I got interested in birding during my England years. It was a great way to explore the outdoors on my own or with like-minded people, and to make new friends as well. The British, although not blessed with our density and profusion of birdlife, take their bird-watching very seriously indeed. I’m not the most knowledgeable or keen-eyed birder around, but certainly an enthusiastic one.
At some point over the years (I can’t remember where I came across it), I had read about Mozart owning a pet starling. So much about composers is urban legend and needs to be fact-checked, so it didn’t really register. But I was reminded about this on my Facebook feed a few days ago. So I decided to look it up.
It turns out to be true. In fact, last year, Seattle-based ecophilosopher, naturalist and author Lyanda Lynn Haupt published a book, “Mozart’s Starling”, based not just on her historical research, but she also made the effort to rear a starling (named Carmen, who still lives with her) to experience first-hand what it is like, living with a bird of this species.
For bird nerds: the bird that Mozart purchased in 1784 is likely to have been the common or European starling, Sturnus vulgaris.
Although extensive records of letters from Mozart to his father, sister and others (and vice versa) exist, he only very briefly (and probably at the nudging of his wife Constanze, as money passed through Mozart’s hands like a sieve) kept a record of all his purchases during this period.
This is how we know that he bought a starling on 27 May 1784 for 34 kreutzer. Now this in itself was not something remarkable; the Mozart family was accustomed to having pet birds. When Mozart was fourteen, he wrote back home to his sister Nannerl while on tour in Naples: “Write me, how is Mr. Canary? Does he still sing? Does he still pipe? Do you know why I am thinking of the canary? Because there is one in our anteroom that makes the same little sounds as ours.”
Another letter written by Nannerl a few years later reveals that the Mozarts also owned tomtits and a red-breasted robin. We also know that Mozart had a pet canary in the final years of his life, because his biographer Hermann Abert documented that on Mozart’s deathbed “it was with great reluctance that he agreed to have his pet canary removed, first to the adjacent room, then even further away, because he could no longer bear the sound of its singing.”
Why then a whole book particularly dedicated to the starling? This is where music comes in. Starlings are fantastic mimics, on par with birds more famed for their mimicry, such as a parrot or parakeet. Although the European starling is not found here, I have heard its cousin the common myna from the same starling species mimic mundane urban sounds such as the irritating beep of a reversing car.
What caught Mozart’s fancy was the fact that this starling had ‘learnt’ the opening bars of the last movement (Allegretto-Presto) of his Piano Concerto in G major (No. 17, K. 453) that he had completed just a few weeks earlier, and had not yet been performed in public. Mozart even took the trouble to notate how closely the bird’s version matched his composition; apart from a fermata (a pause over a note) and two sharpened G notes instead of G natural, the bird had learnt the tune perfectly.
Mozart in many ways could be regarded as the epitome of the musical mimic, and indeed when on tour as a child, would often be asked to perform a given tune in the style of other composers living or dead. It was a party trick often expected of gifted composers such as Mozart. Through history, we find other composers being asked to do this as well. Perhaps Mozart was amused by the kindred spirit, although an avian one.
Presumably Mozart taught the melody to the bird, or perhaps the starling picked it up soon after purchase, who knows? But however the starling came to learn it, it pleased Mozart. “Das war schön!” (“That was nice!”), he wrote alongside.
The starling lived a good three years with its owner, which apparently is the average lifespan of a starling in captivity, although the longevity record is almost 23 years. It would have been companion (and sometimes inspiration too with its birdsong and chatter?) to Mozart in some of his most fertile years.
Mozart, who had a love-hate relationship with his father Leopold, nevertheless was devastated by the latter’s death on 28 May 1787, even more so because, for a whole host of reasons, he couldn’t leave Vienna to attend the funeral in Salzburg. (It is widely believed that the vengeful Commendatore in Mozart’s dark opera Don Giovanni, written in October 1787, is a thinly-veiled reference to his father).
Literally days after his father’s demise, on 4 June 1787, Mozart’s starling died. He arranged an elaborate funeral service for the bird, exhorting his friends to arrive in mourning black clothes, “a funeral procession, in which everyone who could sing had to join in, heavily veiled”, followed by a solemn burial of the bird in his garden. Was this Mozart having a laugh? Perhaps. It is possible that the over-the-top ritual appealed to the darker side of his humour, or was it his cathartic way of holding some sort of memorial in memory of his father?
That Mozart loved his starling is abundantly clear from the lengthy poem he wrote, “a sort of requiem, epitaph in verse” for it. This is the English translation:
“Here rests a bird called Starling,
A foolish little Darling.
He was still in his prime
When he ran out of time,
And my sweet little friend
Came to a bitter end,
Creating a terrible smart
Deep in my heart.
Gentle Reader! Shed a tear,
For he was dear,
Sometimes a bit too jolly
And, at times, quite folly,
A bore.I bet he is now up on high
Praising my friendship to the sky,
Which I render
For when he took his sudden leave,
Which brought to me such grief,
He was not thinking of the man
Who writes and rhymes as no one can.
June 4, 1787.
There is a theory propounded by Meredith West, a psychology professor at Indiana University, that Mozart’s A Musical Joke (Ein musikalischer Spaß), K. 522, completed ten days after the starling died, on 14 June 1787, is a tribute to his pet. Do have a listen, and you’ll soon realize why it has its title.
It is unlikely anything he ever wrote, and sounds like a sequence of unrelated musical ideas illogically strung together. Musicologists have attributed it to a send-up by Mozart of some of his contemporaries he was making a playful dig at. But to West, “this composition has starling written all over it.”
In her book “Mozart’s Starling”, and in a freewheeling talk on the subject, available on YouTube, Haupt takes you through linguistics and the construction of “sentences” by various species including ours, and of course her own personal experience living with a starling.
The stringing of (to us) unconnected ideas are the hallmark of a starling birdsong “sentence.” So it is possible that Mozart’s K.522 composition could have been a musical ode to his pet bird.
(An edited version of this article was published on 10 June 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)