Mozart’s Starling

On the 27th of May 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wandered into a Vienna pet shop not far from his home and heard a starling singing a near-perfect imitation of a theme from his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major (K 453).

Starlings are well-known as talented mimics and Mozart thought the bird’s singing was beautiful; he even jotted about it in a notebook. But the intriguing question was how the bird had learned this music. Mozart had only completed the concerto a few weeks earlier, on April 12, and it had not yet been performed in public.

A bit of a mystery.

Mozart bought the clever starling, and it became a companion and member of his chaotic household until it died about three years later.

Fast forward about 240 years to Seattle where author and naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt was watching a group of starlings outside her window and got inspired to investigate the story more deeply. Soon after, she realized that to truly appreciate what it was like for Mozart to live with a starling she would have to live with one too.

Cover of Mozart's Starling showing a European starling perched on a small rock.

Mozart’s Starling
By Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, Brown Spark, New York, 2017

Mozart’s Starling is the result. It’s an intriguing book but hard to categorize.

First of all, it’s about starlings, the species, their physiology, behavior, intelligence and their ability to mimic. It’s about their history too, especially how they came to be perhaps the most despised bird in North America. And it’s about Mozart’s particular starling, his apparent attachment to it, and Haupt’s speculation about how it may have influenced some of his music.

Haupt named her starling Carmen. She tells us what it’s like to live with one, to raise it, care for it, clean up after it and write a book with one perched on your shoulder.

Of course, Mozart’s Starling is also about Mozart, his life, his music, his troubled relationship with his father, the unusual shape of his ears, his financial woes, poor health and untimely death in 1791 at the age of only 35. It’s also about Mozart’s incredible genius.

Here’s one impressive example. Shortly before purchasing his starling, Mozart wrote to his father that he was composing a sonata to be performed later that week for the emperor by Mozart himself on piano and sung by a famous singer visiting Vienna.

“It takes a lot of temerity to compose a piece just days before it will be performed before the emperor. It has become a famous (and true) Mozart anecdote that he played the piano part this night from an unfinished penciled score, improvising the cadenzas [solos], and conducting at the same time.” [p. 42]

But Mozart’s Starling goes well beyond just Mozart and starlings. Haupt takes us on a journey through music and linguistics and their relationship to birdsong, to astronomy and the music of the spheres, to humanity’s profound relationship with animals, especially birds.

In fact, it’s our larger connection to nature, to the environment as a whole, that’s the most important and moving message of the book. In a cadenza of her own, Haupt writes about this connectedness:

“We are at every moment surrounded by consciousness, a feast of unique intelligences. Every creature has its particular ways and wiles. Each being has its own presence, voice, silence, song, body, place. We are bound by our sameness and our uniqueness in equal measure – both spring from our shared being on a vital, conscious earth. This is wild communion. And it is in this recognition that we move beyond simple compassion to a more certain, more essential sense of relatedness, of kinship.” [p. 209]

Mozart’s Starling is eclectic and meandering. I found it dragged in a few places, and I occasionally wondered about the relevance of some of Haupt’s digressions. But finally, I realized that she was exploring different themes and ideas, following them, developing them, improvising upon them, much like a Mozart symphony.

Thanks for reading.

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