Classical Composers Have Been Inspired For Centuries By Insects

Jul 9, 2018
Originally published on July 9, 2018 8:08 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Summer is in the air. So are the bugs. They're also on the ground and in the trees, sometimes in your hair, everywhere else. But when bugs get in your ears, the results can be wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF NIKOLAI RIMSKY-KORSAKOV'S "FLIGHT OF THE BUMBLEBEE")

MARTIN: That is "Flight Of The Bumblebee" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Turns out many classical composers have been inspired by insects and other creepy-crawlies. I'm joined now by MORNING EDITION's classical music commentator doubling today as our musical entomologist, Miles Hoffman. Hi, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK, bugs as musical inspiration - really?

HOFFMAN: Well, I don't think bugs are quite up there with love and death as a source of inspiration. But the insect theme, if we may call it that...

MARTIN: OK.

HOFFMAN: ...Has been around for centuries, for a long time. With a little searching on the Internet I found the other day "Bee's Madrigal," for example, by a composer and bee expert in England named Charles Butler writing in the 1620s. And in 1505, the French composer Josquin Des Prez published a song called "El Grillo," "The Cricket." And it's probably still Josquin's most famous song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL GRILLO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Italian).

MARTIN: That is beautiful.

HOFFMAN: Isn't it great? Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah.

HOFFMAN: That's "El Grillo," "The Cricket." The cricket is a good singer. Those - that's what the words mean. It's a song for four voices by the French composer Josquin Des Prez. And it was written over 500 years ago.

MARTIN: All right, so that's probably as good as I've ever heard a cricket sound.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Any other musicians get some inspiration from that little creature?

HOFFMAN: Not a lot, Rachel. The Josquin song from 1505, and then in about 1765 the German baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann wrote a cricket symphony. But after that, it was mainly hard times for crickets.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HOFFMAN: I'd say that the musical stars insect-wise in classical music have probably been the bees and the butterflies. If nothing else, bees buzz.

MARTIN: Right, that makes sense.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. And composers have enjoyed the challenge of using instruments to imitate buzzing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXIS GALPERINE PERFORMANCE OF FRANCOIS SCHUBERT'S "THE BEE")

MARTIN: Lovely.

HOFFMAN: That's the French violinist Alexis Galperine playing a piece called "The Bee" by the 19th-century German composer who went by the French name Francois Schubert. Now, actually, the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote incidental music to the Aristophanes play "The Wasps." But wasps aren't bees...

MARTIN: Right.

HOFFMAN: ...So we might be accused of cheating...

MARTIN: Right.

HOFFMAN: ...If we played that.

MARTIN: Don't insult the wasps.

HOFFMAN: No.

MARTIN: OK, so it makes sense that bees would be a source of inspiration because they so clearly make a sound. Butterflies, though, don't make a sound...

HOFFMAN: No.

MARTIN: ...And they also have been...

HOFFMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...A source of musical creativity.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. I think with butterflies, composers have been inspired more by the visual images - the beauty of the butterfly itself, its fragility, the beauty of its movements as it flies. It seems to leap weightlessly from flower to flower. And here's a little piece by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg inspired I think by the lovely movements of the butterfly. It's called "Butterfly."

(SOUNDBITE OF SVIATOSLAV RICHTER PERFORMANCE OF EDVARD GRIEG'S "BUTTERFLY")

HOFFMAN: That's "Butterfly" by Edvard Grieg. And it was played by Sviatoslav Richter. There are a bunch of butterfly pieces. Franz Schubert wrote a song called "The Butterfly" or "Der Schmetterling" in German, which - the words are supposedly sung by the butterfly itself. Claude Debussy and Ernest Chausson, two French composers, both set the same poem, "Les Papillons," "The Butterflies," in which the lover sings that if he could borrow the wings of a butterfly, he wouldn't stop to kiss a single rose but would fly straight to his beloved, the flower of his soul, alight on her half-closed lips and die.

MARTIN: All right, we've got crickets. We've got butterflies. We've got bees. What else you got, other bugs that have been immortalized in classical music?

HOFFMAN: Yes. Bela Bartok, the Hungarian composer, wrote a cute little piano piece called "From The Diary Of A Fly" that describes a fly trying to escape from a spider's web.

MARTIN: Oh, no. What happens?

HOFFMAN: Well, that's not clear actually.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, no.

HOFFMAN: But the diary survives. At any rate, in 1912, the French composer Albert Roussel wrote an entire ballet called "The Spider's Feast." And it features a predatory spider, fruit worms - sneaky fruit worms - a delicate but doomed mayfly, dung beetles, praying mantises in mortal combat and the death of the spider by stealth mantis attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYAL SCOTTISH NATIONAL ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF ALBERT ROUSSEL'S "THE SPIDER'S FEAST")

MARTIN: Wow. Yeah.

HOFFMAN: That was the...

MARTIN: That's the sound of battling mantises if I've ever heard it.

HOFFMAN: That's exactly what it was, the duel of the praying mantises from "The Spider's Feast" by Albert Roussel.

MARTIN: All right, so one last shot - you got any more creatures?

HOFFMAN: Would you be interested in something called "The Song Of The Flea"?

MARTIN: It doesn't sound...

HOFFMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...So lovely.

HOFFMAN: Say yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: Yes, obviously, I would love to hear "The Song Of The Flea."

HOFFMAN: OK. Well, there are actually two versions of "The Song Of The Flea."

MARTIN: Oh, good, I'd love to hear it twice.

HOFFMAN: No, you're not going to hear it twice.

MARTIN: OK.

HOFFMAN: One is by Beethoven, one's by Modest Mussorgsky, the Russian composer. Here's the great American-based Paul Robeson singing the Mussorgsky "The Song Of The Flea."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SONG OF THE FLEA")

PAUL ROBESON: (Singing in Russian).

MARTIN: So when I conjure the voice of a flea...

HOFFMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...As I so often do, that is not the voice that comes to my mind.

HOFFMAN: That comes to mind. Now, well, that's not what you'd call a free-range flea - the Russian translation of Goethe's "Faust." And it's Mephistopheles singing about a king who dresses up a flea in fancy clothes and gives him the run of the palace. That's the flea's story.

MARTIN: All right, Miles, thank you as always.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players and the distinguished visiting professor of chamber music at the Schwob School of Music in Columbus, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONID KUZMIN PERFORMANCE OF MORIZ ROSENTHAL'S "LES PAPILLONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.