Saturday 25 November 2017

Birds and balls -- how Mozart winged it in a baize of glory

When you think of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it's hardly billiards and birds that spring immediately to mind. But it was more than just music that fascinated one of the most prolific composers there's ever been.

He had his own billiard table, and a collection of cues. He played a lot. His friend, a tenor from Dublin by the name of Michael Kelly, was a regular opponent, who, in his own words, "always came off second best".

In Amadeus, the movie about Mozart, you'll see the composer clacking balls off each other and filling out music scores on the table. Then there are the birds. When Mozart was growing up, the family had a fox terrier. But dogs wouldn't be renowned for their singing voices, so when he wanted a pet of his own, it was a starling he went for.

No sooner had he got the tiny bird home than it was whistling some music he knew very well. The starling's song was the opening bars to the finale of Mozart's recently completed Piano Concerto No 17. It did get one of the notes wrong, and held another just too long, but the man himself was delighted.

"Das war schön" ("That was wonderful") he logged in his ledger, along with the price he'd paid for the little warbler, and a scribbled copy of the notes that it sang.

The bird only lasted three years, but its personality, not to mention its music, clearly had a huge impact on Wolfgang Amadeus, for when it died, he gave it a magnificent send-off. Friends of his lined up in a funeral procession at the back of his house, suitably attired in mourning threads. They sang hymns and Mozart read a poem he'd written for the occasion ("Here lies a dear little fool, a starling").

The next piece he wrote was a tribute to his pet, a light-hearted six-hander for horns and string quartet. It was Ein musikalischer Spass, better known as A Musical Joke, now the BBC's theme to the Horse of the Year show.

The next pet Mozart bought also had wings. It was a canary, for he just loved birdsong, something that's reflected again and again in his music. In The Magic Flute, one of the principals is a bird-catcher -- Pappageno -- who gets to sing the opera's stand-out aria.

Mozart himself didn't live much longer, but even in his last days -- dying from what was most likely rheumatic fever -- when he could no longer stand the sound of the canary and had it taken away, it was Pappageno's bird-catcher's song -- 'Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja' -- that he wanted family and friends around his bed to play.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

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