“Mozart’s starling” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

While looking for some content related to our concert, we discovered this book. We let you enjoy some extracts we selected for you. Among them, discover what the author felt when she attended the Seattle Symphony’s performance of Mozart’s Concerto in G major. This concerto will be performed on Sunday, November 24, 2019, by the Toronto Mozart Players, led by conductor David Bowser, and some talented guests.  Tickets and information here.

We would like to thank the author of “Mozart’s starling”, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, and her editor, Hachette, for allowing us to share these extracts. You can find the book on Amazon or in your usual bookstores.

Excerpted from MOZART’S STARLING. Copyright © 2017 by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.


About Mozart and his staling: Extract #1

Just how the starling learned Mozart’s motif is a wonderful musico-ornithological mystery. But there is one thing we know for certain: Mozart loved his starling. Recent examination of his work during and after the period he lived with the bird shows that the starling influenced his music and, I believe, at last one of the opera world’s favorite characters. The starling was in turn his companion, distraction, consolation, and muse. When his father, Leopold, died, Wolfgang did not travel to Salzburg for the services. When his starling died, two months later, Mozart hosted a formal funeral in his garden and composed a whimsical elegy that proclaimed his affinity with the starling’s friendly mischievousness and his sorrow over the bird’s loss.

Mozart is only one of many composers and artists throughout the centuries who’ve had birds as pets. Mozart kept canaries, too, at different times in his life. But the fact that Mozart lived with, and loved, a starling is extraordinary. One of the world’s greatest composers chose, as a household companion, what is now one the world’s most hated birds. I have spoken with classical music lovers who are offended at the very notion that Mozart might have been inspired by this invasive species, and birdwatchers are just as indignant. What good could be associated with a starling? Along with our understanding that starlings are common and unwelcome arises an assumption that we humans tend to attach to all things common and unwelcome: that they are also dirty, ugly, disease-ridden, and probably dumb – certainly not proper consorts for genius.

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While I was looking out that day at the pearly-snow-breasted starlings, while I was thinking of their despisedness and their loveliness and Mozart in one swirl, I noticed the music pouring out from my iPhone Pandora station. It was Mozart’s Prague Symphony. Other than being composed by Mozart, this symphony has little to do with the tale of his pet bird (it was written while they lived together, though I didn’t know this at the time). But the synchronicity was enough for me. The hair on the back of my neck prickled as I felt a new obsession take root in my psyche. I could not stop wondering over the tangled story of Mozart and his starling and felt that I was being pulled through an unseen gateway as I began to follow the tale’s trail, uncovering all that I could from my two-hundred-and- fifty-year remove.

What did Mozart learn from his bird? The juxtaposition of the hated and sublime is fascinating enough. But how did they interact? What was the source of their affinity? And how did the starling come to know Mozart’s tune? I dove into research, poring over the academic literature. I took to streets, making detailed notes on the starlings in my neighborhood. But gaps in my understanding of starling behavior remained and niggled, and within a few weeks I reluctantly realized that to truly understand what it meant for Mozart to live with a starling, I would, like the maestro, have to live with a starling on my own.

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About Mozart’s Piano Concerto: Extract #2

I attended the Seattle Symphony’s performance of the Concerto in G recently, with internationally acclaimed virtuoso Imogen Cooper at the piano and conducting the orchestra as she played. She walked through the big doors of the performance hall and onto the stage like an oak draped in red sateen – statuesque, strong, rooted. As this concerto begins, we in the audience scarcely have time to adjust to our surroundings before Mozart tosses us headlong with his music into the full current of human emotional possibility, yet he manages the swift transitions with such beauty that we do not think to resist. Mozart believed, always, in beauty and in harmony and would not sacrifice either, no matter how dark his themes. He wrote this out in a famous 1781 letter to Leopold that is now taken as an articulation of his musical philosophy and a foundational statement of Viennese classicism: “Passions, violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of disgust, and Music must never offend the ear, even in the most horrendous situations, but must always be pleasing, in other words, always remain Music.”

The concerto has three movements, the allegro, the andante and the allegretto. In the first, the allegro, Mozart progresses from one musical idea to the next without restraint and with practiced effortlessness. The effect is a nuanced joy that ventures into unexpected keys with such fluency that we almost forget to be unsettled. The woodwinds carry much of the discourse here; we modern audiences might not even notice it, but in Mozart’s time a strong woodwind voice was unusual. After all the sweet activity of the allegro, the dark serenity of the andante falls over the audience like a shroud. The opening is an ethereal string theme, which after about twenty seconds abruptly stops. Just stops. The oboe and bassoon take up the silence and sing behind a floating solo flute. Finally, the piano enters, entirely alone. The dramatic pauses continue, reminding us constantly that we are in the hands of a master operatic composer – operatic drama will emerge increasingly from here on in Mozart’s concertos and symphonies. Now it is the piano that sings the concerto’s wordless aria. There are harmonic surprises and further forays into unusual keys. I cannot close my eyes, because I don’t want to miss the oak-trunk movements of Imogen Cooper at her instrument, conducting with limited, but dramatic, movements of her body, arm-branches, and eyebrows. But even with my eyes open, I feel I am surrounded by forest imagery – earth, mist, a veiled, enchanted-but-dark place. And the flute, to me, is Pan’s.

There is no rest. The allegretto leaps immediately into the relief of G major and the first notes of the starling’s motif. The shadows disperse. Instead of the expected rondo, Mozart dispatches five variations on the theme and then, in the finale, runs away with it in a prodigal fantasia in which Star’s* motif surfaces over and over against the riverine flow of the piano cadenzas.

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About birdsongs: Extract #3

Birdsong carried through nearly every habitat on earth for millions of years before primates appeared, and so human evolution occurred against a backdrop of avian music. Culture across all continents and times long before and after Mozart developed music that was inspired by and based on the sound made by local birds. Over the decades, naturalists, ornithologists, musicologists, philosophers, and poets have found parallels and counterparts between the two. Scales, ornaments, trills, inversions, themes, variations. Not every passerine bird that sings uses all these attributes of human music, but all of them can be found in the combined repertoire of the world’s songbirds. Darwin noted the resemblance of birdsong to musical composition and believed that bords possess an aesthetic sense. The well-known ornithologist Luis Baptista, in his paper “Why Birdsong Is Sometimes Like Music,” writes, “Some birdsong is pitched to the same scale as Western music, which is one possible reason for human attraction to the sounds.” Other prominent ornithologists note that white-crowned sparrows sing a perfect fourth interval between their first and second notes; that the canyon wren, with its gorgeous cascading series of notes that bounce against the desert stone walls, sings in the chromatic scale of twelve pitches per octave; that the wood thrush’s layered song is pitched to the Western scale. The list could go on for pages.

One of the most intriguing comparisons of human music and birdsong was penned by the philosopher Charles Hartshorne, student of process theologian Alfred North Whitehead. Like Whitehead, Hartshorne saw the divine in the unfolding of earthly creation, in which humans participate. He was a gifted and committed amateur ornithologist, and he spent nearly an entire century – almost the whole of his 103-year life – immersed in the study of birdsong, research that culminated in his 1973 opus Born to Sing: An Interpretation and Wold Survey of Birdsong. It’s an unusual book that combines scientific observation and quantification with the language of poetry, philosophy, and possibility. In his life of listening, Hartshorne located nearly every element of human musical composition in the songs of birds. Accelerando, ritardando, crescendo, diminuendo. Structure, rhythmic variation, melody, verse. The essential difference between avian and human music, suggested Hartshorne, is temporality, with the repeatable patterns in birdsong having an upper limit of about fifteen seconds (he evidently did not record starlings).