Mozart's starling

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European starling, Sturnus vulgaris

For about three years the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart kept a pet starling. The starling is remembered for the anecdote of how Mozart came to purchase it, for the funeral commemorations Mozart provided for it, and as an example of the composer's affection in general for birds.

Purchase[edit]

The first record of the starling is the entry Mozart made in his expense book[1] when he bought it on 27 May 1784:

starling bird. 34 kreutzer.

MozartStarlingTune.PNG

That was fine! [2]

The music Mozart jotted down in the book is fairly close to the opening bars of the third movement of his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453, which Mozart had completed a few weeks earlier (12 April). Presumably Mozart taught the bird to sing this tune in the pet store, or wherever it was that he bought it.[3]

According to Mozart's transcription, the starling incorrectly inserted a fermata on the last beat of the first full measure, and sang G-sharp instead of G in the following measure.[4] Mozart probably was not joking when he made the transcription, because starlings are known to have a very strong capacity for vocal mimicry.[5]

Demise[edit]

The bird Mozart brought home lived as a pet in his household for three years and died on 4 June 1787.[6]. Mozart buried the creature in the garden with (as contemporary biographers observed) considerable ceremony. The notes taken by Georg Nikolaus von Nissen (the second husband of Mozart's wife Constanze) for purposes of writing his biography of the composer described the ceremonies thus:

When a bird died, he arranged a funeral procession, in which everyone who could sing had to join in, heavily veiled -- made a sort of requiem, epitaph in verse. [7]

The same event is described by Franz Niemetschek, who had also interviewed Constanze:

He often wrote verse himself; mostly only of a humorous kind. [fn.:] This was the case, among others, at the death of a much-loved starling, which he had given a proper gravestone in his hired garden, and on which he had written an inscription. He was very fond of animals, and -- particularly -- birds.[8]

Mozart's funeral poem is translated by Robert Spaethling into vernacular English as follows.

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,
But nevermore
A bore.
I bet he is now up on high
Praising my friendship to the sky,
Which I render
Without tender;
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.
Mozart[9]

West and King note, based on their extensive experience, that starling pets interact closely with their human keepers, often causing their owners to bond with them. Thus, Mozart's expression of sorrow, though comic, is likely to have been quite sincere. Spaethling offers further background:

Mozart's poem on the death of his beloved pet bird ... is humorous, bittersweet, and self-reflective at a time of great loss and grief. His father had passed away, a close friend had died young, and he himself was deeply involved with Don Giovanni, his darkest comedy.[10]

Other birds[edit]

There is evidence that the starling Mozart acquired in 1784 was hardly the only pet bird whose company he enjoyed.

At age 14 Mozart wrote home from from Naples to his sister Nannerl in Salzburg (19 May 1770) when he was on a journey with his father Leopold:

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.[11]

A later letter, written by Nannerl to her mother at home in Salzburg as she visited Munich in 1775 with Wolfgang and Leopold, indicates other birds in Mozart's childhood home:

Thank God we are quite well. I hope that Mamma too is very well. A propos, are the canary, the tomtits, and the robin redbreast still alive, or have they let the birds starve?[12]

A sad tale from 1791 is told by Mozart's biographer Hermann Abert, concerning another canary that might been a successor to the starling, being in Mozart's family when the composer lay on his 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.[13]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The expense book was part of a new campaign of personal organization that Mozart undertook in February 1784; at the same time he began a catalog of every musical work he completed. The expense book was maintained only for a year, but the musical catalog was kept to his death in 1791 and usefully serves musical scholarship to this day. Source and further details: Abert (2004:727-728).
  2. ^ Original German: "Vogel Stahrl 34 Kr. ... Das war schön!". "Schön" is most often translated as "beautiful"; the rendition quoted here is from Deutsch (1965). Another translator gives "That was wonderful!".
  3. ^ For other theories of why the bird sang from Mozart's concerto, see chapter 6 of Haupt (2017).
  4. ^ Heartz (2009:99-100). The bird's rendition is simulated below; though this encyclopedia's software does not permit realization of the fermata (elongated note):
    
\relative a' { 
\set Staff.midiInstrument = #"recorder"
\set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t
\tempo 4 = 145 
\key g \major
\time 2/2 
\partial 4 
b8 c
d4 d d g\fermata fis fis gis gis a a a8 b c a b2      }
    Without the errors the passage would sound like this:
    
\relative a' { 
\set Staff.midiInstrument = #"recorder"
\set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t
\tempo 4 = 145 
\key g \major
\time 2/2 
\partial 4 
b8 c
d4 d d g fis fis g g a a a8 b c a b2      }
  5. ^ See West and King (1990) and (in this encyclopedia) the article starling.
  6. ^ Deutsch (1965:225)
  7. ^ Translation from Deutsch (1965:225).
  8. ^ Niemetschek, Franz (1956; original written 1798) Life of Mozart, translated by Helen Mautner. London: Leonard Hyman, p. 67.
  9. ^ Spaethling (2000:392-393). The German original, as well as a different translation, is accessible online; see West and King (1990).
  10. ^ Spaethling (2000:392)
  11. ^ Quoted from Friedrich Kerst and Henry Krehbiel (2016) Mozart: The Man and the Artist Revealed in His Own Words. Reprint by Dover Publications.
  12. ^ Translation from Emily Anderson (2016) The Letters of Mozart and his Family, new edition updated by Stanley Sadie and Fiona Smart. Springer, p. 263.
  13. ^ Abert, Hermann (2016:1307)

References[edit]

  • Abert, Hermann (2016) W. A. Mozart. Revised edition translated into English by Stewart Spencer and with new footnotes by Cliff Eisen. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Deutsch, Otto Erich (1965) Mozart: A Documentary Biography. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Heartz, Daniel (2009) Haydn, Mozart, and Early Beethoven. New York: Norton.
  • Spaethling, Robert (2000) Mozart's Letters; Mozart's Life. New York: Norton.
  • West, Meredith J. and Andrew King (1990) "Mozart's Starling". American Scientist, March-April issue. Discussion in depth from an ornithological point of view. Posted on the Internet: [1].
  • Haupt, Lyanda Lynn (2017) "Mozart's Starling", Little, Brown and Company.