The Insect Orchestra


The Insect Orchestra G du Pressis Jennifer Arnott L Pretorius J Hutcherson

The Insect Orchestra

Last week I mentioned that Henrietta Fox had aspirations much higher than being an insect in Mom’s pantomime Mother Nature’s Garden. But there were lots of other children happy to be musical  insects.

Mother Nature’s Garden in Africa would not be complete without insects. They provided the background orchestra of our days: the whine of mosquitoes at dusk, the buzz of houseflies and,  most of all, the incessant zing of cicadas in the hot afternoons.  In the evenings we were soothed by crickets.

Music was not taught in school.  Only a few could afford private piano lessons, much less their very own piano.   Music came to us over the radiogram from the BBC, SABC, our own RBC and of course our records. 

The Insect Orchestra

Jack Elsworth came home to take his first job as a science teacher at Que Que High School after he graduated from University in South Africa.  He was the son of wealthy farmers.  We occasionally went out to the farm on the weekends where we tucked into the biggest watermelons.  Juice ran down our arms and watered the expansive lawns while Dad talked earnestly about politics on the verandah.

Jack was an accomplished piano player.  Mom invited him to play a piece of his own choosing in the wings off stage for the insect orchestra as they rasped their bows on cardboard leaf violins, cellos and big bases and blew into their morning glory horns and golden shower trumpets.  He’d be delighted.

The costumes were made.  Instruments were cut out and painted.  The old piano was tuned.  Jack rolled up in his tux and black bow tie.  Every seat at the G & P Cinema was filled.  Mary Morrison, the prompt, gave the cue.  Jack struck up with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  The baton of the insect conductor alerted first this side and then the other, a cacophony of sound with constantly changing time signatures and off-beat accents.  She was frantic with the drama and pace of the music.  The violins rasped, the bassoon blew and the trumpets tooted.  Jack’s brow was beaded with sweat as he covered the length and breadth of the key board and worked the foot peddles.  He was lost in the dissonance, asymmetrics, polytonalities and polyrhythms of this masterpiece.  He knew it by heart and on and on and on he played.

As the intensity grew and grew to the climax, the orchestra on stage became desperate.   Their little arms sagged and lifted as they tried valiantly to keep up, to keep going.  The wind instruments ran out of steam, puffing and blowing, pausing to catch their breath before picking up the pace again.  Would the music never end?   Mary could not seem to get Jack’s attention.

Unintentionally, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was executed.


  • Andrew Davis

    Reply Reply July 19, 2010

    Wonderfully written! I can feel the frenetic pace and see the insects buzzing around the stage.
    Thanks for sharing these stories. They are fantastic.
    I had to go listen to the piece after I read your account.
    Keep up the great work!
    Here’s a video (in three parts) of the Stravinsky piece.
    all the best,

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 19, 2010

      So glad you are still reading. Thanks for all the encouragments. I’m so glad it prompted you to listen to the piece and share the youtube feed for those readers not familiar with it. Its a cruel piece Jack chose. I have heard it many times since with the full orchestra at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music.

  • Betty

    Reply Reply July 19, 2010

    I am laughing out loud at imaging their little arms going back and forth with intensity and wanting to stop…..muscles burning…Mummy would be disappointed and embarrassed if one couldn’t keep up with the pace! I’m sure all the parents were wanting to rescue their little instumentalists! I love Jack’s enthusiasm, never wanting it to end!! I clicked on Youtube to refresh my memory on Rite of Spring….I am amazed he could do all that on piano; no wonder he was sweating, and I know there was no airconditioning in your concert hall. What an event!
    PS… Love the darling costumes!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 19, 2010


      I’m so glad I captured the desperation of the insects for you. Jack was quite an accomplished pianist. Stravinsky composed a piano version for four hands along side the full orchestral score. It was quite a controversial work in its day as well as in our little town of Que Que in 1950’s!
      You are right! No airconditionaing and the play was produced in the Christmas school holidays, (6 weeks), the height of summer.

      Thanks for tuning in.


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