Music For Now: Musical Animals

By: Matthew Wardell,

Music Director and Conductor—Ocala Symphony Orchestra


Well before Vivaldi decided to encapsulate the four seasons in musical form, or Saint-Saëns wrote his “Carnival of the Animals,” composers and artists have looked to nature and the animal kingdom for inspiration. When on long drives or walks, I like to think of all the compositions I know about and, in my head, I keep them in little piles (my wife can identify with his by the real-world state of my office.) Sometimes the piles are by composer: Oh here is Mr. Brahms’, whose pile is decidedly firm and square, but with a certain level of depth and beauty that I dare not step into it without being prepared. Here is Beethoven’s pile with some of the volumes spilling their pages out onto the rest of the group. Tchaikovsky is there, hiding under the couch like a cat that doesn’t like company, and us mistaking that shyness for coldness, but in reality it is a life of heartbreak that has driven him where we can’t hurt him. You get the picture. Other times, I organize the piles not by composer, but by some unifying theme. There’s a large pile for pieces inspired by fairy tales, a pile for works given life by Shakespeare and, of course, the pile of compositions inspired by visual art. Here are some about fire, Halloween, pranksters, water, war, love, seasons, space, royalty, and darkness. One of the larger piles, and certainly one of the most diverse, is the pile of music about animals. One particular animal, an entire species, or even a mythological creature can inspire a composer.

Sometimes, animals could be the protagonists of a story as in Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” You may remember the beautiful phoenix rising from the ashes and waking the world up with life and new growth after the terrible King Kashei danced us all to sleep. Conversely, animals can be the antagonists as in the non-human half of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”  Large, proud animals may inspire some composers. Alan Hovhaness (20th-century American composer) comes to mind with his “And God Created Great Whales” and Ned Rorem (another 20th-century American composer) honored a noble animal with “Lions: A Dream,” a piece for jazz quartet and orchestra. Rorem also wrote an orchestral piece called “Eagles” and a set of five mini-operas called “Fables.” These five short works all celebrate non-humans: “The Animals Sick of the Plague,” “The Bird Wounded by an Arrow,” “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Lion in Love,” and “The Sun and the Frogs.”

Small animals don’t get slighted though; there is Rodion Shchedrin’s (20th-century Russian composer) “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” a vibrant ballet score that shines with exuberance and excitement throughout. And who could forget Poulenc’s “The Story of Babar the Little Elephant”? The Russians seem to be infatuated with insects: Mussorgsky’s “The Songs of the Flea,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee” from “Tsar Sultan,” and Shostakovich’s “Gadfly Suite” being prime examples. Birds have their place in musical history with too many pieces to list them all. But, I’ll try: Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” Griffes’ “The White Peacock,” Dvorak’s “Wood Dove,” American conductor and composer Leonard Slatkin’s “The Raven,” almost everything Olivier Messiaen ever wrote, and, of course, the criminal of the bunch, Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie.”

Alan Rawsthorne’s “Practical Cats” was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possums Book of Practical Cats” (made famous my Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “CAT.”) The piece includes recitations of the poems along with full orchestra. Often grumpy animals catch a composer’s attention. “The Old Grumbly Bear” by Julius Fucik (Czech composer who bridged the 19th- and 20th-centuries) is a funny piece for bassoon and orchestra. Why do bassoonists always get stuck with the grumpy parts? The grumpy grandfather in “Peter and the Wolf” and now a grumbly bear — poor bassoonists! Funny animals spring into the spotlight too: Paul Creston’s “Kangaroo Kaper” is absolutely delightful.

Bach gives some animal husbandry advice with his Cantata No. 208, “Sheep May Safely Graze” and Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg also chimes in with his “Cowkeeper’s Tune.” And finally, I would be improper not to mention Franz Schubert’s “Trout Quintet,” a piece not even really about a fish, but ah, who cares? Happy Hunting!