Classic Mornings

A Bird in the Handheld


Birds get attention. Whether it’s their songs, their colors or their movements, they’re well equipped to steal the show. Tell me you haven’t been to a performance where a bird somehow made its way into the concert hall or bandshell and upstaged the performers, if only because of low tech special effects.

Back in 1992, the story was told that birds made their way into a hall where a recording of piano music was being made. It was at the Villa Siemens in Berlin. Pianist Cyprien Katsaris was recording a CD of piano transcriptions of Mozart’s music titled Mozartiana (Sony 52551). Georges Hilleret let us know in the notes that accompanied the recording that you can hear birds during one of the selections. What made it especially memorable was that the piece that was being recorded (Josef Gelinek’s Air des mystères d’Isis) is based on a tune from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute that’s associated with the character Papageno, who is a bird catcher.

It’s a great story. Unfortunately, it would be difficult for you to enjoy the performance (complete with the guest artists) on the air. On the CD you can hear the birds during a pause by the performer, but you have to crank up the volume considerably. Over the airwaves, the subtle sounds would be lost. If I attempted to boost the volume level for listeners, I’d have only a fraction of a second before the piano at that increased level would make the surprise of Haydn’s 94th symphony a mere whisper in comparison.

Birds make their way into classical music halls figuratively as well as literally when they’re depicted in compositions. Obvious examples are the Spring concerto from the Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi and the one known as il gardellino (the goldfinch).  Vivaldi contemporaries including Jean Philippe Rameau and  Bernardo Pasquini portrayed birds in keyboard pieces, which were orchestrated in the 20th century by Ottorino Respighi in his suite known as The Birds (Gli uccelli). Birds make an appearance in Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (Pastoral), Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

On Classic Mornings, we’ve heard birds depicted in those works and others by a variety of instruments including flutes, recorders, violins, pianos, accordions, guitars, harpsichords and strings. So maybe it’s most appropriate that there’s a bird on the Classic Mornings logo that recently began appearing with the blog posts.

Actually, the bird has been around for as long as Classic Mornings – more than 6 years. It was designed by Laura Adams of the Illinois Public Media Art Department. It did show up briefly when the program began, but then seemed to have found a hiding place. Earlier this year, I went looking for it again in conjunction with sending out the Classic Mornings blog posts on social media. The idea of the bird delivering the posts, much like a carrier pigeon, seemed like a fun idea.

That brought to mind a story about Mozart getting a bird to carry a tune, i.e. to sing a tune that he had written. In the notes from a recording of a few years ago (Hyperion 67919), pianist Angela Hewitt reminded us that Mozart had a canary and a musically talented starling, which he taught to sing his tune. Hewitt referred to an entry in his diary with the musical notation of the tune as it was sung by the bird.  It was slightly different than the way Mozart had taught it, but he noted in his diary that it was lovely. It’s the tune that Mozart used in the finale of his 17th piano concerto. He wrote a number of variations on the tune for the finale, but didn’t teach the starling all of those. Even Mozart had his limitations.

Yet think about how many of his tunes he’s gotten you to whistle, right?  His music and that of so many other composers has made it’s way into the hearts of listeners, just like the birds who have made their way into the music and the concert halls. Why not tune in regularly and “feed the birds.”  Join us for Classic Mornings Monday through Friday from 9 to noon on FM 90.9 or online at