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).
Charles Butler’s The feminine monarchy, or, The history of beesfirst 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.
The familiar buzz of flying mosquitoes is an important mating signal, with the fundamental frequency of the female’s flight tone signaling her presence. In the yellow fever and dengue vector Aedes aegypti, both sexes interact acoustically by shifting their flight tones to match, resulting in a courtship duet.
Surprisingly, matching is made not at the fundamental frequency of 400 Hz (female) or 600 Hz (male), but at a shared harmonic of 1200 Hz, which exceeds the previously known upper limit of hearing in mosquitoes. Physiological recordings from Johnston’s organ (the mosquito’s “ear”) reveal sensitivity up to 2000 Hz, consistent with observed courtship behavior. These findings revise widely accepted limits of acoustic behavior in mosquitoes.
This according to “Harmonic convergence in the love songs of the dengue vector mosquito” by Lauren J. Cator, et al. (Science 8 January 2009).
Above, the female Aedes aegypti; below, Mosquitos demonstrates another form of harmonic convergence.
There are also the little parasites that annoy and explore the desired body. All the animal species are represented in this repertoire: insects, fish and crustaceans, snakes, small mammals and ferocious predators, singing birds, and fantastical beasts.
This according to “Hic sunt leones: Animali e musica nella Sicilia nel Cinque e Seicento” by Giuseppe Collisani, an article included in Res facta nova: Teksty o muzyce współczesnej VI/15  pp. 51–68).
Bee imagery has long been a prominent element in song titles and lyrics. Bumble boogie: 100 years of bee imagery in American sound recordings—A discography by William L. Schurk and B. Lee Cooper (Popular music and societyXXXIV/4 [October 2011] pp. 493–502) explores several bee themes featured in more than 200 commercial recordings released in the U.S. during the past century.
Themes cited include references to scent, terms of endearment, analogies to bee-related structures and hive-oriented treasures, allusions to romance, sexuality and reproduction, and fears of physical pain and emotional rejection. The discography features recordings released over the past ten decades either as singles (45 or 78 rpm records) or as songs compiled in albums (33⅓ rpm records) or on compact discs.
Besides his training as a graphic artist, Jean Paucton, the prop man at the Palais Garnier in Paris, studied beekeeping at the Jardin du Luxemboug. In the mid-1980s he ordered his first hive, which was delivered to him at the Opéra, sealed and full of bees. He had intended to take it to his country house north of Paris, but when his plans changed the building’s fireman—who had been raising trout in a huge firefighting cistern under the building—advised him to place them on the seventh-floor roof at the back of the Palais Garnier.
Paucton gradually increased the number of hives to five, and from approximately 75,000 bees he annually collects about 1000 pounds of honey, which he packages in tiny jars, each with the label “Miel récolté sur les toits de l’Opéra de Paris, Jean Paucton”.
Franz Niemetschek’s legendary report that La clemenza di Tito was composed in 18 days was not seriously challenged until 1960, when Tomislav Volek published important archival materials relating to the chronology of the opera’s composition. Physical evidence from the autograph manuscript, including the remains of a fly squashed on the paper (probably by the composer in the heat of August), contributes to discrediting the hypothesis that Mozart’s work had begun before he signed his July 1791 contract for the opera.
This according to “The chronology of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito reconsidered” by Sergio Durante (Music & letters, 80, no. 4 (Nov 1999): 560–594), where the evidence is described thus:
“On folio 114 of the autograph . . . a thick black spot in the shape of a cross is found. . . . On direct and close examination, the centre of the spot proves to host the remains of a fly (a kind of evidence not often found in music sources!). After a long reflection, my best guess is that the fly was smashed under the loose bifolium at the very time of composition, after it had unduly annoyed Mozart at work; he also provided a witty ‘service’ to the insect by marking a cross over it (‘requiescat’!); in any case, such was the force and determination of the action, combined with the gluing action of the ink, that the corpse is still stuck on the page after two hundred years of musicological investigations.” (p. 574)
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