CBR BINGO 14: Bird, because there is a bird on the cover and it tells the story of a bird (two, in fact!)
Although the bird didn’t appear in the movie Amadeus, Mozart owned a starling during three of the most productive years of his life, the time period when he wrote The Marriage of Figaro, eight piano concertos, and three symphonies. To be able to tell the story of Mozart’s Starling effectively, author Lyanda Lynn Haupt adopted a starling of her own. This book is a combination of the author’s adventures with her starling Carmen and speculation about the relationship between Mozart and his starling, historically known as “Star,” although nobody is really certain of that bird’s name.
As the story goes, one spring day in 1784 Mozart was passing a shop in Vienna when he heard a bird singing a version of the theme form his (allegedly not yet performed) Piano Concerto no 17 in G Major. He was delighted with the starling, so he purchased it and took it home to live with his family as a pet. The bird was witness not just to the creation of some of Mozart’s most famous compositions, but to household drama as well, including births and deaths of some of Mozart’s and his wife Constanze’s children. The bird obviously meant a great deal to the composer. When Star died, Mozart held a formal funeral and wrote an elegy, a portion of which is reprinted in Mozart’s Starling:
Oh reader! Shed a tear,
You also, here,
He was not naughty, quite,
But gay and bright,
And under all his brag
A foolish wag.
How exactly the bird could have been singing an as-yet-unperformed piano concerto is a mystery, with possible solutions being that Mozart may have frequented the shop and could have been whistling snippets of the tune during his visits, or that the concerto had been performed locally and was repeated by audience members. Starlings are excellent vocal mimics and can easily pick up tunes. Some have even suggested the starling came up with the tune and Mozart plagiarized (unlikely since Mozart finished his tune a month before he purchased the bird, dates that are well documented). It’s a nice little mystery that makes a charming story even more intriguing.
When I first heard that Mozart owned a starling, I was fascinated and wanted to read more about it. Unfortunately, I’ve kind of already shared as much as we know for certain. The author must have also realized that this isn’t enough content to build an entire book around, so she she took in a starling of her own and tried to understand what life might have been like for Mozart and his family to live with their bird. The relationship between the author and her very clever bird Carmen form the bulk of the book.
When I say Haupt “adopted” Carmen, what really happened is she rescued/kidnapped a baby bird whose nest was scheduled to be destroyed. In the United States, it’s illegal to interfere with native bird species, but invasives such as European starlings are fair game. Starlings, indeed, are one of the most hated bird species in North America. In the late nineteenth century, a visionary nutter named Eugene Schieffelin decided it would be a brilliant idea to introduce into Central Park, New York, every bird species mentioned in William Shakespeare’s plays. Most of those attempts ended in dead birds, but the European starling (which, by the way, Shakespeare mentioned exactly once, in Henry IV, Act I) not only survived, it flourished. Today, estimates put the number of starlings in North America at around 150 million, and a Cornell University study suggests they do about eight hundred million dollars in agricultural damage every year. It’s believed that they have a negative impact on native North American bird species, although a 2002 study by University of California, Berkeley didn’t turn up any quantifiable harm. The point is, groups of starlings are hard to love here in the U.S. But, as the author demonstrates in her semi-memoir, a single starling is a joyful, if messy, companion.
The reader gets to know Carmen through the author’s stories and photos, which are delightful. Haupt paints a portrait of a creature who is playful, affectionate, and as smart as a toddler, and in a way this book is about humans connecting with nature through animals, similar to Helen Macdonald’s thoroughly splendid H is for Hawk. I have to admit, though, I felt a bit like this was a bait-and-switch. I love birds (I have many books about them) and I love to read about bird behavior. But this time, I was interested in Mozart, and I wanted more of that story.
If you go into this book knowing that it’s about some very intelligent birds, and about how we, as humans, can connect with them, you won’t be disappointed. If you are a Mozart fan looking to read more about that genius composer, you may need to temper your expectations.