Monday 19 August 2019

The curious case of Mozart and the starling

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Birdsong: starlings are good at imitating sounds
Birdsong: starlings are good at imitating sounds

George Hamilton

Everyone has their favourite piece by Mozart, perhaps even without realising it. It might be a snatch of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, or one of the operatic arias like 'Voi che sapete' from his Marriage of Figaro.

It could be the sumptuous slow movement of a piano concerto that featured over 50 years ago in a movie and somehow percolated in the public consciousness to become an enduring hit.

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The movie may be long forgotten, but the elegance, the deceptive simplicity of what could be taken for a musical dream, one that's instantly appealing, means its name lives on - Elvira Madigan.

This famous film theme, which comes from the concerto catalogued as No 21 of the 27 he wrote, first performed by the composer himself in 1785, could stand as an example of what it is that makes Mozart's music so special.

For all of its technical brilliance, there's the melodic attraction that makes a fan of the casual listener as well as offering satisfaction to the demands of a more critical audience.

It was what made him a huge success in his adopted home of Vienna, where they couldn't get enough of his music.

The emperor would come to the concert hall to hear him play. Patrons would part with sizable sums to have him provide the music for their private functions.

One such was a wealthy timber merchant called Franz Ployer, whose daughter Babette was one of Mozart's pupils.

The year before he wrote the Elvira Madigan, he composed no fewer than six piano concertos.

Two of them were commissioned for Babette to play. There was good money in this.

The pair composed for Herr Ployer's house parties were numbers 14 and 17.

We have precise details about all of this because in the February of 1784, Mozart bought himself a notebook to keep track of everything he wrote.

He also took to recording his expenditure. It's this financial diary that informs us that on May 27, six weeks or so after he'd completed the score for Concerto No 17, he'd bought himself a pet - a starling.

Not unlike parrots, starlings are pretty good at picking up sounds and imitating them.

Mozart's starling would obviously have got to hear him play, and it clearly took a liking to a particular part of Concerto No 17, for it sang it enough for Mozart to make a note of it in his little book.

The birdsong resembled the theme for the final movement of the concerto, one that's used as the basis for a series of variations.

The starling would sing it, almost entirely note for note, going sharp on one, holding another a fraction too long.

This was a story that did the rounds and it gave rise to an urban myth - that Mozart had heard his starling singing the phrase in question, and that this was the basis for the theme of the concerto's third movement.

Sadly - for it's a good yarn - unless Mozart heard the little bird performing in the pet shop, it can't have happened, for his own jottings confirm that he didn't own his tiny feathered friend until well over a month after he'd finished the music.

Mozart's relationship with his pet starling was significant enough to move an American author to investigate further.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt got herself a similar pet. Mozart's Starling (published by Little, Brown in 2017) was the result. The composer had the bird for around three years, and then it died. Its passing prompted a rather eccentric farewell.

Following the bird's demise, Mozart arranged an elaborate funeral, inviting friends to join him dressed in mourning black.

They sang hymns, and there was a graveside oration - a poem Mozart had written for the occasion - after they'd buried the bird in his back garden.

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