8 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Birds

Updated on August 24, 2018
Frances Metcalfe profile image

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four and is a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Domestic Hen


Joseph Haydn 1732-1809

1792 Painting of Haydn by Thomas Hardy.
1792 Painting of Haydn by Thomas Hardy. | Source

Haydn. Symphony No 83, 'The Hen'

Haydn wrote 104 symphonies, most of them in major keys, His 83rd symphony is in the minority, literally, of those in the minor. Over thirty of the symphonies were given titles, maybe to distinguish them from each other since there were so many.

Number 83 is in in G minor, one of the so-called Paris symphonies. It announces the main theme in a forthright style. Haydn was at the forefront of the emerging sturm und drang style of music (storm and stress). As one might imagine from the phrase, extremes of emotion began to replace the Enlightenment's philosophy of rationale, paving the way for the melodramas so popular in the nineteenth century.

The nickname The Hen was attached to this four movement symphony due to the repeated dotted rhythm which forms the second theme of the opening movement, sounding precisely like clucking. It wasn't Haydn who gave it the name, it wasn't until after his death that The Hen acquired the avian attribution.

Clucking Sound Represented by the Repeated Dotted Rhythm


Hadyn Symphony no 83, The Hen

Haydn Having a Lark

Another of Hadyn's compositions continued the bird theme. His string quartet no 53 in D major was dubbed 'The Lark' as the opening theme soars high up in the first violin's register.

Maurice Ravel 1875-1937


Ravel. Daphnis and Chloë

To create the verdant musical backdrop for his ballet, Ravel augmented the usual orchestral forces in all four sections.The strings are divided into ten parts rather than the normal five, Ravel adding two harps to complement the string subdivision by the luscious sonorities they create.

The woodwind is similarly enlarged - three flutes, two of which double up as piccolo, and alto flute, a strong clarinet presence feature two soprano clarinets and bass clarinet as well as E flat clarinet, plus cor anglais, three bassoons and contrabassoon under the more usual two oboes.

Inevitably the brass are strongly represented with four of a kind plus plus tuba and to finish Ravel selects a large battery of percussion instruments to complete his extravangant orchestral set, however, this is front of house, as behind the scenes are a further horn and trumpet and choir, unseen by the audience.

Chloë, having been abducted by Bryaxis, leader of pirates who disturbed herself and Daphnis, has been saved from her ordeal by the god Pan. She awakens in a grove to the sound of nature as the day is breaking. Ravel sets the scene with the sounds of a brook and the birds fluttering above. A piccolo trills together with three solo violins to mimic chirruping, the scene exotically painterly, Ravel's delicate scoring expanding into exuberance as the birds are absorbed into the general melee of the natural world.

Ravel reworked the ballet into a two act suite; the birds appear in Act II. Stravinsky, who was reserved in his praise of fellow musicians, said of Ravel's score, "Not only is it Ravel's best work, but also one of the most beautiful products of all French music."

Daphnis and Chloë. Act II

Set Design For Act 1 of Daphnis and Chloë

Watercolour by Leon Bakst
Watercolour by Leon Bakst | Source

Ralph Vaughn Williams 1872-1958


Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Lark Ascending

It is one of the best loved pieces of music. Selected by those who don't usually listen to classical music as their absolute favourite, they will tell you how wonderful it is, how calming, wistful and evoking the essence of nature.

Vaughan Williams was highly interested in British folk music which tended to use modes, predecessors to modern scales and pentatonic scales which use five notes rather than the usual seven. Modal and pentatonic scales permeate his writing as it did many other British composers of the twentieth century.

The Lark Ascending took its inspiration from a poem by George Meredith and as a piece of programme music the work captures the spirit of the subject almost as no other. The violin swoops in fits and starts up and down the pentatonic scale in a way that you can see it in your imagination, catching the thermals over English cornfields. It's gloriously parochial, and played in my chosen recording by home-grown violinist Tasmin Little, a devotee of music from the British isles.

The Lark Ascending With Tamsin Little

Louis-Claude Daquin 1694-1772


Louis-Claude Daquin. The Cuckoo

Louis-Claude Daquin was a precocious child and conducted one of his own compositions at the age of eight. Greatly admired by aristocracy for his prodigious talent, he was head hunted and became organist to Louis XV.

Daquin's title for the piece is totally straightforward. It was written for harpsicord, at which he was a virtuoso. Happily this little piece is very accessible in terms of difficulty for the amateur keyboard player. I used to play it as a child on the piano.

Whilst the right hand is busy with quick, light figuration, the left hand picks out the 'cuckoo' motif, occasionally handing it over to the right, and the style continues in this vein for the remainder of this short and lovable piece. The Cuckoo or to give it Daquin's French name, Le Coucou, formed one of the works making up Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin he put up for publication in 1735.

Harpsicordist George Malcolm Plays Le Coucou


Cuckoos are the easiest birds to imitate, being only two notes which fall a little in pitch, in musical terms, down a minor third. Anyone can sing it, almost inevitably to the word 'cuckoo' due its onomatopaeic nature, and it's little wonder composers have echoed it in compositions. The cuckoo may have a doubtful reputation but it's still a delight to hear. I saw one once when walking my dog in the fields across the road from where I live, a rarity. It was the highlight of the month.

The following three composers have been enchanted by its simple tick tock sound.

Little Bronze Cuckoo


Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827


Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

Beethoven loved nature. This coupled with his desire to push the boundaries of the perceived symphonic norm became embodied in one his best loved works, symphony no 6, The Pastoral. Instead of the symphonic writing being purely music without alluding to any particular tangible idea or object, Beethoven introduced the idea of a programme for this progressive symphony. To actively include the sounds of the rustic idyll was a new concept.

The majority of the symphony is a gentle meander through woods, fields and by streams, taking in the smell and sounds it strolls along, an idealist perception of the countryside, apart from the storm that downpours over the land in the fourth movement. There are many allusions to nature, not least birdsong. Beethoven's deafness by the time he completed the symphony in 1808 had become extremely problematic and to hear the calls as his composed outdoors would have been sotto voce at best. Several years earlier he had poured out his anxieties in letters to very close friends abut his failing auditory faculty.

Beethoven leaves no doubt about his audience identifying the birds he depicts by the brook which call out in the second movement of the symphony. He writes the name of each in the score as you can see in the illustration. First on the scene is the nightingale, represented by the flute, the oboe as quail makes an appearance shortly after, followed by the cuckoo played by the clarinets

Beethoven composed some of the symphony enjoying the outdoors, away from the bustle of Vienna, captured here on canvas.

Birdsong Notated in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony


Beethoven Composing the Pastoral Symphony in the Countryside


Frederick Delius 1862-1934


Delius. On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring

British-born Delius spent his early adult years honing his composition skills in Paris and thereafter made France his home. His music is infused with the exotiscm of the Fin de siècle French composers - Debussy's influence looms large - and underpinned by ever-shifting dense harmonic blocks.

On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring is a symphonic poem - a work for orchestra on a given topic - imbued with arcadian nostalgia. The cuckoo announces itself at the start on the oboe, spring has arrived to sweep away the privations of winter. It is followed by a traditional Norwegian folk tune, an imagining of country folk singing and dancing in celebration of breaking free of the previous harsh months. The cuckoo returns, its distinctive two note greeting handed to the clarinet before the work concludes in pastel tones.

Delius.On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring

Clement Jannequin 1485-1558


Jannequin. Chanson des Oiseaux

This glorious piece captured my imagination more than thirty years ago when I was very unfamiliar with composers as far back in time as Jannequin. A delightful easing in as I could possibly have hoped for with which to break the ice. Back then it had been a reluctant now-and-again forage into the mediaeval and renaissance worlds. Jannequin became the window through which I could comfortably step back and appreciate the music written so long ago.

Chanson des Oiseaux was the perfect catalyst, wings opening to reveal the fine detail and pleasure of what had been, for me, a neglected era. Nightingales and cuckoos are joyfully imitated in this lively little work for four voices. You'll hear each voice enter one after another imitating the previous vocal line before becoming still at the cadence and flying off again. The birdsong becomes prolific towards the end of the piece which only lasts about five minutes, but five minutes of perfectly formed playfulness.

Jannequin Chansons des Oiseaux

Olivier Messiaen 1908 - 1992


Olivier Messiaen. Oiseaux Exotiques

French composer Olivier Messiaen was obsessed with birds. His teacher, Paul Dukas of The Sorcerer's Apprentice fame had advised "Listen to the birds! They are great teachers." Messiaen, already bewitched by the the species, took the recommendation to heart reinforcing his affinity with their behavior and calls. He listened to recordings of birdsong on 78 rpm records and represented them faithfully throughout his compositions. Oiseaux Exotiques is the first of his works to marry his ornithological vocal observations with instruments at his disposal in his compositions.

Oiseaux Exotiques was written in the 1950s after World War Two during which time Messaien was a prisoner of war. As if to sooth the troubled soul, birds he was familiar with from across the pond migrated in his imagination to France to roost in this new work he was planning. But after Messaien heard birds from China India and Malaysia displayed at a French market he added them to his colourful flock to tweet from his musical canopy. Altogether forty-eight of our feathered friends have a place in this work.

As with much of his material, Messiaen wrote with his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod in mind. The instrumentation omits any strings, concentrating on woodwind, light brass and an array of percussion, with piano as dominant soloist.

A minah bird shrieks to startle the piece forward. Other birds you can easily identify are the prairie chick, represented by clarinet and oboe, strutting its stuff, the mocking bird and American red cardinal dueting on trumpet and piano, and the central orchestral section is dominated by the catbird, named so on account of its miaowing wail, together with the bobolink. A woodblock symbolises the call of the red-billed mesia and the Amercian robin picked out on two clarinets brings the work to its conclusion.

You may also be able to determine some of the other characters Messaien includes - too many to mention here - but listen out for the Baltimore oriole in the wind section, coming before and after the first piano solo, and the red cardinal that pervades the second. If you are a keen twitcher and can also read music, Messiaen helpfully identifies some of the birds on his score but even if you can't this is a bewitching and highly original work embracing an ancient and fascinating species played out on a forest of sound.

To read about fascinating facts about birds click here.

Olivier Messiaen. Oiseaux Exoitiques

Baltimore Oriole


Olivier Messiaen With Yvonne Loriod


Respighi Suite The Birds

Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances 1 & 3, Three Botticelli Pictures, The Birds
Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances 1 & 3, Three Botticelli Pictures, The Birds

Ottoirni Respighi's Suite 'The Birds' was adapted from the ballet of the same name. He depicts the calls of the nightingale, cuckoo, dove and hen and their movements - the scratching about for grubs, gliding up in the thermals during the course of this delightful work. It's an elegant work to play at supper - not too heavy that it settles on the stomach! The Ancient Airs and Dances have a refined stylised presentation, and the Three Botticelli Pictures take their inspiration from the painter's works displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The orchestration combines the refinement and restrained showmanship of sureness of touch like a light yet complex bottle of wine to accompany a tasty meal. Let the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra be your attentive waiter, they serve up these interesting dishes with clarity of detail to whet your palette.


Questions & Answers

  • Did you know Dvorak's American String Quartet, 3rd movement, was inspired by a bird's call?

    No, I didn't! This is a new one for me. Thank you for sharing - I shall listen to it with new ears.

© 2017 Frances Metcalfe

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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      7 months ago

      So true.

    • profile image

      Frances Metcalfe 

      7 months ago

      Thanks Robert. it's hardly surprising composers have found inspiration in birds as so many have such beautiful songs.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      8 months ago

      Thank you for the in depth backstory for these pieces. I can see where a bird can be a good inspiration for music.


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