Composers being influenced by the wonders of nature is quite a common theme. The French composer Olivier Messiaen is well-known for using bird song in his works with breath-taking results. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote his ‘Carnival of the Animals’ as a light-hearted musical romp through the animal kingdom.
Of particular note in that composition are ‘The Swan’ and ‘The elephant’ that have gone one to be concert arrangements in many guises. In the Baroque, the ‘Red Priest’ Antonio Vivaldi wrote what would turn out to be his most performed and admired composition, ‘The Four Seasons’.
Even that most austere of composers Igor Stravinsky composed ‘The Rite of Spring’, one of the most powerful evocations of primal Russian ritual and in the process caused a riot in Paris at the premiere.
Mozart’s Starling – How Starling Influenced Mozart In His Music Pieces
What may be less familiar to you is that Mozart was also a lover of nature and in particular birds. Many stories surround this fascinating claim. There is an entire book on the topic. Mozart bought a starling in late May of 1784 after hearing the bird sing what he believed to be a theme from his Piano Concerto in G Major K.453. Mozart noted the purchase of the starling in his expenses book alongside the ‘version’ of the theme that the bird sang. The problem was the bird has included a G# in the second complete bar whereas Mozart had written a G natural. This endeared the bird to Mozart and he could not resist adopting it for his own. Quite how the bird knew the theme is not clear.
This raised a few concerns for Mozart as he’d only played or given sight of the score to a select few people when the Concerto was completed in April 1784. The first recorded public performance was not until June so Mozart sent the manuscript to his Father Leopold in Salzburg for safekeeping.
In his letter to his Father, he mentions the starling giving another reference to support the story. One thought is that Mozart may have visited the shop where the young starling was kept earlier that year and perhaps by chance had hummed or whistled the tune. Starlings are well known for their mimicry and versatile vocal range. It would be possible for the bird to have heard the composer and by accident, learned it. This is pure speculation, but a nice thought.
If you have ever had the opportunity to listen to a starling, you can quickly realize that the species possess an extraordinary catalog of sounds. These include not only a range of ‘songs’ but clicks, rattles, screeches, and other percussive noises. It is reasonable to assume that to a composer such as Mozart the talents of this attractively marked bird might appeal.
The ‘Sturnus vulgaris’ also has an exceptional range of notes at its disposal and a superb musical memory too. It is also apparent through the extensive study of this species that when in contact with humans they will mimic music and particularly whistled music. What happens though is that the starling does not simply repeat what it has heard, it improvises. Starlings seem to enjoy listening to human music but then do as Mozart himself would have done, and extend or develop it. This may go some way to account for the alteration of Mozart’s own Piano Concerto theme he heard in Vienna.
It is worth considering that the starling Mozart purchased remained with him for three years. During this time Mozart composed some of his most outstanding pieces. ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ was composed during this companionship, alongside eight Piano Concertos and three Symphonies.
Just how much of a part the starling may have played in the creation of any of these works is impossible to know for certain. What we can be sure of is that Mozart was deeply attached to the little bird who may have acted as the occasional muse when the mood crossed the starling.
In Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book ‘Mozart’s Starling’, she extends the idea of the bird as a muse with a particular focus on his divertimenti nick-named ‘A Musical Joke’ (Ein musikalisher Spaß), K.522. Opinions are divided on this work. Some have claimed it is a satirical piece that pokes fun at lesser composers and their ineptitudes. It may have been aimed at what Mozart may have felt was poor music-making amongst the laboring community. What is true is that the music contains discords, parallel fifths, curious harmonic transitions, and even a whole-tone scale.
So diverse are these compositional elements and so unlike Mozart’s other works, that begs the question could Mozart have composed this work as a tribute to his pet starling? This is Haupt’s burning and intriguing proposition. If we accept that the starling was capable of improvisation and tangential musical thought, it may offer a charming solution to the question of why Mozart wrote the Musical Joke.
The starling lived with Mozart until its death. From letters and a poem Mozart wrote for the pet we can see how profoundly the composer was affected by the death of the bird. Whilst we do not have a name for the starling we do know Mozart had several nicknames such as ‘rascal’ or ‘nutty bird’. Mozart understood the nature of his pet fully and felt genuine grief when it died in 1787. The bird was buried with considerable reverence and ceremony.
The composer wrote a poem to the bird that succinctly captures his feelings towards his pet and the nature of the starling too. It is touching and heartfelt. Around the time of his starling’s death, Mozart was suffering immense sadness and loss. His beloved Father had died and he has lost a close friend. It is hardly surprising then that the darkest of Mozart’s operas emerges from this period, ‘Don Giovanni’.
The full extent of Mozart’s relationship with this king of mimics we can not know. He did go on to have several birds as pets after the starling’s demise including a canary, but as far as scholars can ascertain, never another starling.