK ASCENDING")

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