Music inspired by birdsong (Part 3): Birds in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, known as his ‘Pastoral’ symphony, has moments when the music is explicitly depicting sounds from nature. The fourth movement, for example, re-enacts a thunderstorm: beginning with droplets of rain (short, fast violin notes) and distant thunder (timpani rolls), it builds to thunderclaps and lightning (timpani hits followed by single loud woodwind chords) before subsiding to gentler music again as the storm recedes. Knowing that Beethoven was taking great care to create nature realism in this symphony, it nevertheless took me by surprise when I turned my attention to the famous section of birdsong towards the end of the second movement, and realised just how closely Beethoven was re-creating the actual birdsong he would have heard on his walks in the countryside.

The clue was probably in the fact that Beethoven names the birds in his score. In the flute line we read “Nachtigall” (nightingale), the oboe is labelled “Wachtel” (quail), and the clarinets are the “Kukuk” (cuckoo) [1].

And in excerpt (having transposed the Bb clarinets to C instruments):

So here is my  rendition of Beethoven’s score for birds (at this point in the score, all the other instruments have stopped playing). 

Granted, I’d already spotted that the two clarinets, playing in unison, are extremely cuckoo-like. Surely, this has to be the most recognisable bird in the history of music. Two notes, usually in a falling interval of a minor third. There’s even a musical instrument called the cuckoo, which plays these two notes, and makes a solo appearance in the ‘Toy Symphony’ (composed by Leopold Mozart…or Franz Josef Haydn…no-one’s quite sure).

Here is Beethoven’s clarinet cuckoo, followed by a cuckoo that was recorded in June 2019 that sounds pretty similar. (Yes, I did deliberately choose a recording of the cuckoo at the same pitches).

Ireneusz Oleksik, XC478852. Accessible at

Composers actually vary in which musical interval they use to depict their cuckoos. Here, Beethoven is using a falling major third, but elsewhere in music it has been a minor third (Leopold Mozart/Haydn’s Toy Symphony), or even a perfect fourth (Mahler’s first Symphony). The actual musical interval, it turns out, is seasonal. The falling minor third is generally the sound made by a cuckoo in spring, but this interval tends to widen to a major third, then later a fourth as the season progresses. (I should add, this listening is made by people with ears acclimatised to Western classical music, no doubt making microtonal shifts in order to ‘resolve’ them into classical intervals). So it would seem that Beethoven’s cuckoo was heard slightly later in the season than early spring, as was the example given above (it was recorded in June), and the famous Pastoral symphony storm was probably a summer storm rather than spring storm.

Having readily identified the cuckoo, my curiosity was piqued by wondering (as a relative newbie to learning to identify birdsongs) what a quail actually sounds like. Imagine my delight when I discovered this wonderful three note call, in the distinctive dotted rhythm scored by Beethoven, in quail recordings. Also, pretty much all of the quail recordings I auditioned in were pitched at or close to this high D chosen by Beethoven. (Although multiple harmonics are present and it can be difficult to determine which is loudest.) Here’s the oboe part, followed by a quail recording.

Joost van Bruggen, XC483556. Accessible at

Freshly emboldened by my success, I now turn to the nightingale. The nightingale has a complex and rich repertoire of calls, songs and phrases. Here’s how Simon Barnes describes it in his book ‘Bird Watching with your Eyes Closed’ [2]. First he points out that in one study a male nightingale demonstrated 250 different phrases, using a repertoire of 600 song units. Hmmm. Finding Beethoven’s phrase could prove tricky. But then he points to two ‘basic and unmistakable bits of nightingale song: the first, an unbelievably clear and passionate whistling, short notes that gather in intensity and volume’. (The second is a ‘deep, throbbing drumming’.) Is the first what we have here? Here’s Beethoven’s flute nightingale again:

This recording of a nightingale (in Germany) appears to start the whistling phrase after about three seconds. It gets louder, speeds up, and erupts into energetic trilling.

Stephan Risch, XC568090. Accessible at

I find myself wondering if Beethoven’s choice of birds in his Sixth Symphony (completed in 1808) was influenced by the Toy Symphony (perhaps written in the 1760s)? After all, he studied composition with Haydn, in Vienna. As well as the cuckoo, the Toy Symphony also features a part for quail and nightingale, which can also be played on dedicated musical instruments built to simulate these birds. (The nightingale is a strange affair involving blowing into a small canister containing water, and the resulting bubbling whistle sounds like a nightingale trill). The Toy Symphony composer scores the nightingale as just a trill, and the quail as the distinctive three notes in dotted rhythm [3].

As for Beethoven’s instrumentation in the Pastoral symphony, he chose unison clarinets for his cuckoo. The instrument makes a lower sound than the flute, and when played quietly has a pure timbre that perhaps suggests a more diffuse sound coming from a distance? Why two clarinets, and not soloists, like the other birds? Two instruments create a different timbre compared to one soloist. Perhaps the ‘chorus’ effect in his instrumentation suggests the slight echoey effect of a distant cuckoo sound echoing through a forest? The quail, however, makes a more strident sound, better suited to the strong tonguing attack an oboist would need in order to reach those Ds in a somewhat high register for the instrument. And flute for the nightingale seems the obvious choice for the whistling phrase Beethoven chose to score. But perhaps a composer would need to use many more effects if they wished to represent more sounds from this bird’s vast repertoire, such as a flautist slapping their fingers down on the flute’s keys to make the clicking beats that feature in nightingale song.

One final point. The second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony is entitled ‘Szene am Bach’ (Scene by the brook) and begins with gentle repeating string phrases that imitate flowing water. I am reminded of the opening of Daphnis and Chloe (Suite 2) — see part one — which also simulates a flowing brook but through woodwind and harp repeating ‘bubbling’ phrases, and with programmatic elements also written into the score such as ‘On percoit des chants d’oiseaux’ (we hear birdsong).


[1] First Edition Score from Breitkopf & Hartel (Leipzig), from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (Public Domain).

[2] Simon Barnes: Bird Watching with your Eyes Closed. Published by Short Books, 2011, quotation from page 258.

[3] Score from Breitkopf & Hartel, Haydn Kinder-Symphonie, from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (Public Domain).

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