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Classical 101

Mozart Minute Podcast: Requiem for a Bird

A previous episode of The Mozart Minute might have given you the impression that, among citizens of the animal kingdom, Mozart had enjoyed the company only of dogs. Not so. From 1784 to 1787, Mozart shared his home with a starling, a variety of bird long known for its prodigious repertory of songs and its gift for imitation. In May 1784, Mozart wrote in his expenses book of acquiring the starling for 34 Kreutzer. He also scribbled in the book the melody of the final movement of his Piano Concerto K. 453, the melody slightly altered, by implication, to reflect the starling's somewhat off-key rendition of it. Three years later, after likely impressing hundreds of Mozart's melodies into its memory, the starling completed its earthly journey. According to Mozart's not-entirely-reliable biographer Georg von Nissen, in June 1787 Mozart buried the bird in a ceremony with bathos rivaling that of the most outlandish comic operas. He organized a funeral procession in which the veiled participants, as Nissen wrote, sang "a sort of requiem." Mozart also took the occasion of his bird's passing to write a ridiculous poem, portions of which I've translated here: Here rests a beloved fool, A starling bird. Still in his prime Did he experience The bitter pain of death. My heart bleeds When I think about it. Oh, Reader! Shed a tear for him. [...] I bet he is up above To praise me without payment for this act of friendship. Since while he, unsuspecting, bled to death He thought not at all of the man who can write such good rhymes as these.