Händel filled his operas with arias that make reference to animals; rich in symbolism, the perceived virtues and vices of the lion, bee, nightingale, snake, elephant, and tiger, among others, resonate in his works.
The aria Qual leon, from Arianna in Creta, was written for Händel’s longest-serving singer, Margherita Durastanti, and it gave her a chance to sing full force about revenge and punishment: “Like an enraged lion whose young have been stolen, so will I, armed with anger, strike in battle.” The accompanying horns evoke the lion’s fierce and regal power.
This according to Handel’s bestiary: In search of animals in Handel’s operas by Donna Leon (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2010).
Below, hear Ann Hallenberg roar.
A lively musical culture existed in the second half of the 14th century at the court of Brabant during the reign of Wenceslas I, Duke of Luxembourg (above, right). This abundant musical activity makes it likely that a member of the court chapel, Nicolas de Picquigny, was Pykini, the composer of the much-admired four-voice virelai Plasanche or tost.
The text of Plasanche or tost mentions that the audience will listen with pleasure to the parrot (le papegay). Although parrots are often mentioned in such texts to evoke springtime, and some scholars have guessed that here it is a punning reference to a Pope, archival sources show that Wenceslas had chosen the parrot as his symbol, having had its image embroidered on numerous furnishings with the coats of arms of Brabant and Luxembourg.
The bird was a very appropriate mascot for this duke and poet, who welcomed poets from so many different linguistic regions to his court and was himself fluent in multiple languages. The virelai’s listeners would have had no doubt about the identity of this particular parrot.
This according to “Pykini’s parrot: Music at the court of Brabant” by Remco Sleiderink, an essay included in Musicology and archival research/Musicologie et recherches en archives/Musicologie en archiefonderzoek (Bruxelles/Brussel: Bibliotheca Regia Belgica, 1994, pp. 358–91).
Below, Plasanche or tost performed by The Early Music Consort of London.
On 27 May 1784 Mozart purchased a European starling (Sturnus vulgaris, above). The pleasure he expressed at hearing the bird’s song—“Das war schon!”—is all the more understandable when one compares his notation of it with the beginning of the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G major, K.453, which was written around the same time.
Three years later the bird died, and he buried it with much ceremony. Heavily veiled mourners marched in a procession, sang hymns, and listened to a graveside recitation of a poem Mozart had composed for the occasion.
Although many questions remain about starlings’ vocal capacities, a recent study supports a definite link between their mimicry and their lively social interactions, illuminating Mozart’s response to his beloved pet’s death.
This according to “Mozart’s starling” by Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King (American scientist LXXVIII/2 [May–August 1990] pp. 106–114).
Below, the concerto movement sung by Mozart’s starling.
In his De natura animalium, Claudius Aelianus described the training of dancing elephants.
“To begin with, [the trainer] introduced them in a quiet, gentle fashion to his instructions, supplying them with delicacies and the most appetizing food, varied so as to allure and entice them into abandoning all trace of ferocity…So what they learned was not to go wild at the sound of the flutes (auloi), not to be alarmed at the beating of drums (tympanon), to be charmed by the pipe (syrinx), and to endure the beat of marching feet and the singing of crowds.”
Noting that elephants have a keen sense of music and an aptitude for learning, Aelian reported that they successfully mastered “the movements of a chorus, the steps of a dance, how to march in time, how to enjoy the sound of auloi, and how to distinguish different notes.”
This according to “Vox naturae: Music as human-animal communication in the context of animal training in ancient Rome” by Rodney Martin Cross (Greek and Roman musical studies V/2  pp. 147–58).
Below, two elephants enjoying a serenade.
Related article: The Thai Elephant Orchestra
All human societies have music with a rhythmic beat, typically produced with percussive instruments such as drums. The set of capacities that allows humans to produce and perceive music appears to be deeply rooted in human biology, but an understanding of its evolutionary origins requires cross-taxa comparisons.
Drumming by palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) shares the key rudiments of human instrumental music, including manufacture of a sound tool, performance in a consistent context, regular beat production, repeated components, and individual styles.
Throughout 131 drumming sequences produced by 18 males, the beats occurred at nonrandom, regular intervals; yet individual males differed significantly in the distribution parameters of their beat patterns, indicating individual drumming styles. Autocorrelation analyses of the longest drumming sequences further showed that they were highly regular and predictable, like human music.
These discoveries provide a rare comparative perspective on the evolution of rhythmicity and instrumental music in our own species, and show that a preference for a regular beat can have other origins before being co-opted into group-based music and dance.
This according to “Tool-assisted rhythmic drumming in palm cockatoos shares key elements of human instrumental music” by Robert Heinsohn, Christina N. Zdenek, et al. (Science advances III/6 ).
Above, a male cockatoo (right) drumming with a stick for a female; below, a video produced by the research team.
In 1879 Richard Wagner joined the growing movement in Germany opposing the cruel medical practices of animal experimentation with an open letter published in the Bayreuther Blätter.
His arguments for the pointlessness of these experiments were original; they followed from his experiences with traditional medicine and his well-developed critique of civilization. His contemporary allies, however, ignored these arguments and simply used the Wagner name.
The open letter led directly to Wagner’s much-discussed essay Religion und Kunst, in which, among other things, he paints a horrific scenario of the unimpeded development of science and technology.
This according to “Richard Wagner als Gegner von Tierversuchen: Ein visionärer Zivilisationskritiker” by Ulrich Tröhler and Joachim Thiery (WagnerSpectrum XI/1  pp. 73–104). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, the composer with his dog Pohl; below, no horses were annoyed during this performance.
In an interview, Ry Cooder recalled the inspiration for his album My name is Buddy.
“Once I was hipped to Buddy the Cat, I knew that’s my guy. He was a mascot of a record store, living up in Vancouver. They found him living in a suitcase in the alley. I said ‘Okay, I’m there. I can go with that and I know what to say.’”
Buddy is the album’s protagonist—a laid-off, disenfranchised cat who is joined by Lefty the Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad as they travel down the Lost Highways, Cardboard Avenues, and Sundown Towns of a bleak, destitute U.S.
“It’s a tip of the hat to the disappearing of the American working man,” Cooder said, “to the neighborhoods, the way of life, the life that people made for themselves, how they worked, what they achieved…No one’s gonna argue with a cat.”
This according to “Three (or four) chords and the truth: The saga of Ry Cooder and a cat named Buddy” by John Kruth (Sing out! LI/3 [autumn 2007] pp. 52–59).
Today is Cooder’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in 2009; below, Three chords and the truth, the album’s centerpiece.
From practically the beginning, critics gushed over Eartha Kitt with every feline term imaginable: her voice “purred” or was “like catnip”, she was a “sex kitten” who “slinked” or was “on the prowl” across the stage, sometimes “flashing her claws”, and her career was often said to have had “nine lives”.
Appropriately, she was tapped to play Catwoman in the 1960s TV series Batman, bringing feral, compact energy to the role (left, click to enlarge).
Throughout her six-decade career Kitt remained a fixture on the cabaret circuit, maintaining her voice and figure through a vigorous fitness regimen. Even after learning that she had cancer, she triumphantly opened the newly renovated Café Carlyle in September 2007; The New York times reviewer wrote that Ms. Kitt’s voice was “in full growl”.
This according to “Eartha Kitt, a seducer of audiences, dies at 81” by Rob Hoerburger (The New York times CLVIII/54,536 [26 December 2008] p. 37).
Today would have been Kitt’s 90th birthday! Below, in one of her signature songs, purring in French (one of the seven languages that she sang in).
In 2015 the Society for Ethnomusicology launched Ethnomusicology translations, a peer-reviewed, open-access online series for the publication of ethnomusicological literature translated into English (ISSN 2473-6422).
Articles and other literature in any language other than English are considered for editorial review, translation, and publication. Preference is given to individual articles published in scholarly journals or books during the past 20 years.
As a central online resource, Ethnomusicology translations aims to increase access to the global scope of recent music scholarship and advance ethnomusicology as an international field of research and communication.
Below, Greek animal bells (worn by goats in this case), a subject that figures in the series’s inaugural publication.
Charles Butler’s The feminine monarchy, or, The history of bees first appeared as a small duodecimo in 1609; it was reprinted, with considerable additions and alterations, as a quarto in 1627, and again in 1634. Though it was intended merely as a bee-keeper’s manual, its beauty and insight render it worthy of a place among the renowned works of nineteenth-century poetry.
While in most matters the work is extraordinarily accurate, it becomes questionable when Butler turns to music. His account of a certain point in the hive’s life cycle might be thought to credit bees with the powers of a masterful composer. Butler’s depiction of this event—which he refers to as “the bees’ madrigal”—appears to present a carefully constructed four-part chorus.
This according to “Charles Butler and the music of the bees” by Gerald R. Hayes (The musical times LXVI/988 [1 June 1925] pp. 512–515). This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, some of Butler’s notations from the later, enlarged edition (note that verso and recto considerations result in part of the notation appearing upside-down). Below, a performance of the work.