This week, we’re taking to the sky and exploring works about flight in classical music. Here are a few of our favorite pieces inspired by birds, planes, and other flying things:
- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Flight of the Bumblebee. Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous “Flight Of The Bumblebee” actually comes from a musical interlude in a fairy tale opera called The Tale of Tsar Saltan. It’s a weird tale (as are most fairy tale operas). After a series of events, the character Guidon, a prince, is turned into a bumblebee by a magical swan. Guidon takes flight (accompanied by this music) in order to sting the people who have done him wrong earlier in the opera.
- George Frederic Handel, The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. This organ concerto features two of the most popular birdsongs heard in Western Classical Music: cuckoos and nightingales. Both birds are native to Europe, and both have a very distinctive call. The cuckoo is known by its familiar minor third, and the nightingale by its short, repeated flute-like tones. The concerto premiered just before his oratorio Israel In Egypt. In fact, most of Handel’s organ concertos premiered alongside one of his oratorios, in order to draw people in the doors to watch his dazzling virtuosity at the organ.
- George Antheil, Airplane Sonata. This raucous and aggressive piano sonata by the self-proclaimed “Bad Boy of Music” George Antheil reflects the composer’s obsession with all things mechanical and futuristic. He was also responsible for inventing a frequency-hopping missile guidance system, which he developed (believe it or not) with Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr!
- Ottorino Respighi, The Birds. This 20th century suite—which depicts birds like the cuckoo, the nightingale, the hen, and the dove—is based on different pieces of Baroque keyboard music, arranged as orchestral miniatures. This wasn’t the first time Respighi used birdsongs in music. In his work Pines of Rome, he included actual recordings of birdsongs, rather than imitations in the orchestra.
- Marc Blitzstein, Airborne Symphony. This epic work Airborne Symphony from 1943 tells the history of flight from the myth of Icarus to World War II with full orchestra, choir, and narrator. It’s a remarkable piece of music, but Bliztstein actually lost his original manuscript and had to rewrite it before the premiere! That premiere was conducted by Leonard Bernstein and featured Orson Welles as the narrator.
Don’t forget to check out Ether Game’s Airborne Podcast for some more music trivia. See the full playlist below: