A buzzin’ half-dozen

Source: Irasutoya

This is the period known in many parts of the world as the silly season, the time when news agencies struggle to post engaging headlines of serious news items during the peak holiday period. So, I thought this blog could follow suit by reminding everyone that 20 August each year marks World Mosquito Day. Actually, that’s not so silly as it might sound, since it observes the discovery in 1897 of the fact that mosquitoes carry the parasite that causes malaria. But composers have often seen the funnier side of the pesky insect, alongside its cousins the gnat, the fly and the bug, in pieces that are suitably diminutive. Let’s sample some of them.

Béla Bartók
© HNH International

Opening the selection is a short piece from 1931 by Hungarian composer Belá Bartók – one of his 44 Duos for Two Violins. The collection followed earlier pedagogical work of a similar kind for the piano. The series of pieces advances in difficulty, with each piece based on folk music of some kind, but treated with very considerable harmonic freedom. The buzzing of the mosquito in Mosquito Dance brings sudden changes of accent, reminiscent of wrong-footed attempts to swat the intruder!

Mosquito Dance (8.550868)

Mily Balakirev

Elegy on the Death of a Mosquito was written in 1855 by Russian composer Mily Balakirev, whose sense of humour can be glimpsed in this flighty piano miniature. After the annoying mosquito is firmly put down, a ‘requiem’ follows, at the end of which the twitching insect dies. The work’s two final bars were missing from the original manuscript, but are provided here by Nicholas Walker, the pianist on our recording.
Elegy on the Death of a Mosquito (GP846)

Ge Gan-ru
Photo: Phillip Li-Fu Tsai

Born in Shanghai in 1954, and now resident in Greater New York, Ge Gan-ru is one of China’s foremost composers. Written in a very different style from his previous exploration of the Western avant-garde, Shanghai Reminiscences (2009) is a warm and affecting evocation of “the street scenes and sounds” of Gan-ru’s childhood in pre-Cultural Revolution Shanghai. The first half of the work – ‘My Childhood’ – includes a section titled Flies Chase a Bald Head. It portrays a fly’s annoying hovering over a ringwormed scalp, punctuated by the victim’s helpless slapping of his own head.

Flies Chase a Bald Head (8.570609)

Mihaly Mosonyi

Mihály Mosonyi
Source: József Borsos / Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Back to Hungary and to the composer initially known as Michael Brand (1815–1870). In 1859 he took a new name, Mihály Mosonyi, that reflected the county of Moson where he was born. He was one of the most important Hungarian composers of the 19th century, famous enough in his native country, if not attaining the international reputation that Liszt enjoyed. His change of name was accompanied by a change in compositional style, and for this blog I’ve chosen one of his short piano pieces that make up his Hungarian Children’s World, written in 1859. Each movement has a descriptive title. Here’s the May-bug hunt.
May-bug hunt (8.223557)

Bohuslav Martinů
© Bohuslav Martinů Institute Prague

Time now for a silly song for the silly season. It’s by Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959) who was born in what is now the Czech Republic. A prolific composer, his output included over 400 works, around a hundred of which were for voice and piano. Here’s the translation of his song Komárova svadba (The Gnat’s Wedding), which is based on a Czech folk song.

All the forest’s flies came riding with the gnat’s bride,
He’d invited every bird, bar the owl.
Once the owl had heard, it flew to the wedding,
Perched on the edge of the range, it sang.
Three songs it sang, then it burst into tears.
Sparrow took it dancing, stepped on its toe:
“If there weren’t so many people I would give you grief,
But since they are the guests, I will let you live.”

The Gnat’s Wedding (8.572588)

Dmitry Shostakovich
© HNH International

If you’re already itching for this insect screed to end, then I’ll put you out of your misery with a good old romp from the pen of Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975). In 1929 he wrote the incidental stage music for The Bedbug, an avant-garde play by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Russian poet, playwright, artist and actor. To play us out, here’s an arrangement for piano of part of Shostakovich’s score, Galop, that pings harmonic shifts as flighty as a flea’s flight-path!
Galop (SCD1031)



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