Béla Bartók is renowned as one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and as one of the founders of ethnomusicology. Less known is his love of animals, particularly his fascination with insects.
When he was a child he bred silkworms, and later he systematically collected insects, assembling a beautiful assortment. His son Béla Jr. recalled helping him with this hobby. “The most important instruction that he gave…was that no pain whatsoever was to be inflicted on the animals. And so he always took the appropriate drug with him on his insect-collecting expeditions. The insects, therefore, died and came into his collection without any suffering.”
This according to “The private man” by Béla Bartók, Jr. (as translated by Judit Rácz), which is included in The Bartók companion (London: Faber & Faber, 1993; RILM Abstractsof Music Literature 1993-4867).
Today is Bartók’s 140th birthday! Above, a watercolor caricature of him as an insect enthusiast by his cousin Ervin Voit. Below, his “Mese a kis légyrõl” (From the diary of a fly, Mikrokosmos, BB 105, Sz. 107, VI/142).
The occurrence of non-insect arthropods in popular music illuminates human attitudes toward these species, especially as compared to insects.
Crustaceans are the most commonly referenced taxonomic group in artist names, album titles, and cover art, followed by spiders and scorpions. The surprising prevalence of crustaceans may be related to the palatability of many of the species.
Spiders and scorpions were primarily used for shock value, as well as for their totemic qualities of strength and ferocity. Spiders were the most abundant group among song titles, perhaps because of their familiarity to the general public.
Three non-insect arthropod album titles were found from the early 1970s, then none appeared until 1990. After 1990, issuance of such albums increased approximately linearly. Giant and chimeric arthropods are the most common album cover themes, indicating the use of these animals to inspire fear and surprise. Song lyrics also illustrate the diversity of sentiments present, from camp spookiness to edibility.
Understanding the impact of human activities on wildlife behavior and fitness can improve species’ sustainability. A study sought to identify behavioral responses to anthropogenic stress in an urban species during a semi-experimental field study.
Eight urban hedgehogs (erinaceus europaeus; four per sex) were equipped with biologgers to record their behavior before and during a mega music festival (2 × 19 days) in Treptower Park, Berlin. Researchers used GPS to monitor spatial behavior, VHF-loggers to quantify daily nest utilization, and accelerometers to distinguish between different behaviors at a high resolution and to calculate daily disturbance.
The hedgehogs showed clear behavioral differences between the pre-festival and festival phases. Evidence supported highly individual strategies, varying between spatial and temporal evasion of the disturbance.
Averaging the responses of the individual animals or only examining one behavioral parameter masked these potentially different individual coping strategies. Using a meaningful combination of different minimally invasive biologger types, researchers were able to show high inter-individual behavioral variance of urban hedgehogs in response to an anthropogenic disturbance; such behavior might be a precondition for successful persistence in urban environments.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses an astonishing bronze figurine, perhaps unearthed in Cyprus: a nude woman playing a pair of cymbals, standing on a frog (inv. no. 74.51.5680). It was probably the handle of a mirror, and the craftmanship is typical of ancient Laconia.
Scholars have never explained the relationships between all the represented elements, but the figurine is obviously related to ancient Spartan music, or at least to its soundscape.
We may wonder whether there is a link between the frog and the cymbals in terms of sound. Did ancient Greeks perceive the croaking as a percussive sound? In Greek antiquity, frogs seem to be associated with several types of instruments.
Since the figurine might come from Cyprus and it depicts a nude woman, it is usually interpreted as Aphrodite. However, if it is a Laconian piece of art, it seems more relevant to recognize here one of the main goddesses of Sparta, Artemis Orthia. She stands on a frog, because her sanctuary was located in the marshlands of Sparta, a place appropriate for batrachia. This place had a specific soundscape of croaking frogs and water sounds. Further, there are remains of feline paws on her shoulders; the archaic Artemis is the mistress of wild beasts.
In the sanctuary, archaeologists found cymbals and auloi dedicated to the goddess for apotropaic purposes. It may be opportune to compare this piece with Asian drums decorated with frogs, which were used to ask for rain fertility: perhaps the cymbals associated with croaking had the same function in ancient Spartan marshlands.
This according to “Croaking and clapping: A new look at an ancient Greek bronze figurine (from Sparta)” by Sylvain Perrot (Music in art XLIII/1–2  pp. 175–83)
Below, an illicit visit to the sanctuary.
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Angelic concerts were an extremely popular motive in late medieval European painting. Music-making, singing, or dancing angels co-created an aura of beauty, happiness, and harmony that artistic tradition associated primarily with the figure of Mary. The nascent tradition was taken up by Gentile da Fabriano (ca. 1370–1427), who created an original vision of the Heavens filled with sweet unearthly music, reigned over by the Mother of God.
The most interesting is Gentile’s first work, painted around 1395 (Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie), which depicts Mary with her Child on a throne. There are two lilies, one on each side, and in the background are two trees hiding pink angels who hold musical instruments gleaming with gold light. The bird-like angels in the foliage are a visual reference for the poetic metaphor of birdsong as an earthly manifestation of Heaven’s angelic songs in eternal praise of Mary.
This according to “Bird-like angels making music in Mary’s garden: Gentile da Fabriano’s Madonna and child with saints” by Sławomira Żerańska-Kominek (Music in art XXXVI/1–2  pp. 177–190).
Above, the painting in question (click to enlarge); below, music by Francesco Landini accompanies a sequence of Fabriano’s paintings, including this one.
A white rabbit named Peter joined the Elgar family in 1905. He appears in numerous items of correspondence and is credited, as Pietro d’Alba, with writing the words for Elgar’s songs The torch and The river.
Elgar also welcomed musical criticism and suggestions from Peter; for example, after conducting the London premiere of his second Wand of youth suite in 1908, the composer wrote to him:
My dear Peter,
Your idea—the vigorous entry of the drums—was splendid. Thanks.
This according to “Peter Rabbit: The biography of an inspired bunny” by Martin Bird (The Elgar Society journal XXI/1 [April 2018] pp. 32–39).
Below, the composition in question; Peter’s contribution begins around 15:30.
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).
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 virelaiPlasanche 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.
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.
“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.”
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