6 Great classical pieces inspired by animals


15th Mar 2021 Music

6 Great classical pieces inspired by animals

From Schubert to Rimsky-Korsakov, pianist and artist An-Ting Chang reveals her favourite classical works inspired by, and celebrating, animals

Catalogue of the Birds by Oliver Messiaen

The French composer Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992) transcribed 13 birdsongs to piano pieces which are collected in the Catalogue of the Birds (Catalogue d'oiseaux). Those birds include the alpine chough, Eurasian golden oriole, blue rock thrush, black-eared wheatear, tawny owl, woodlark, Eurasian wood warbler, greater short-toed lark, Cetti’s warbler, common rock thrush, common buzzard and black wheatear. 

The reason that the Catalogue of the Birds attracts me as “animal music” is that Messiaen not only depicts birdsong vividly but also creates a great landscape to go with the birds. Each piece is written for a French province with a title of bird chosen for each region. Messiaen uses the “colour of tones” at its most powerful, where different sounds interconnect and lay the birdsong amongt nature most beautifully. 


The Cat and the Mouse by Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland’s (1900-1990) The Cat and the Mouse reminds me very much of the US cartoon Tom and Jerry. We can hear so vividly the different plots: sometimes the mouse is hidden away; sometimes the cat gets flustered trying to catch the little mouse; sometimes the mouse thinks the cat has already gone but the cat suddenly appears! All of these stories exist in the music; we can hear them as if seeing what happens there (and in my mind, it is always Tom and Jerry as the characters in the music!). 

Although The Cat and the Mouse is atonal music, the tune is easily accessible to all listeners. Copland uses the pace, rhythm, dynamics, dissonance and consonance successfully which create the animation in the music. For example, the music starts with a slow single melody. The sudden loud and dissonant chord shows how the mouse is suddenly scared by something. Then the quick and light notes sound as if the mouse quickly runs away. Such technique and more are fully applied in the entire piece which gives the “storytelling” nature to the music. 


The Maiden and the Nightingale by Enrique Granados

The Maiden and the Nightingale is the fourth piece of the music in the piano solo suite, Goyescas composed by the Spanish composer Enrique Granados (1867-1916). In the music, the maiden sings a mournful song to the nightingale as her lover has gone to fight another guy out of jealousy. Although the maiden has ignored all the advances the other man has made, her lover does not believe her, insists on fighting his supposed rival, and eventually dies. 

Most of the music focuses on the maiden’s mournful song. After her “song” ends, the last part of the piece is pure bird sound. The creation of the bird sound being very different here from Messiaen’s Catalogue of the Birds. Granados mainly uses quick and light single notes to paint the melodies of birdsongs. The magic here is after the sad maiden song the pure bird sound at the end is like the camera in a film changing focus from the people of the story to the nature surrounding them which echoes the human story, creating beautiful metaphors for an audience to ponder.

The Flight of Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote Flight of the Bumblebee as an orchestral interlude in his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, 1900. A magician, Swan-Bird, changes Prince Gvidon Saltanovich into an insect so that the prince can fly away to visit his father. This composition is very often used as a solo showcase for instrumental virtuosity, for example piano, violin and flute. 

The piece is a hugely popular encore piece but it does not mean the music is any less artistic or does not require virtuosic skill. The chromatic scales used in the fast notes create a great sonority for the sound of the bumblebee. The little chords played rhythmically in between the chromatic and super-fast notes create a great tension for the listeners throughout the piece. 


The Trout by Franz Schubert

The Trout (Die Forelle) is a song composed in early 1817 for solo voice and piano by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1928). The lyrics of the song are a poem written by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart. 

The piano part in the song starts with the light and flowing quick notes where we can hear fish swimming among the clear water. When the melody starts, we hear a happy fisherman in this natural scene. I always feel shocked about how cruel the lyrics are depicting the fish being killed by the fisherman. In Schubert’s music, he lightly touches on this cruel scene, slowing down a bit and then we carry on visualising again, fish happily swimming in the clear water. 


Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns

The Carnival of the Animals is the most famous work from French composer, Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Interestingly, Saint-Saëns forbade the work to be published during his lifetime as he wanted to be considered a serious classical composer and felt that the Carnival of the Animals did not represent him properly. 

The original score was written for two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute (and piccolo), clarinet (C and B), glass harmonica, and xylophone. The animals included are hens and roosters, swift animals, tortoises, the elephant, kangaroos, characters with long ears, aquarium, aviary, pianists (they are counted as animals too!), fossils and the swan. 

This piece might be the biggest cliché when it comes to “animal” music, but the different musical techniques Saint Saëns uses to depict the different animals and the dynamics of the full suite truly make this set of works the most quintessential and my favourite music for animals, deserving the recognition it has. 


An Ting Chang's second solo album, Carnival of the Animals, comes out March 19 and will be available on all digital platforms


Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter


Loading up next...