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Outdoors: Mozart's 'A Musical Joke'


Mozart’s birthday is this week, so we are sure to hear many examples of his classical style - almost always elegant.

But he did write “A Musical Joke.”

Some years ago, a friend sent me a clipping of an article by Jon Van, which was published in the Chicago Tribune.

According to Van, this enigmatic piece is “a collection of passages from the famed composer’s other works strung together in an illogical manner with several notes out of tune.”

The researcher who apparently figured out the joke was not a musicologist, but rather a psychology professor from Indiana University named Meredith West.

According to West, “This composition has starling written all over it.”

Starling? Starling!

I hesitate even to call starlings songbirds, with their obnoxious squawks, squeals and whistles.

In his "Encyclopedia of American Birds," John Terres explained that like their close relatives, myna birds, starlings can mimic sounds in their environment: killdeers, flickers, phoebes and even dogs and cats.

Well, if outdoor wild birds can mimic other creatures, indoor pet starlings might well learn songs.

West studied starlings raised by humans and discovered that yes - starlings can learn music.

Well, as the story goes, back in 1784, a starling learned a few bars of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453, and the great composer was so flattered, he purchased the bird and kept it as a pet for three years.

When the bird died, Mozart arranged for an avian funeral, eulogizing the bird.

This is not speculation; it’s in his diary.

And the very week his bird passed away, Mozart wrote “A Musical Joke.”

Did Mozart’s pet learn snatches from this very music environment? It’s hard to imagine otherwise.

And did it whistle in tune? Apparently not.

Is this true? I don’t know, but like West, I really want to believe that “A Musical Joke's" "collection of several passages strung together in an illogical manner with several notes out of tune" is a tribute to a bird, who like Mozart, perished before his time.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.