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Classical Sprouts: Partying with Respighi's 'The Birds'

Fluttering wings, scratching feet, pecking beaks: Italian composer Ottorino Respighi captured these sounds and more in his piece for small orchestra called "The Birds" (or, in Italian, "Gli Uccelli").

Respighi wrote the piece in 1928, but it's based on music from the 17th and 18th centuries — and the sounds of the birds around him.

The piece has five movements; the first is a prelude, and each of the remaining four are dedicated to a different bird species.


The prelude is based on an unnamed harpsichord piece by Bernardo Pasquini, an Italian composer from the 1600s.

Like a ballet or opera overture, the prelude hints at a few of the musical themes and melodies you'll hear in later movements.

The prelude sets a charming, playful tone for the work, but it's also quite formal and stately, like the birds are making an important entrance to a party.


 Dove sits on a branch.

The dove is the first to arrive at the party!

The dove's movement is based on a lute piece by Jacques de Gallot, a French composer and lute player who lived in the 1600s.

Listen to the movement to hear how the oboe’s melody represents the dove’s mournful cry.


 A hen walks through the grass.

The hen's music is based on a harpsichord piece from 1727 by French Enlightenment composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.

This piece features a clucking motif and ends with a triumphant rooster crow, which Respighi used a trumpet to represent.


 Nightingale sits on a branch.

The nightingale's music comes from a 17th-century folk song called "Engels Nachtegaeltje" that was transcribed for recorder by Dutch recorder player Jacob van Eyck, who also lived in the 1600s.

Respighi actually used the nightingale's song four years earlier in his piece, "Pines of Rome," where he included an actual recording of the bird!


This movement is also based on Italian composer Bernardo Pasquini’s music, this time his “Toccata con lo scherzo del cucco” from the 1600s.

Respighi has fun with his adaptation of this one though, giving the iconic cuckoo bird call to many different instruments in the orchestra and ending with an acknowledgment of all of the other birds and their calls.

Want to hear more cuckoo-inspired music? Listen to our entire episode about them!

Learn more about Respighi's "The Birds."

Help Sprouts grow! Support IPR for more classical music fun, just tell us in the comments that your donation is for Classical Sprouts.

Classical Sprouts is produced by Emily Duncan Wilson.

Kate Botello is a host and producer at Classical IPR.
Emily Duncan Wilson is IPR's digital content manager and is the producer of "Classical Sprouts" and "Kids Commute".