What We Can Learn From Mozart’s Pet

Book review: Mozart’s Starling, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

When I set out to follow the story of Mozart and his starling, I saw at its center a shining, irresistible paradox: one of the greatest and most loved composers in all of history was inspired by a common, despised starling. Now I muse upon the many facets of this tale, and it is wonderful, yes, even more wonderful than I had imagined. But looking back at the trail that I have wandered with these kindred birds – one in history and one in my home – I see also that, as both humans and birds so often are, I have been tricked by my attraction to the shiny little object…it is not the exceptionality of this story that is the true wonder. It is its ordinariness.

Fascinated with an anecdote that Mozart once bought a starling at a Viennese pet shop after hearing it sing one of his Piano Concertos, bird rehabber and naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt was determined to find the truth in the story.

What resulted was different than what she’d envisioned, and encompassed much more than the simple story she’d begun with. Following her flighty interest in the little tale, she adopted a starling of her own, living with it throughout her writing and researching, and experiencing what Mozart had. She falls in love with the bird (Carmen) and her vivid personality, drawing inspiration from Carmen’s presence while recounting starlings’ history in Europe and North America, where there’s no love lost on this invasive, aggressive species.

Disturbingly, it’s considered perfectly acceptable to kill starlings in America, as their behaviors of nesting in any available opening, eating crops, raising too many chicks and crapping everywhere are enough of a menace to warrant eradication. Haupt deals with this troubling subject even as she falls in love with her own specimen rescued (stolen) from a soon-to-be-destroyed nest.

This short but packed book is classical musical history, Mozartian biography, personal memoir, linguistic study, and natural/philosophical treatise. It somehow manages to be a good example of each even while covering so much. It’s also a testament to the good writing that I’m interested in neither Mozart, classical music history or composition, or birds and I still couldn’t put it down.

I know absolutely nothing about birds, so I was surprised to learn as mentioned that starlings are loathed. An invasive species, they were introduced to New York’s Central Park by a Shakespeare-obsessed eccentric. From there, they spread, proliferated, and took over North America, where they’ve become hated for their ability to survive while damaging and encroaching on surrounding species. Haupt’s retelling of their introduction by the previously mentioned Shakespeare obsessive is quite funny:

In the 1800s, “acclimatization societies” began to form across the country, following successful models in France. It was a vulnerable time for many newcomers to America, who were homesick and hungry for the arts, literature, flowers, and birds of their homeland. The aim of the societies was to introduce European species that would be “interesting and useful” to the seemingly deprived New World species that would offer aesthetic and sentimental inspiration through beauty and song.

Eugene Schieffelin was a pharmacist who lived in the Bronx. He was an eccentric, an Anglophile, and a Shakespeare aficionado. Some say he was also an ecological criminal and a lunatic, but I would argue for a gentler description; perhaps “flawed.” As deputy of the American Acclimatization Society of New York, Scieffelin, it is believed, latched onto the personal goal of bringing every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to Central Park. 

He found a reference to a starling intended to inflict retribution by being taught to repeat only one name ad infinetum in Henry IV and the rest is history. It’s a wonderful example of Haupt’s ability to tell a good story, which she does over and over throughout the book. She keeps things light and airy, flitting from topic to topic but always with an eye on her themes and how to connect them all. Such connections were impressive.

From a philosophical aspect, Haupt is fascinated with contradictions, and explores this throughout her narrative, especially how those contradictions influence nature and biology, the arts, and personal understanding. This would seem to be a massive topic, but she actually breaks it down quite succinctly.

Starlings are shimmering, plain, despised, charming, collectively devastating, individually fascinating. We have the capacity to realize that while a species may be ecologically undesirable, the individuals of the species are just birds…Do I want starlings gone? Erased from the face of North America? Yes, unequivocally. Do I resent them as aggressive invaders. Of course. And do I love them? Their bright minds, their sparkling beauty, their unique consciousness, their wild starling voices?…Yes, I do. ‘There is another world,’ Paul Eluard wrote, ‘but it is in this one.'”

I learned a lot from reading this, as Haupt did from writing it. As mentioned, more than she set out to do, and I enjoyed it more than I expected I would. Good springtime reading.

Mozart found inspiration in the presence of a common bird. For us, too, the song of the world so often rises in places we had not thought to look.

Mozart’s Starling
by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

published April 4, 2017 by Little, Brown (Hachette)

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