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Posts Tagged ‘starling

“The bird does not distinguish between its heart and the world’s”*…

Elena Passerello on Mozart’s feathered collaborator…

… So what kind of murmur began that spring day in Vienna when a twenty-eight-year-old Mozart, jaunty in his garnet coat and gold-rimmed cap, strolled into a shop to whistle at a starling in a cage? That bird must have zeroed in on Mozart’s mouth, drinking-in the whistled seventeen-note opening phrase from his recent piano concerto:

Mozart’s melody riffs in G on a simple line heard in many a volkslied, so the starling might have been hearing similar tunes from other shoppers that whole month. Or perhaps Mozart himself had been in a few times and had whistled his line enough for the bird to imprint it. No matter how the starling learned the song, on May 27, 1784, it spat that tune right back at the tunesmith—but not without taking some liberties first. 

The little songbird un-slurred the quarter notes and added a dramatic fermata at the end of the first full measure; we can only guess how long it held that first warbly G. In the next bar, it lengthened Mozart’s staccato attack and replaced his effete grace notes with two pairs of bold crotchets. And the starling had the audacity to sharp the two Gs of the second measure, when any Viennese composer worth his wig would keep them natural and in line with the key. Those bird-born G-sharps take the steady folk tune into a more harmonically complex place, ignoring the fermata-ed natural G that comes just two notes earlier and pushing toward the next note in the phrase—an A—creating a lifted E-major chord. Mozart apparently loved this edit, because he bought that bird on sight. 

For good measure, he drew a little treble staff in his expense book and scored the starling’s tweaks under the note of purchase: 

And under the last measure, an acclamation—“Das war schön!” (“That was wonderful!”)—scribbled in the maestro’s quick hand.

There is no other live-animal purchase in Mozart’s expense book, and no more handwritten melodies; no additional transactions were praised as schön! This is one of the very few things we even know about his purchasing habits. He’d only begun tracking his spending that year, and by late summer, Mozart had abandoned the practice and only used that notebook to steal random phrases of English. So this note of sale is special among the extant scraps from his life. 

The purchase of this bird, Mozart’s “Vogel Staar,” marks a critical point for the classical period. At the end the of eighteenth century, tunes were never more sparkling or more kept, their composers obsessive over the rhetoric of sonata form: first establishing a theme, then creating tension through a new theme and key, then stretching it into a dizzying search for resolution, and finally finding the resolve in a rollicking coda. The formal understanding of this four-part structure permeated classical symphony, sonata, and concerto. By 1784, sonata form had imprinted itself on the listening culture enough to feel like instinct; Vienna audiences could rest comfortably in the run of classical forms as familiar—and thus enjoyable—narratives. And nobody played this cagey game more giddily than Mozart.

Of all the things Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart brought to human sound, the most important might be his sense of surprise…

The full– fascinating– story: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Vogel Staar,” from @elenavox in @VQR.

Pair with “Masterpieces Galore: When Mozart Met the Enlightenment” (gift article)

* Rainer Maria Rilke


As we whistle along, we might send sonorous birthday greetings to Henri-Étienne Dérivis; he was born on this date in 1780. A leading bass in the Paris Opera Company for 25 years, he made his debut as Sarastro in Les Mystères d’lsis (the French version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute) in 1803.


Mixed media…

Kurt Vonnegut, meet Brenda Walsh… Slaughterhouse 90120 pairs stills from famous TV series with apposite passages from novels of note…

“Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.”
― Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life

“Judging the mistakes of strangers is an easy thing to do – and it feels pretty good.”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

“I wanted to try this new drink: That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories

Many, many more at Slaughterhouse 90120.


As we juxtapose radically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1784 that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart bought a starling that sang a passable version of the opening theme of the third movement of his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453.  (In fact, the bird inserted a fermata on the last beat of the first full measure, and sang G sharp instead of G in the following measure.  Still…)

Mozart kept the bird as a pet until the warbler’s death on June 4, 1787.  Mozart wrote and recited a commemorative poem that he read as the pet was buried in the composer’s backyard.

a European Starling

Mozart’s transcription of the starling’s song


Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 27, 2012 at 1:01 am

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