Mozart’s starling sang G sharp. An invasive story.


I can’t say I ever appreciated starlings much before I discovered that Mozart kept one as a pet for three years. My impression of starlings was formed by the experience of having multitudes of them descend on Rome in autumn behaving like a million drunken football fans.

Their formation flying is pretty impressive, you can’t deny that. They soar up high in the sky and fill it like an aerobatics team with a thousand jets . They expand, contract, make sharp turns, ascend, descend, branch out, regroup. You can’t predict what they will do. It resembles a frenzied motor-driven kaleidoscope with just one colour: black.

The problem is when they come down and settle on a couple of trees. Settle is the wrong word. The collective noun for starlings is a “murmuration” but whoever invented that was deaf or was in bed, half-drunk, with a cushion on his head and the starlings were five miles away when he heard them. I would suggest “obstreperation”, “altercation”, “stridulation” or “riotation”. They don’t settle on trees, there are always countless numbers swarming around them in a state of great excitement shrieking and shitting on everything. I have always wondered whether they are shitting because they are excited or whether they are excited because they are shitting.

There is a place near the river where they gather next to a traffic light. If you are walking you get about ten seconds to cross the road but you can’t stand on the kerb when the starlings are doing their stuff. You have to huddle in a doorway about twenty yards away and then run as fast as you can, dodging their bombardment, before the cars start trying to get you.

But Mozart had a starling. Which changes everything. It is a well-known fact that Mozart had a starling but I didn’t know until I read this poem entitled K 453 by Karl Kirchwey which was on the website of the New York Review of Books for National Poetry Month.

On May 27, 1784,
   as he followed Vienna’s back streets home,
Mozart paused, startled, by a pet shop door
   and listened to the allegretto theme

from his own piano concerto in G-Major
   repeated by a starling in a cage.
He’d written it only five weeks before—
   had God given them both the same message?

He counted out thirty-four copper Kreutzer.
   Pleasure was like the iridescent sheen
in the dark plumage: an imagination livelier,
   perhaps, more fecund and ready than his own!

He entered this in his new quarto accounts ledger,
   but where the price should go, he wrote the tune
instead—transcribed it a second time, rather—
   and then, in his small hand, wrote Das war schön.

Das war schön – that was beautiful. Some people have suggested that Mozart had taught the starling the tune in previous visits to the shop and then bought when it performed it properly. I suppose it depends what you prefer to believe in. The tune the starling sang was the opening theme to the third movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17, K 453.

That was Mozart’s version. The starling’s version (at the top of this post) was slightly different because it sang the two G’s at the end of the third bar sharp instead of natural, making things slightly more dissonant.

I haven’t been able to find a performance of the starling’s version or even of a starling doing Mozart’s bird-catcher’s aria, which would have been nice, but if you follow this link you can hear a starling whistling a bit from Beethoven’s pastoral symphony.
As you can hear the starling mixes Beethoven in with quite a number of other sounds. The way starlings imitate music is wonderfully described in a very scholarly article by Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King entitled “Mozart’s Starling” which was published in American Scientist.

The tendency to sing off-key and to fracture the phrasing of the music at unexpected points (from a human perspective) was reported for seven birds (no information on the eighth). Thus, one bird whistled the notes associated with the words “Way down upon the Swa-,” never adding “-nee River,” even after thousands of promptings. The phrase was often followed by a whistle of his own creation, then a fragment of ‘The Star-spangled Banner,” with frequent interpositions of squeaking noises. Another bird whistled the first line of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” quite accurately but then placed unexpectedly large accents on the notes associated with the second line, as if shouting, “All the livelong day!” Yet another routinely linked the energetically paced William Tell Overture to “Rockaby Baby.”

You can get the pdf version of the article here if you want to acquire an encylopaedic knowledge of how starlings produce and imitate sound.

By the way, the starling whistling Beethoven seems to be from the United States. There would never have been any starlings in America if not for Shakespeare. Shakespeare wouldn’t have done it on his own but if wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t written the following lines in Henry IV, Act I, Scene 3 for Hotspur who is furious that the king has forbidden him to plead for the ransom of Mortimer from the Welsh or even mention him to him:

Nay, I will; that’s flat:
He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll holla ‘Mortimer!’
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.

If Hotspur had thought of another bird there wouldn’t be any starlings in America because the reason there are, it is claimed, is that an organisation called the American Acclimatization Society had the idea of introducing into America all the birds which had been mentioned in Shakespeare’s works.  It is certain that in 1890 they released a number of starlings in Central Park (the numbers I have seen vary from 60 to 200). Now the birds are considered an invasive species and it is estimated that there are 200 million of them in the United States. I don’t know whether they succeeded with all the others, you would have to check against the list below:

Blackbird – Bunting – Buzzard – Chough

Cock (Rooster) – Cormorant – Crow – Cuckoo

Dive-dapper (Little Grebe) – Dove and Pigeon – Duck (Mallard)

Eagle – Falcon and Sparrowhawk – Finch

Goose – Hedge Sparrow (Dunnock) – House Martin

Jackdaw – Jay – Kite – Lapwing – Lark

Loon – Magpie – Nightingale – Osprey – Ostrich

Owl – Parrot – Partridge – Peacock – Pelican

Pheasant – Quail – Raven – Robin (Redbreast)

Snipe – Sparrow – Starling – Swallow – Swan

Thrush – Turkey – Vulture – Wagtail – Woodcock – Wren

which comes from a page entitled the Birds of Shakespeare which provides a number of quotations for all these birds, so you can become an expert on shakespearean ornithology as well.

I was wondering whether there have been any other attempts to transfer selected content categories from Shakespeare wholesale. I know there are Shakespearean gardens but has anyone tried to collect all the other animals he mentions? Has there ever been an orphanage which decided to give its children the names of all the characters in Shakespeare ? Or has anybody ever tried to provide the Czech Republic with a seashore, in view of the well-known fact that The Winter’s Tale gives Bohemia a seacoast ?

The Winter’s Tale also has the famous stage direction Exit, pursued by a bear and is interesting for other things I would be tempted to explore but this post itself is spreading out in all directions, perhaps it will become as invasive as starlings are and colonise all the other articles on this blog, so I shall stop here. Almost.

Because you can’t talk about birds and music without mentioning Olivier Messiaen, the French composer who spent years transcribing bird song and putting it into his music including Réveil des oiseaux (“Dawn chorus”), Oiseaux exotiques (“Exotic birds”), Catalogue d’oiseaux (“Bird catalogue”). So here is Messiaen talking about some birds.

Thanks to Mozart I now think of starlings more as singers than shitters, Scheiss has given way to schön.


1 Comment

  1. I have two starlings, one knows seven tunes and the other knows four. They do like to put them together their own way, and mix parts of different tunes together, along with human words and other sounds. They also make up short tunes of their own and work them in. They really love being whistled to, they look mesmerized when I do that. Sometimes they start imitating tunes within a day, sometimes it takes a week or so. I only have to repeat it a few times a day before they start imitating. They each know a lot of human sentences and one of them, Attila, rearranges the sentences too and the eerie thing is they almost always make sense. For example, she turned “Come with me” and “Are you ok?” into “Are you with me?”. “You’re a good birdie” is sometimes rendered as “You’re a good Attila” or “You’re a good sweet birdie”.

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