Once a bird brightened
Mozart’s day and made him laugh
And smile at its art.
Clever starling! Your
Song is not the loveliest,
But it touched his heart.
It’s Mozart’s 260th birthday!
And here I forgot to get him something.
Writing about Mozart is like writing about Bach or Beethoven. Where do you start?
I could give his biography, and highlights of his compositions, but you can find that anywhere.
I could tell you about the great pleasure of singing his Solemn Vespers (Vesperae solennes de confessore), which I will never forget.
I could talk about the splendors of the Requiem (see a video of the Lacrimosa, conducted by Claudio Abbado here), or the great successes of his operas.
I could even talk about the tribute Arcady Volodos rendered to Mozart, a version of Mozart’s Turkish March which uses all 88 keys of the piano.
But instead I’m going to talk about Mozart’s starling. Because no one else will.
In 1784, Mozart bought a pet starling. He recorded the purchase in a diary of expenses. He also wrote a transcription of the bird’s song, a near-perfect rendition of a theme in the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453.
Picture Mozart visiting the pet shop, whistling the tune (which had been composed not long before), and having the bird learn it and chirp it back to him!
Of course he brought it home. It lived with him for three years. When it died, he gave it a grandiose funeral and recited a poem he had written in the starling’s memory. It can be found (in English and German) in the American Scientist article cited below.
Here is an article on starlings from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology that includes recordings of starling calls. Here is an extensive article from the journal American Scientist on the learning capacity of starlings and Mozart’s starling. In the article it is suggested that A Musical Joke (Ein musikalischer Spaß), K. 522, written shortly after the starling’s demise, may have been influenced by the inexpert song stylings of this madcap little bird. Maybe you’ll hear it in movement 4, with its triple repeated notes like the passage the bird imitated above, and the melody going more and more awry. Here you can find Movements 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Viel Spaß! [Have fun!]
European starling by PierreSelim (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AToulouse_-_Sturnus_vulgaris_-_2012-02-26_-_3.jpg
Autograph manuscript of Mozart’s Requiem. Austrian National Library, Codex 17561a folio 1 (recto). Public Domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:K626_Requiem_Mozart.jpg
Illustration of birdsong and Mozart composition from M. J. West, A. P. King, “Mozart’s Starling” American Scientist, March-April 1990 p 112. http://www.indiana.edu/~aviary/Research/Mozart%27s%20Starling.pdf