7 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired By Insects
Be Fly: Love Insects
Whether you love them or hate them, insects are an essential part of the Earth's ecology. Without our little pollinators we'd be well and truly undone. Even the dreaded wasps should be spared a swotting (I know it's not easy when they fly along with stinging intent) as they are crucial in spreading pollen from plant to plant.
So here's a list for you to enjoy insects in the habitat of classical music - I hope you get bitten (and smitten) by the bug here!
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov 1844-1908
Rimsky-Korsakov. The Flight of the Bumble Bee
The equivalent of a book being translated into many languages, The Flight of the Bumble Bee has been transcribed for just about every orchestral instrument as a means of showing off the coordination between lips and keys, bows and fingers, wooden blocks and drumsticks, embouchure and valves.
This interlude to show off the flute's virtuosic prowess appears in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan in which the tsar's son is transformed into a bee by a magic swan so he can fly off to meet his father who has no idea he is alive.
Whizzing through the air, and hovering over flowers to the flautist's flutter tonguing, the buzzing bee is perfectly captivated in a streak of cheeky light hearted banter with the audience, disappearing into thin air as quickly as it flew in on the scene. It is about as onomatopaeic a musical ditty as it's possible to write. You can't fail to see the bee busily darting hither and thither, briefly stopping at bright blooms on its mission to collect nectar and fly of into the distance back to the colony in a blur of wing beats.
Its popularity has sparked irreverent changes to the title: The Bum of the Flighty Bee, The Hum of the Blighted Flea, The Blight of the Humble Flea and so on.
Josquin des Prez c1450-1521
Josquin Des Prez. El Grillo (The Cricket)
Josquin must have had great fun setting the sound of a cricket to music. A jocular relief to offset the seriousness of all the liturgical settings that made up the majority of composer's duties in the fifteenth century.
Written for four voices, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, they mimic the rubbing of the cricket's legs by the rapid quaver declamation, not easy to get the tongues round.
El Grillo is a lively entertainment that's remained ever popular for 500 years. That's one long-lived cricket!
Frederick Chopin 1810-1849
Chopin. Etude in F Minor 'The Bees'
Unmistakeably Chopin, this étude is a more introverted bee than Rimsky-Korsakov's, minding its own business, darting daintily from flower to flower seeking the perfect harvest of pollen, sweeping up into the air to gather an overview of its backwater before meandering down to settle and feed.
Even though the étude is in a minor key - F minor in fact - it has a playful air wrapped in wistfulness to capture the heart. The right hand does all the work, the bass having a relatively easy time of it. I say relatively, because apart from the difficulty of maintaining a seemingly effortless floating trail of quaver triplets in fours in the treble clef, the bass has to lock on to them underneath with six crochets, rather than one to each of the group of three which would be more usual. And it all has to feel as light as the bee itself.
Chopin wasn't given to pinning titles to his compositions, and wasn't impressed when his publisher marketed them with a nickname attached.1
A mixture of the giggling Minute Waltz and the achingly sad Nocturne in C sharp Minor, Chopin turned out a little gem.
Modest Mussorgsky 1839-1881
Mussorsgky. Song of the Flea
Although it is known as The Song of the Flea, the full title is Mephistopheles' Song in Auerbach's Cellar. Mussorsky took the words from a Russian translation of Part One of Goethe's Faust for his song, one of around 65 he toured with after leaving the civil service in 1869.
Entering Auerbach's cellar, Mephistopheles and Faust tell their satirical tale to the drinkers.
A king keeps a flea at court, dressing it up in lavish courtiers' clothes and becomes so attached to it, he bestows a ministerial post on the jumped up (literally!) flea.2
Feeling valued and priveliged the flea invites its relatives to join him and despite its propensity for biting everyone, no-one has the guts to complain to the king or kill any of the fleas.
I defy you not to smirk at the performance: even if you didn't know the story, you'd know something is getting one over another, if not the manner of it.
Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrated the piano part after Mussorsky's death and I've invited you to join me in listening to a fabulous vintage recording by Feodor Chaliapin who cocks a snoop at the ridiculousness of the king, the smirking of the flea and the helplessness of the courtiers.
Fleas come under the classification of flightless insects. The order within the group is Siphonaptera, presumably named because the flea syphons off the blood of its victims.
Bartok. From the Diary of a Fly
Boy is this fly a complex organism! Bartok is borrowing techniques from centuries past to fabricate a habitat of interwoven threads, parallel and mirrored, to effect the annoying buzz we have an instinct to swot.
Written for piano it comes from the last of the six books of Mikrokosmos, a collection of 153 pieces, ranging from the very easy in the first two books, to difficult.
When it comes to the matter of key, the two hands are totally independent of one another. In terms of pitch they couldn't be closer, yet that very proximity, as far as tonality is concerned, places them miles apart. They are acting for much of the work rather like a Japanese monorail, the powerful magnet within the track repulsing the train so it travels above it, without contact, yet the two remain inextricably linked.
And so it is with From the Diary of a Fly. The fly has been caught in a spider's web. The left hand, the spider, attacks, softly, softly, on G, while the right hand, the fly, gets off to an agitated start, almost exclusively on the black keys. From thereon in the fly is relentlessly pursued as it frantically tries to free itself.
The spider is a semitone of a whisker away, the fly moves, the spider follows, occasionally one hangs upside down - the right hand rises, the left hand descends in mirror image. The spider changes tack, and takes slower more deliberate steps, his tune stretched by twice its length while the fly desperately tries to unstick itself from the web. The stalking and fleeing escalates the music, climbing hysterically and a great fight breaks out at the top of the piano.
As the spider and fly step back down, this time the elongated theme is in the right hand, roles reversed. Has the spider come out as the victor, whilst the buzzing fly is homed in on, the music becoming quieter and quieter until the spider remains perfectly still one on one long note, the G on which it started and the noise of the fly peters out?
But then, how did the fly write the diary?
Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872-1958
Vaughan Williams. The Wasps
Written in 1909 for the Cambridge University Greek Play Committee who were putting on a production of The Wasps by Aristophanes, the incidental music Vaughan Williams produced has largely fallen into obscurity, all except for the overture which still does the rounds as the starter course for orchestral concerts.3
The Wasps gets off to a flying start, trilling and buzzing in the manner of these unloved insects, as if they're circling around your head.
Somehow for most of the overture Vaughan Williams manages to bat the wasps away and lapses back into his comfort zone of the quintessential English pentatonic folk tune. More of a pleasant stroll in the English countryside occasionally irritated by an unwanted black and yellow guest and not at all Greek to me.
Dmitri Shostakovich 1906-1975
Shostakovich. Music for the Film The Gadfly
The film, The Gadfly is a period costume drama set in 1830s Italy. We've all had the unfortunate encounter with a gadfly now and then. I come in for undesired contact all the time as my neighbour keeps horses and am constantly under attack from these annoying biting insects.
The gadfly in the film, essentially a person who is a thorn in the side of authority, is the illegitimate son of an Italian cardinal who is fighting to free Italy from Austrian rule. After many campaigns he is captured and executed, the cardinal finally acknowledging he is the gadfly's father.
Shostakovich wrote scores for many films during his career, and the suite he made from The Gadfly is still popular. It doesn't focus on the sound of a gadfly as such, but on the storyline, goodies versus baddies, with well written film music.
The most well known number form the suite is the Romance for solo violin and orchestra, a wide expansive tune that has more than a touch of Massanet's Mediation from his opera Thaïs, incidentally in the same key of D major. The difference is that the solo violin is focussed in the limelight only for the first half, the orchestra then takes over the until the final bar. It's unashamedly sentimental, designed twang the heart strings. Nicola Benedetti is the soloist in this version filmed at the Last Night of the Proms in 2012.
1 Willard Palmer, Chopin etudes for the piano
2 Musical Musings
3 Classic FM
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© 2018 Frances Metcalfe