Buzz-Worthy Classical Music, Timed to the Cicada Beat

Tune in Sunday at 11 am for an Hour of Insect-Themed Music

Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 12:00 AM

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.


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Comments [12]

Pearl from Old Bridge, NJ

I really enjoyed listening to this program. My favorite piece is The Flight of The Bumblebee.

Jun. 23 2013 12:02 PM
Kimberly from East Village

This is such a wonderful, fun program - thank you!
I liked the Handel "all manner of flies" best.
You can hear the cicadas themselves in Washington Square Park!

Jun. 23 2013 11:59 AM
Gev Sweeney from The Jersey Shore

Alas, there are no cicadas here at the side of the sea in Monmouth County. I'm making up for lost nature by listening to the "Summer" section of Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Jun. 23 2013 09:34 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

The din they make is a love song: Check it out. Check it out.

Jun. 22 2013 08:24 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

This particular brood of cicadas will not be coming to Long Island. What a disappointment. I was looking forward to the din.

Jun. 22 2013 07:17 AM
Frank from UWS

It's clear that Bartok is the only one of these composers who gave any real serious consideration to how insects really sound, and could draw such fascinating textures from his study of them. The Strauss, Telemann, etc. are more campy depictions of buzzing and whirring. Bartok, on the other hand, knew his stuff.

Jun. 21 2013 08:42 PM
Herman Joseph from NYC

David Rothenberg's performance of the night music from Bartok's Out of doors suite for piano is mesmerizing as is the great music. I do not know Mr. Rothenberg but from what i have just read on Google and heard on the video clip on WQXR he is an intriguing creative musician and a wonderful pianist. I heard Marilyn Crispell play jazz piano in a west side loft about 10 or 15 years ago and was impressed with her improvisations and technical command of the instrument. That she is now working with Rothenberg is most interesting.

Jun. 21 2013 03:06 PM
Henryk, Staten Island Museum from Staten Island

If you missed the 17-year Cicadas or want to learn more about them, visit the trusted source for everything cicada since 1881: the Staten Island Museum, which holds the largest Cicada Collection in North America, second in the world only to that of the British Museum.
Explore the exhibit (through February 2014). Shoot your own Cicada movie and submit it to be part of the 2013 Cicada Movie Festival (click for application: ). For questions about cicadas contact Ed Johnson, Director of Science at
(718) 727-1135 or by email at

Jun. 21 2013 10:02 AM
Beatriz from New Rochelle

I liked best the Cicada Music

Jun. 20 2013 01:13 PM
David from Flushing

I have not heard a single cicada buzz at all. This may well have been my last opportunity to experience this in my lifetime. In any event, I can console myself with the sound of flies, lice, and locusts in Handel's "Israel in Egypt."

Jun. 20 2013 11:13 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I rather like the din the cicadas make. They have not arrived here as yet because of the cold spring. I am old and this will probably be the last time I will hear them. The cicadas were the favorite toy of my beloved cat, Isis. She would let them buzz in her mouth and then bring them into the house.

Jun. 20 2013 09:54 AM

The Spider's Banquet (Le festin de l'araignée) by Albert Roussel is a great one.

Jun. 20 2013 06:17 AM

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