Is Mozart's 'A Musical Joke' just so much bird song?

February 19, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- A composition by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that has long puzzled musical historians was most likely a tribute to his pet bird, a researcher reported Sunday.

The Mozart piece, called "A Musical Joke," is a collection of several passages from the famed composer's other works strung together in an illogical manner with several notes out of tune.

The composition makes little sense as a piece of music, but it bears a striking resemblance to the way starlings put together their songs, said Meredith West, an Indiana University psychology professor.

Ms. West, who has made extensive study of how starlings raised by humans produce songs, reported on the Mozart connection at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"This composition has starling written all over it," she said.

Notes from Mozart's diary confirm that he purchased a starling as a pet in the spring of 1784 after hearing the bird sing snatches from the composer's Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453.

The diary and other historical records also show that when the bird died three years later, Mozart wrote a poem praising his pet and held a formal funeral for it. The work, called "A Musical Joke," also was concluded during the week that the bird died, Ms. West said.

study how starlings learn to mimic the sound of cats meowing, doors creaking and water running, as well as calls of other birds, Ms. West has given starlings to several humans to raise as pets.

Because the birds take great interest in human activities, they often evoke strong attachments from human companions, Ms. West said.

"Mozart was expressing emotions about his starling that are very common among care givers we see in our studies," she said.

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