Mozart’s Pet Starling

In 1784, in a bid to introduce some order into his increasingly chaotic routine, Mozart started keeping an accounts book in which he recorded all his expenses, and a catalogue in which he recorded all his compositions. He kept up the catalogue for the rest of his life, but soon chucked the accounts book project. Luckily, before he did, he recorded his purchase of a pet starling for 34 Kreutzer. Mozart had completed his Piano Concerto in G in April, written for his pupil Barbara Ployer (see my previous post, A Portrait Sketch by Mozart). His new pet had a creditable go at singing the melody of the third movement. Das war schön! says Mozart, despite the very discordant G sharp in the third measure. When the starling died in 1787, Mozart gave him a funeral service and wrote a farewell elegy:

Hier ruht ein lieber Narr,
Ein Vogel Staar.
Noch in den besten Jahren
Mußt er erfahren
Des Todes bittern Schmerz.
Mir blut’t das Herz,
Wenn ich daran gedenke.
O Leser! schenke
Auch du ein Thränchen ihm.
Er war nicht schlimm;
Nur war er etwas munter,
Doch auch mitunter
Ein lieber loser Schalk,
Und drum kein Dalk.
Ich wett’, er ist schon oben,
Um mich zu loben
Für diesen Freundschaftsdienst
Ohne Gewinnst.
Denn wie er unvermuthet
Sich hat verblutet,
Dacht er nicht an den Mann,
Der so schön reimen kann.

Here rests a bird called Starling,
A foolish little Darling.
He was still in his prime
When he ran out of time,
And my sweet little friend
Came to a bitter end,
Creating a terrible smart
Deep in my heart.
Gentle Reader! Shed a tear,
For he was dear,
Sometimes a bit too jolly
And, at times, quite folly,
But nevermore
A bore.
I bet he is now up on high
Praising my friendship to the sky,
Which I render
Without tender;
For when he took his sudden leave,
Which brought to me such grief,
He was not thinking of the man
Who writes and rhymes as no one can.

The American author and naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt wrote an excellent book, Mozart’s Starling. It is an absorbing and wonderful story – Haupt went to Vienna and immersed herself in Mozart’s life and work before adopting a pet starling of her own. She introduces the book in the clip below, but here is the blurb: “In Mozart’s Starling, Haupt explores the unlikely and remarkable bond between one of history’s most cherished composers and one of earth’s most common birds. The intertwined stories of Mozart’s beloved pet and Haupt’s own starling provide an unexpected window into human-animal friendships, music, the secret world of starlings, and the nature of creative inspiration. A blend of natural history, biography, and memoir, Mozart’s Starling is a tour de force that awakens a surprising new awareness of our place in the world.”

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