Mozart Minute Podcast: Mozart's Feathered Fun

Apr 7, 2016

During Mozart’s life, many a pet dog and even a pet bird wagged and flapped their way into the composer’s heart – and, it seems, into his music, as well.

From 1784 to 1787, Mozart enjoyed the company of a pet starling. And once the bird had sung its last, in June 1787 Mozart held a burial service for it, and wrote a silly elegy for his feathered friend. Here is my translation of some of Mozart’s poem:

Here rests a beloved fool,
A starling bird.
Still in his prime
did he experience
the bitter pain of death.
My heart bleeds
when I think about it.
Oh, reader! Shed a tear for him.
[…]
I bet he is up above
to praise me
without payment
for this act of friendship.
Since while he, unsuspecting,
bled to death
he thought not at all of the man
who can write such good rhymes as these.

Starlings have tremendously complex and varied vocalization habits, including a noted ability to incorporate sounds around them into their own singing. Surrounded by music, Mozart’s starling had plenty of material to work with. In an entry in his expenses book, Mozart wrote the melody of the finale of his Piano Concerto K. 453 with slight alterations reflecting his starling’s imperfect performance of it.

Mozart’s elegy to his starling was long thought to have been his only creative response to the bird. But Indiana University psychologists Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King have argued that the muddled musical language of one of Mozart’s musical works was deeply influenced by the starling. West and King observe that Mozart composed A Musical Joke (K. 522) between 1784 and 1787 – the same time the bird lived with him – and claim that Mozart’s music “bear(s) the vocal autograph of a starling.”

More specifically, the researchers assert that the work’s awkward and piecemeal quality is in keeping with a starling’s “intertwining of whistled tunes” and “tendencies to whistle off-key or fracture musical phrases at unexpected points.” Phrases of imperfect proportions, not unlike those in A Musical Joke, are also signature starling material, according to West and King. And, they claim, the abrupt ending of A Musical Joke “has the signature of starlings written all over it.” (Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King, “Mozart’s Starling.”)