Buzz-Worthy Classical Music, Timed to the Cicada Beat

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cicadas on a shrub in Summit, NJ

Parts of the East Coast have been blanketed lately with the racket from a once-every-17-years outbreak of cicadas. While most of us hear a wall of white noise, squeaks and squawks, composers may be reaching for their recorders and notepads.

It's happened before. This Sunday at 11 am, WQXR presents an hour of enchanting works that evoke insects, flies and other creepy-crawlies.

The most obsessive admirer of bugs was Bela Bartók. The Hungarian composer evoked the cicada in his 1926 piano suite Out of Doors, the fourth movement of which is called "The Night's Music." Here Bartók piles up tone clusters to create an eerie evocation of frogs, birds and cicadas that are audible right from the very beginning:

As the musician David Rothenberg notes in his recently published book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, Bartok was a devoted entomologist, with a personal collection of beetles and flies. "He likened the collection of insects to the collection of folk melodies," writes Rothenberg, "which he felt was not only a hobby, but more a responsibility for the contemporary composer." Another example of Bartok’s interest can be found in the sixth book of his cycle, Mikrokosmos, "From the Diary of a Fly."

Well-known examples of insects in classical music are few and far between, but often fascinating. There's a whimsical number by Josquin Desprez called El Grillo (The Cricket), composed in the late 15th century. The four-voice piece begins:

"The cricket is a good singer
He can sing very long
He sings all the time.
But he isn't like the other birds."

In the 18th century, Telemann wrote a Grillen-Symphonie. Grillen means "crickets," but in those days it also meant "whims." Decide for yourself what Telemann had in mind.

Imitations of insects began to pick up in the 19th century, with the Romantic emphasis on nature. Schubert's song "Der Einsame" (The Solitary) conjures the chirp of crickets in the piano while the protagonist sings, "When crickets chirrup in the night, by the late warmth of my hearth, I sit cozily by the fire and gaze contentedly toward the flames, at ease, and light of heart." The solitary man goes on to sing, "chirp away, friendly cricket" for "when your song breaks the silence, I am no longer quite alone."

Joseph Strauss had less existential notions in mind when crafting Die Libelle ('The Dragonfly'), a polka-mazurka that has an appropriately whirring quality. And Rimsky-Korsakov's famous Flight of the Bumblebee vividly recreates the movement of a bee as it buzzes from flower to flower, collecting nectar for its honey.

In 1909, Vaughan Williams wrote some incidental music for the Aristophanes play "The Wasps." The overture begins with some buzzing strings before moving on to a style more appropriate for "Downton Abbey."

As composers embraced a broader musical language in the 20th century, insect sounds were seemingly compatible with the expanded pallet. Benjamin Britten wrote Two Insect Pieces for oboe and piano (1935). Poulenc gave us The Grasshopper and the Ant, from his Les Animaux Modèles (Model Animals) of 1941 (based on the fables of Jean de La Fontaine). More recently, Howard Shore and David Henry Huang created the opera The Fly, which premiered in Paris in 2007 and Los Angeles the following year. While the reviews were less than favorable, Shore's music conjures up the kinds of dark, murky sounds many of us may associate with bugs of all kinds.

What are your favorite insect pieces? Please leave your comments below.