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Mozart's Starling
Meredith J. West
Andrew P. King

Page 3

Other mimics and songsters

Studies of another mimic, the African gray parrot (Psit-tacus erithacus), also indicate linkages between mimicry and social interaction (13). This species mimics human speech when stimulated to do so by an "interactive modeling technique" in which a parrot must compete for the attention of two humans engaged in conversation. Extrinsic rewards such as food are avoided. The reinforcement is physical acquisition of the object being talked about and responses from human caregivers. Such procedures lead to articulate imitation and often highly appropriate use of speech sounds. Pepperberg reports that one bird's earliest "words" referred to objects he could use: "paper," "wood," "hide" (from rawhide chips), "peg wood," "corn," "nut," and "pasta" (14). The parrot also employed these mimicked sounds during exchanges with caregivers in which he answered questions about the names of objects and used labels identifying shape and color in appropriate ways. The parrot's use of "no" and "want" also suggested the ability to form functional relationships between speech and context, a capacity perhaps facilitated by the trainer's explicit attempts to arrange training sessions meaningful for the student.

Explanations of mimicry of human sounds in this and other species originate in the idea that hand-reared birds perceive their human companions in terms of the social roles that naturally exist among wild birds. Lorenz and von Uexkull elaborated on the kinds of relationships between and among avian parents, offspring, siblings, mates, and rivals (25). In the case of captive birds, humans become the companion for all seasons, with the nature of the relationship shifting with the changing developmental and hormonal cycles in a bird's life.

Mimics are not the only birds to show clear evidence of the effects of companions on vocal capacities, examples from nonmimetic species are relevant. In white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), the capacity to learn the songs of other males differs according to the tutoring procedure used. For example, young males learn songs from tape recordings until they are 50 days of age but not afterward. They do acquire songs well after 50 days from live avian tutors with whom they can interact, copying the song of another species, even if they can hear conspecifics in the background. The potency of social tutors has led to a comprehensive reinterpretation of the nature of vocal ontogeny in this species (16). We tried tutoring nine of the starlings using tapes of the caregiver's voice singing songs and reciting prose. There was no evidence of mimicry, except that one bird learned the sound of tape hiss. And thus, if we had relied on tape tutoring, as has been done with many species to assess vocal capacity, we would have vastly underestimated the starlings' skills.

What are the characteristics of live tutors that make them so effective? The studies of white-crowned sparrows suggest that it is not the quality of the tutor's voice, but the opportunity for interaction. Indeed, we have studied a case where voice could not be a cue at all because the "tutor" could not sing. In cowbirds, as in many songbirds, only males sing. Females are frequently the recipients of songs and display a finely tuned perceptual sensitivity to con-specific songs (17). We have documented that acoustically naive males produce distinct themes when housed with female cowbirds possessing different song preferences. We have also identified one important element in the interaction. When males sang certain themes, females responded with distinctive wing movements. The males responded in turn to such behavior by repeating the songs that elicited the females' wing movements. Such data show that singers attend to visual, as well as acoustic, cues and that tutors can be salient influences even when silent. In this species, the social, as distinct from the vocal, conduct of a male's audience is of consequence.

Studies of another avian group, domestic fowl (Gallus gallus), also direct attention to the importance of a signaler's audience (18). In this species, male cockerels produce different calls in the presence of different social companions. Emitting a food call in the presence of food is not an obligatory response but one modulated by the signaler's observations of his audience. Similar findings with cockerel alarm calls indicate the need to consider the multiple determinants of vocal production. Taken as a whole, the findings reveal that, for many birds, acoustic communication is as much visual as vocal experience.

Mozart as birdcatcher

Mozart knew how to look at, as well as listen to, audiences, especially when one of his compositions was the object of their attention. After observing several audiences watching The Magic Flute, he wrote to his wife, "I have at this moment returned from the opera, which was as full as ever. . . . But what always gives me most pleasure is the silent approval! You can see how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed" (19). Mozart's enjoyment of the less obvious reactions of his audience suggests that, like a bird, he too was motivated not only by auditory but by visual stimuli. The German word he used can be translated "applause" as well as "approval," suggesting his search for rewards more meaningful than the expected clapping of hands. We now turn to the case of Mozart's starling and to the kinds of social and vocal rewards offered to him by his choice of an avian audience.

Mozart recorded the purchase of his starling in a diary of expenses, along with a transcription of a melody whistled by the bird and a compliment. He had begun the diary at about the same time that he began a catalogue of his musical compositions. The latter effort was more successful, with entries from 1784 to 1791, the year of his death. His book of expenditures, however, lapsed within a year, with later entries devoted to practice writing in English (20). The theme whistled by the starling must have fascinated Mozart for several reasons. The tune was certainly familiar, as it closely resembles a theme that occurs in the final movement of the Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453. Mozart recorded the completion of this work in his catalogue on 12 April in the same year. As far as we know, just a few people had heard the concerto by 27 May, perhaps only the pupil for whom it was written, who performed it in public for the first time at a concert on 13 June. Mozart had expressed deep concern that the score of this and three other concertos might be stolen by unscrupulous copyists in Vienna. Thus, he sent the music to his father in Salzburg, emphasizing that the only way it could "fall into other hands is by that kind of cheating" (21). The letter to his father is dated 26 May 1784, one day before the entry in his diary about the starling. Mozart's relationship with the starling thus begins on a tantalizing note. How did the bird acquire Mozart's music? Our research suggests that the melody was certainly within the bird's capabilities, but how had it been transmitted? Given our observation that whistled tunes are altered and incorporated into mixed themes, we assume that the melody was new to the bird because it was so close a copy of the original. Thus, we entertain the possibility that Mozart, like other animal lovers, had already visited the shop and interacted with the starling before 27 May. Mozart was known to hum and whistle a good deal. Why should he refrain in the presence of a bird that seems to elicit such behavior so easily?

A starling in May would be either quite young, given typical spring hatching times, or at most a year old, still young enough to acquire new material but already an accomplished whistler. Because it seems unlikely to us that a very young bird could imitate a melody so precisely, we envision the older bird. The theme in question from K. 453 has often been likened to a German folk tune and may have been similar to other popular tunes already known to the starling, analogous to the highly familiar tunes our caregivers used. But to be whistled to by Mozart! Surely the bird would have adopted its listening posture, thereby rewarding the potential buyer with "silent applause."

Given that whistles were learned quite rapidly by the starlings we studied, it is not implausible that the Vienna starling could have performed the melody shortly after hearing it for the first time. Of course, we cannot rule out a role for a shopkeeper, who could have repeated Mozart's tune from its creator or from the starling. In any case, we imagine that Mozart returned to the shop and purchased the bird, recording the expense out of appreciation for the bird's mimicry. Some biographers suggest an opposite course of transmission---from the starling to Mozart to the concerto---but the completion date of K. 453 on 12 April makes this an unlikely, although not impossible, sequence of events.

Given the sociable nature of the captive starlings we studied, we can imagine that some of the experiences that followed Mozart's purchase must have been quite agreeable. Mozart had at least one canary as a child and another after the death of the starling, suggesting that it would not be hard for him to become attached to so inventive a house mate. Moreover, he shared several behavioral characteristics with captive starlings. He was fond of mocking the music of others, often in quite irreverent ways. He also kept late hours, composing well into the night (22). The caregivers of the starlings we studied uniformly reported, and sometimes complained about, the tendency of their birds to indulge in more than a little night music.

The text of Mozart's poem on the bird's death suggests other perceptions shared with the caregivers. Mozart dubbed his pet a "fool", the German word could also be translated as "clown" or "jester", an attribution in keeping with the modern starlings' vocal productions of "crazy bird," "rascal," "silly bird," and "nutty bird" and the even more frequent use of such terms in the written description of life with starlings. Mozart gets to the heart of the starling's character when he states that the bird was "not naughty quite, / But gay and bright, / And under all his brag, / A foolish wag." And thus, when we contemplate Mozart's emotions at the bird's death, we see no reason to invoke attributions of displaced grief. We regard Mozart's sense of loss as genuine, his epitaph as an apt gesture.

Hier ruht ein lieber Narr,
Ein Vogel Staar.
Noch in den besten ]ahren
Musst er erfahren
Des Todes bittern Schmerz.
Mir blut't das Herz,
Wenn ich daran gedenke.
O Leser! schenke
Auch du ein Thranchen ihm.
Er war nicht schlimm;
Nur war er etwas munter,
Doch auch mitunter
Ein lieber loser Schalk,
Und drum kein Dalk.
Ich wett', er ist schon oben,
Um mich zu loben
Fiir diesen Freundschaftsdienst
Ohne Gewinnst.
Denn wie er unvermuthet
Sich hat verblutet,
Dacht er nicht an den Mann,
Der so schon reimen kann.

Den 4ten ]uni 1787.

A little fool lies here
Whom I held dear—
A starling in the prime
Of his brief time
Whose doom it was to drain
Death's bitter pain.
Thinking of this, my heart
Is riven apart.
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.
This no one can gainsay
And I will lay
That he is now on high,
And from the sky,
Praises me without pay
In his friendly way.
Yet unaware that death
Has choked his breath,
And thoughtless of the one
Whose rime is thus well done.

No other written records of Mozart's relationship with his pet are known. He may have said more, given his prolific letter writing, but much of his correspondence during this period has been lost. The lack of other accounts, however, cannot be considered to indicate a lack of interest in his starling. We are inclined to believe that other observations by Mozart on the starling do exist but have not been recognized as such. Our case rests in part on recent technical analyses of the original (autograph) scores of Mozart's compositions, investigations describing changes in handwriting, inks, and paper. Employing new techniques to date paper by analyzing the watermarks pressed into it at the time of its manufacture, Tyson (23) has established that the dates and places assigned to some of Mozart's compositions can be questioned, reaching the general conclusion that many pieces were written over an extended period of time and not recorded in his catalogue until the time of completion. The establishment of an accurate chronology of Mozart's compositions is obviously essential to those attempting to understand the development of his musical genius. It also serves our purposes in reconstructing events after the starling's funeral.

One composition examined by Tyson is a score entered in Mozart's catalogue on 12 June 1787, the first to appear after the deaths of his father and the starling. The piece is entitled A Musical Joke (K. 522). Consider the following description of it from a record jacket: "In the first movement we hear the awkward, unproportioned, and illogical piecing together of uninspired material. . . [later] the andante cantabile contains a grotesque cadenza which goes on far too long and pretentiously and ends with a comical deep pizzicato note . . . and by the concluding presto, our 'amateur composer' has lost all control of his incongruous mixture" (24). Is the piece a musical joke? Perhaps. Does it bear the vocal autograph of a starling? To our ears, yes. The "illogical piecing together" is in keeping with the starlings' intertwining of whistled tunes. The "awkwardness" could be due to the starlings' tendencies to whistle off-key or to fracture musical phrases at unexpected points. The presence of drawn-out, wandering phrases of uncertain structure also is characteristic of starling soliloquies. Finally, the abrupt end, as if the instruments had simply ceased to work, has the signature of starlings written all over it.

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