Murmured names (Mozart’s starling)

According to his biographers, Mozart had a pet starling of which he was inordinately fond. He purchased the bird in 1784 and buried it with a funeral procession and elegy three years later. The pomp of the occasion was partly farcical, but Mozart’s affection for the bird was real, apparently sealed when it learned a melodic theme from his Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453. Vogel Star, as he called the bird, would whistle variations on the tune, altering a note and adjusting the rhythm very slightly. Das war schön, that was beautiful, he recorded in his notebook. Some scholars have detected the bird’s influence on Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spass (A Musical Joke), K. 522, completed shortly after the starling’s death, which features an illogical patchwork of stock material, asymmetry, and haphazard polytonality. Mozart had a starling’s heart — absurd, bawdy, fierce, and tender. Mozart of the dirty joke, quick riposte, double-entendre, and whistled melody. (Devin Johnston, from “Murmurations”)

Did Mozart actually call his pet starling Vogel Star ?- Is that a name or a description ?- Those two words (taking into consideration the initial capital letters characteristic of German nouns) simply translate as “starling bird” (spelled Vogel Staar). They appear in the little Trauergedicht or versified eulogy which the disconsolate composer penned after his bird had expired, rung down the curtain and joined the Choir Invisible :

Hier ruht ein lieber Narr,
Ein Vogel Staar.
Noch in den besten Jahren
Mußt er erfahren
Des Todes bittern Schmerz.

[Translation :]
Here lies a little clown,
A starling bird.
‘Tis in the flow’r of Art
That he must now depart
To taste Death’s bitter rue.

Five years ago in a commemorative percussion concerto entitled “Das war schön!” (employing Mozart’s own compliment to his bird), the modern Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin paid musical tribute to the master and his pet. Wallin referred to the creature as “a starling named Herr Stahr” (an onomastical assumption that was then parrotted by The Juilliard Journal, Der General-Anzeiger Bonn, and Steve Smith in his music review of February 20, 2008, in The New York Times). Again, doesn’t this supposed name just mean “Mr. Starling” in German ?

These flights of fancy will not do. Attestation looks inadequate-to-nil for such an onomastic leap, and evidently Maynard Solomon’s Mozart biography gives no name.

What, then, did Mozart name his pet starling ?

[Above slightly revised from letter of Q]

Here is the tune that Mozart’s pet mastered in its opening theme (all but for the bird having introduced a slightly intrusive fermata and a G sharp deviation in one note of the sprightly melody, according to the composer’s observation) :





Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s