Lyanda Lynn Haupt: Mozart's Starling
Little, Brown and Company, 2017
A pair of historically vilified birds, living 231 years and 5,000 miles apart from each other, are hardly the stuff of scientific examination, much less a love story. But Lyanda Lynn Haupt, the author of Crows and The Urban Bestiary, has rescued a single starling from a Seattle garbage dump (she names it Carmen) , and a single starling which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had bought from a Viennese bird-seller (naming it Vogel Stern or Star Bird) and created a fascinating mystery.
That mystery embraces Shakespeare, Chomsky, Pythagoras, 18th Century funeral rites and The Magic Flute. The miracle, though, is not that she has made a cohesive book from these seemingly disparate elements, but that she has provided a surprise on almost every page.
Surprisingly, dedicated ornithologist Haupt is no apologist for starlings in general. Outside of Carmen, she confesses, “I wish them eradicated from the country.” And for good reason. The world despises starlings in general. The starling is an unallowed pest. A ravenous rapacious breeder, the starling is a lazy beast who prefers raiding the homes of other birds, throwing out the fledglings, and soiling virgin sidewalks as they fly in the tens of thousands, dropping their poop.
Even worse, our own starlings entered America by mistake. A century ago, an eccentric tycoon decided to populate New York’s Central Park with every bird mentioned by William Shakespeare. That’s been okay with nightingales and cuckoos. But the starlings multiplied, killed competing birds and has spread out to endless flocks, soaring over airports, causing tragic crashes when sucked into the engines.
Still, when the Seattle Municipality had doomed starlings in general, Ms Haupt couldn’t resist Carmen. She and her husband built a large cage and allowed Carmen to fly through their house (distressing house-guests unprepared for bird droppings). They took notes as the fledgling grew, and listened not only broadening vocabulary, but became aware that Carmen was literally asking for food or asking to return to its cage.
Ms. Haupt is too much the scientist to humanize her pet, yet experience told her that avian utterances are more than meaningless babble. And that Noam Chomsky might be wrong about us homo sapiens being the only mammals with a vocabulary
Ms. Haupt acknowledges the odious reputation of Sternus vulgaris (the accusative scientific name). Yet as a scientist, she starts asking fascinating questions, even before thinking of Mozart.
E.g. How do literally hundreds of thousands of starlings soar and swoop together (“murmuration” is the gorgeous technical term) without bumping into each other or flying off course? Bats navigate through echolocation. Starlings don’t have that radar.
A nice simile, but Ms. Haupt is a scientist, not a poet. So, reaching a dead end with the biologists. she next consults a physicist, who explains that the starling’s murmuration is analogous to the “critical transformation” of liquids turning to gas, where “the movement of one particle affects all the others.” In a complex equation, the movement of a single bird influences that of seven adjacent birds, which in turn determines the direction of seven more in a “murmuratory” ripple. How this “influence” takes place is another query, which she hopes may be solved with further computer simulations, more quantum physics.
Thinking about that “critical transformation”, she writes, with more poetry than analysis, “I feel my head swirl and my body sway arising from an unconscious identification with the same movements within the neurons of my own brain and neural synapses. ‘Deep calling unto deep’ as the Psalmist sung.”
Throughout this first part of Mozart’s Starling, devoted to Ms. Haupts’s starling, we get hints of Carmen’s famous ancestor, beloved of the world’s most famous composer. For Ms. Haupt’s curiosity had been haunted by the tiniest footnote, a virtual talon scratch, of Mozart biography.
Namely, that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, while wandering about Vienna in 1784, encountered a bird-seller. Nothing remarkable about that, says Ms. Haupt (who immediately delves into the history of Viennese 18th Century bird-sellers). But in this case Mozart encountered a miracle. The starling being sold is not aimlessly whistling, but whistling the first six bars of Mozart’s K. 453 Piano Concerto third movement. Though the piece had never been performed.
Whether Mozart is amazed, mystified, or annoyed at this winged plagiarist, we’ll never know. He pays a few groschen, brings it back to his tiny rooming-house for his long-suffering wife Constanze, and they live with it–like Carmen, caged and free–for the next four years.
End of footnote and beginning of Ms. Haupt’s investigations. She may be a naturalist, but she has a journalist’s acuity, and a dozen questions arise as she investigates the composer and the bird. Having introduced both birds, she places them in context (West Coast America, 18th Century Vienna), twists and turns scientific, ornithological and aesthetic information, adds more than a few splotches of her own emotion, and finishes with some surprising summations for musician and scientist.
When she begins to examine Mozart’s bird, christened Vogel Stern, her examinations flow like a rondo melody through the whole book. Vogel Stern had indeed stolen the theme of Mozart’s latest work. Ms. Haupt, though, doesn’t accept the “miracle” of creation. Instead, she details from an obscure archive in Vienna, how the work might have had a private performance. And from this musical “tryout”, a window might have been open, the peddler’s starling might have heard the happy tune and added the measures to its vocabulary.
True, this is conjecture, and while one feels poet Haupt would prefer to think of it as a miracle, scientist Haupt probably preferred scientific affinity to a heavenly explanation.
Ms. Haupt now darts down a few minor but fascinating side roads. In an age when pets were owned for showing off rather than their “human” qualities , Mozart actually seemed to love Vogel Star. Possibly even more than he loved his father!
Mozart never went to his father’s funeral in 1787–but when Vogel Star passed away the following year, Mozart gave it a public funeral near a cemetery, even writing funereal doggerel. “Oh reader! Shed a tear/You also, here./ He was not naughty, quite;/ But gay and bright” It must have been a touching burial ceremony.
Now Ms. Haupt, with Sherlock Holmes-like persistence, visits Viennese cemeteries and Mozart rooming houses, tracing the demographics of people and pets, living and dead, concluding that since his wife was ill, his money was lacking, and non-Royal funerals were no big deal, the absence from Papa Leopold funereal was hardly a scandal.
I was intrigued with all this discussion for the first 200 pages, but still wondered what it had to do with Mozart the Man and the Artist. Ms. Haupt is hardly going to tell us that Mozart’s street-bird was his Muse-Art. That’s the stuff for dilettante poets.
However, she is hardly afraid to tackle the question which has baffled us for 250 years: that of Mozart’s inspiration. What could a bird tell Mozart, who–according to the usual rules–simply avoided? First, she conjectures that the bird was more than a household divertimento. Even in the most serious music, she avers (without evidence), flutes or clarinets or solo violins offer avian bird songs. She gives another particular example in Magic Flute, where Papageno the bird-seller was one of Mozart’s favorite characters. (He even stood backstage at times, playing the flute or xylophone for that delicious aria.) Was Mozart’s affinity for this singular character sourced in his love for the original starling-vendor?
That is speculation. More surprising was his late K. 522 Sextet, the Musical Joke for two horns and string quartet. Stocked with endless consciously-constructed errors in theory, harmony, melody and counterpoint, the piece is like Mahler’s First Symphony: peasant funeral music. That, states Ms. Haupt, is only the beginning. She gathers academic theses from musicologists and ornithologists that these errors could actually have been “the vocal autograph of the starling”.
She even augments one scientific description of the work. “The syrinx allows…starlings to sing…two or more notes at the same time.” Hence, the awkward dissonances in this delightful piece. In other words, Mozart was imitating the fractured measures, phrases unfulfilled, the very trademarks of the domestic starling. Who knew?
At this point, Lyanda Lynn Haupt adds, almost incidentally, a phrase which I believe becomes the essence of the book. “The cadence and counterpoint (of Sextet) also represents the playfully joined voices of composer and bird.. (Italics mine.) Add to this a seldom-recognized trademark of Mozart: his non-Classical aberrations.
I heard composer Elliott Carter once assert that searching for Mozart logic is not always productive. Mozart stops and starts, he doesn’t always bring in segues or modulations, he allows his inspiration to plunge ahead from the so-called Classical structure. When Mr. Carter said this at the ripe young age of 102, I realized that Mozart could be structurally whacky. And that, instead of Classical academic schooling (which he never had), Mozart was following his own nature–which comes close to the savage impermanence of Mother Nature.
Few orthodox biographers would take this “nature-loving” image seriously. In fact, Ms. Haupt criticizes a quote from Alfred Einstein’s iconic Mozart biography. Wolfgang, he asserted, was a “city boy”, his adoration confined to the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe. Even worse is Thomas Mann, who wrote that, “Mozart had no use for nature or architecture.”
That, as Ms. Haupt implies, is nonsense, aside from several instances where Mozart casually mentions the countryside. The proof is what she doesn’t mention. Fully three-quarters of the young Mozart’s time was spent traveling through the countryside. No superhighways or Rock Star Jets for young Amadeus. Weekly he clip-clopped through an agrarian rural Europe, the roads painfully trudging through woodlands meadows and forests, where a diversity of birds and sometimes predatory beasts flourished.
Augmenting these trips is the unmistakable assumption that nothing–absolutely nothing–was alien to Mozart’s mind. Biographers dwell on his billiards and his fart-jokes, his love of the aristocracy, pretty costumes and worries about money. Yet inside the Elysium of Mozart’s head, the slightest breeze through Austrian pines, the scent of Tyrolean berries, the moving currents while crossing the Danube, the air over the Alps, the flight of a woodland bird, the whistlings and aural surprises of his pet bird had to resonate.
Initially those over-sized ears (and Ms. Haupt has a special section on Mozart’s outlandishly large ears), may have transformed these notes of nature into cels and phrases. But later, inevitably into melodies, movements and finally symphonies. The Danube may be deep, but its depth can hardly compare to a mind whose depths can never be penetrated. By scientists, performers or poets.
So where does Ms. Haupt get the chutzpah to decipher Mozart’s brilliance. She is, in her own words, more than ornithologist, naturalist and writer. She calls herself an “eco-philosopher’, and this cannot be taken lightly. The original “eco-philosopher” was Norwegian academic Anne Naess, whose rules (said one of her acolytes) “contain norms, postulates, and hypotheses concerning our universe” That is almost scary, though “eco-philosophy” in the 1940’s was possibly a precursor of Rachel Carson’s literally earth-shaking Silent Spring.
Whatever Ms. Haupt has gotten from orthodox eco-philosophy, she knows its essence. Which is essentially that we should, we must find harmony in our earth. Whatever the dictates, we now know that “eco-philosophy” is simply the attempt to find an equilibrium in our universe.
Ms. Haupt could no more explain Mozart’s inspiration than scientists can explain starling murmurations. Since Descartes had gloated that humans ruled the universe, Mozart could not have known, that his music was actually seeking an equilibrium (not mastery) with the universe.
Yes, his starling offered solace, amusement, trills, whistles, words, and perhaps tunes. But did that starling, did any part of Nature, subliminally inspire the composer?
Oliver Messiaen’s feeling about our flying creatures might have made Mozart giggle. “Among the artistic hierarchy,” Messiaen said, “birds are probably the greatest musicians to inhabit our planet.”
And while Mozart could accept that literally in the human-centric 18th Century Age of Reason doubtful. But his unconscious mind might have considered its truth
Like Sherlock Holmes, Lyanda Lynn Haupt begins Mozart’s Starling with nothing: two ounces of feathers and mud. As well as her singular mind darting from science and philosophy to her delightful and questionable hypotheses. As the evidence piles up, she sees Mozart–and birds–with different conjectures, inclinations, questions about inspiration and demographics which, while insoluble, are grist for the curious mind.
Thus, that “natural equilibrium” of nature and inspiration becomes in the final pages almost inevitably correct. From the earth, she says, “we are able to respond to the breath of inspiration that summons us to the fullness of our creativity”. (Italics mine). “We are not a lone pair of hands or eyes. We bring out gift, the art of our lives, to one another, to the earth.”
In this case, two gifts. Mozart received his gift from a street-peddler, Ms. Haupt received her gift from a West Coast garbage dump. Yet there is no paradox here. Ms. Haupt, with endless curiosity and a joyful rhetoric, realizes by the end, that our question about life is not, in Camus’ words, to wonder about suicide. But–like Mozart and his Vogel Star– “to listen with changed ears and sing back what we hear.”