Tuesday 7 November 2017

Mozart's Starling

Here's my (delayed) review of Mozart's Starling and A Sweet Wild Note (Gilbert White's description of the song of the Blackcap), from this month's Literary Review...

On a May day in 1784, Mozart was passing a Viennese bird shop when he heard a melody he recognised – the allegretto theme of his new piano concerto (number 17 in G major). A starling was singing it, note perfect but for two sharpened Gs. We know this because Mozart immediately jotted down the bird’s version. Enchanted, the composer bought the starling, took it home, possibly named it Star and kept it as a pet for three years. So fond was he of the bird that, when Star died, Mozart staged a dignified funeral and wrote an elegy in his memory.

In her engaging new book, American naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt examines this story from every angle, and presents a convincing solution to its central mystery: how could the starling have picked up the theme of a work that had not yet had its premiere? But much of Mozart’s Starling is about another starling, Carmen by name, a bird Haupt rescued as a fledgling, hand-reared and has kept as a household pet.

Experiencing life with this lively, playful and inquisitive bird has given Haupt, who wrote much of this book with Carmen perched on her shoulder or exploring her computer keyboard, a special insight into starling behaviour. To rear a starling was a bold thing for an American birder to do, for in the USA starlings are loathed with a passion, even in the birding community. An ill-advised introduction from England, they have become hugely abundant and hugely unpopular. ‘I wish them eradicated from the country as much as anyone,’ Haupt writes, ‘as long as Carmen stays here with me.’ She is every bit as enchanted with her starling as Mozart evidently was with his.

Haupt’s biographical passages about Mozart lay on the ‘colour’ with an overgenerous hand, but she avoids the familiar Mozartian myths. Searching for traces of Mozart’s starling in his music, she finds them in the man-bird Papageno in The Magic Flute and in the curious piece called A Musical Joke. She describes (at rather too much length) her visit to the Mozarthaus museum in Vienna and gives an amusing account of her pilgrimage to the remote graveyard where the composer was buried. Standing at the nearby site of the house, now part of an industrial estate, where Star died, she hopes starlings will appear, providing a neat ending to her book. None does. Meanwhile, back at home, Carmen lives on happily, but Haupt’s efforts to teach her bird that Mozart melody come to nothing. Not all starlings are Stars.

Mozart’s bird makes a brief appearance in Richard Smyth’s A Sweet, Wild Note, which also features English literature’s most memorable starling, the caged bird in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, with its cry of ‘I can’t get out – I can’t get out.’ Smyth’s breezy and enjoyable book is an exploration of the place of birdsong in our culture, written by a birdwatcher who for years could barely tell the song of one bird from that of another.

Now he is fascinated by the subject, by our complicated relationship with birdsong and how it permeates our literature and music, an essential element in our experience of landscape and townscape, of time and place. ‘The sounds of birds’, he writes, ‘tell us back our own tales.’ We find in birdsong what we are looking for, following the example of the poets of the Romantic era, who in effect took birdsong away from real living birds: ‘Bird thou never wert,’ writes Shelley of the skylark (observed at Livorno, not over an English field). Real skylarks, says Smyth, ‘live in a fast muddle of fear and rage and lust’, but also, perhaps, pleasure, at least while they are singing.

Although this is a short book, it seems odd that Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’, the perfect example of birdsong fixing a moment and a place, is not mentioned. The brisk survey of birdsong in music ranges beyond the familiar classics and there are interesting passages on the 18th-century craze for singing bird automata, on attempts to train birds in human music and on the cruel business of competitive birdsong – known as ‘finching’ – popular among the Victorian working classes. Smyth ends with a look at the threat posed to birdsong by the sheer noise of modern life and urges us strongly to pay attention, to listen. Birdsong may be ‘more babble than beauty’, he concludes, but it is still wonderful.


  1. A great piece, making a good case - thanks Dave!

  2. today a starling singing Mozart could be called an environmental crime...

  3. or cultural appropriation...