The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: NPR discusses famous composers and well-known works that were inspired by real birds. | July 18, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently, NPR or National Public Radio featured a story that The Ear found very interesting and engaging.

Reporter Wade Goodwin spoke to a bird expert  — Roy Brown, the host of “Talkin’ Birds” — who also possesses a fine knowledge of classical music.

The subject was how certain composers took inspirations from bird songs and even tried to imitate specific bird songs — such as that of the Ceti’s warbler (below) — in certain compositions including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2.

Ceti's warbler

And when the connection wasn’t specific, the composers still tried to evoke the bird sonically.

The composers cited in the four-minute story were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van BeethovenRalph Vaughan Williams (listen to the YouTube video at the bottom with Hillary Hahn and Sir Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra) and Ottorino Respighi.

The Ear is sure there are many other examples of composers, works and specific bird species that are all linked. Antonin Dvorak comes to mind immediately.

If you know of any, please leave the names in the COMMENT section.


  1. Gustav Mahler’s symphonies are full of bird calls. The cuckoo in Mahler’s first symphony immediately comes to mind.


    Comment by John M Polhamus — February 10, 2016 @ 10:29 am

  2. Grieg’s Notturno for piano has some lovely bird calls in it.


    Comment by Pru Palecek — July 19, 2015 @ 11:01 am

  3. Dvorak loved the songs of American birds which he heard during his summer in Spillivllle Iowa in 1893. He would get up early in the morning and go down to the Turkey River to listen to birdsongs (there is a monument in the park by the river in honor of Dvorak’s presence there) and jotted down the song of the Scarlet Tanager on his shirt cuff, and then incorporated it in the Scherzo of his American String Quartet, composed and premiered in Spillville.

    And what about Vivaldi’s Goldfinch? A delightful flute concerto.
    And there are so many Nightingales in music. I love the piano piece by Granados…La maja y el ruisenor from Goyescas. The last page is a “cadenza” for the nightingale. Sheer enchantment!


    Comment by BL — July 18, 2015 @ 5:52 pm

  4. Hi Jacob,

    Did you leave out Messiaen on purpose to challenge your audience?

    Anyway,how about it?

    I just heard some terrific Messiaen during the Eastman school international piano competition which i am judging with four others. Tell me if you want to know more about it. Tonight are the finals and I fly back to Madison tomorrow. It has been a fascinating week of piano performers to say the least.

    Have nice weekend,

    Best wishes,

    Ankie foell

    Sent from my iPad


    Comment by Wesley Foell — July 18, 2015 @ 2:53 pm

  5. And one more thought. Papageno’s aria in Mozart’s Magic Flute. And the duet with Papagena, seen here.


    Comment by Ronnie Hess — July 18, 2015 @ 9:52 am

  6. So much to consider! Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring. And, in honor, of the eatly music festival concluding tonight in Madison Riu Riu Chiu which I’ve heard performed by the Baltimore Consort, a superb group.


    Comment by Ronnie Hess — July 18, 2015 @ 9:41 am

  7. I’m surprised that the article did not cite Olivier Messiaen — who avidly studied birdsongs all his life and composed a massive amount of solo piano music (Catalogue d’Oiseaux; seven books worth!) and several orchestral works, based entirely on their melodic and rhythmic implications. You’ve gotta mention him in this discussion!


    Comment by Tim Adrianson — July 18, 2015 @ 8:23 am

    • You are absolutely correct.
      I wondered the same thing but wanted to see if readers picked up on the omission.
      You did.
      Thank you, Tim.


      Comment by welltemperedear — July 18, 2015 @ 8:51 am

  8. Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, Opus 61.


    Comment by slfiore — July 18, 2015 @ 8:19 am

    • Excellent choice.


      Comment by welltemperedear — July 18, 2015 @ 8:51 am

      • Nice. I had not heard of Rautavaara before.

        He’s Finnish and like Alan Hovhaness he shared a keen interest in Sibelius, whose music describing nature is second to none.


        Comment by fflambeau — July 19, 2015 @ 1:58 am

      • Looking at Wikipedia for Cantus Arcticus, it seems that the bird songs in it are authentic (recorded ones incorporated into the music). Nice, but I think Hovhaness actually makes the music sound like birds. A different approach.

        I must say I enjoyed this composer. Strange that so many talented, modern composers are almost never given a chance on orchestra programs.

        This music, for instance, would have been perfect for Wisconsin’s “celebration” not long ago of the passing of the passenger pigeon.


        Comment by fflambeau — July 19, 2015 @ 2:05 am

  9. The music of Alan Hovhaness, the great American composer of Armenian heritage, is full of bird calls and songs and the sounds of nature. See for instance his symphonies 15, 23, and his Guitar Concerto #2.

    But the most famous of his bird songs is no doubt in his “Loon Lake Symphony”, No. 63 (yes, he wrote about 70 symphonies).

    Symphony No. 63 ‘Loon Lake’, Op. 411, was composed in 1988. Hovhaness was 76 years old at that time. The commission came in September 1987 from the New Hampshire Music Festival in conjunction with the Loon Preservation Society – they specifically requested the sound of the loon cry to be in the symphony.

    Here’s a YouTube link to the “Loon Lake” Symphony of Alan Hovhaness performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

    This symphony should be played more widely; it is lovely.


    Comment by fflambeau — July 18, 2015 @ 1:07 am

    • Worthy of a separate note, Alan Hovhaness also wrote a piece, his Opus 230, (usually played by 3 flutes), “The Spirit of Ink” which features many bird sounds.

      In fact, sections of this work are called Sunrise Birds; Tree of Birds; Strange Birds; Birds in a Magic Forest; and Birds Amidst Celestial Towers.

      A jacket for an album of this music says:

      “The music is a kaleidoscopic gallery: the fluttering of wings; slipping, swerving, dissonant, howling and shrilling birdsong, apparitions, a graceful pavane, a mist of song around the listener, the subtle craft of birds singing in dissonance. There is one moment of distortion in a passage of very demanding high pitched ‘flutery’.”

      It is in 9 movements. Here’s a link to one of those movements performed by 3 young university flautists:


      Comment by fflambeau — July 18, 2015 @ 1:49 am

      • When I play this music, the birds around my house all erupt in singing.


        Comment by fflambeau — July 18, 2015 @ 2:01 am

    • Fine choices I didn’t know about.
      Thank you


      Comment by welltemperedear — July 18, 2015 @ 8:52 am

  10. Clement Janequin: Le Chant des oyseaux (Song of the Birds) from 16th century written for unaccompanied voices extensively quotes bird calls throughout.


    Comment by Scott MacPherson — July 18, 2015 @ 12:10 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,250 other subscribers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,411,620 hits
%d bloggers like this: