For the Birds Radio Program: Beethoven the Birder

Original Air Date: Dec. 15, 1986

How much did Beethoven infuse his music with birds? (2:51) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


![Beethoven] ( “Beethoven”) Beethoven the Birdwatcher

(Recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony)

Beethoven’s birthday is tommorow, so it’s a good time to tell one of my favorite stories about him, which may actually be true. The degenerative disease that ultimately destroyed Beethoven’s hearing began showing symptoms around the time he wrote his third symphony. As time went on, there were longer and longer periods when he could not hear. One winter day, as Beethoven walked through the Viennese countryside feeling despondent, enshrouded by silence, terrified that he would never hear another sound, he suddenly heard–a woodpecker drumming on a nearby tree.

(tap tap tap tap)

Those four taps filled him with joy, and gave him the rhythmic theme for one of the greatest musical works of all time.

(More Beethoven’s Fifth)

Whether or not that story is true, is is certain that Beethoven wrote into the score of his sixth symphony, often called the “Pastoral,” musical imitations of the songs of a nightingale, a quail, and a cuckoo. Listen to the passage, from near the end of the second movement:

(Recording of Beethoven’s sixth symphony)

Beethoven’s nightingale starts with a few long notes which suddenly quicken into a trill:

(Recording) A real nightingale does much the same thing:

(Recording of a nightingale)

Beethoven’s quail was a relative of our Bobwhite. Its short whistle at the end of the passage runs into the two-noted call of the European Cuckoo.


The European Cuckoo is a common bird of Germany’s Black Forest. It inspired not only Beethoven, but also that time-honored invention, the cuckoo clock.

(Recording of a cuckoo clock)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”

(Recording from Beethoven’s Sixth)