In June 1787, a funeral service was held in the home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A dozen mourners were greeted with a funeral song arranged by the maestro, followed by a mourning poem he recited especially for the deceased. Nothing special, you would say, but the dead man was not a beloved relative, but a starling. The composer had purchased the tame bird from a store in Vienna in 1784, allegedly because he was impressed with the way the animal hissed while imitating a fragment of his piano concerto. When the starling was his pet, Mozart was inspired by his happy whistle. “The thirty-six months that the Starling spent with Mozart,” writes Elena Passarello, “were one of the most vibrant periods in the composer’s career.
In Mozart’s starling – and other legendary animals (translated by Ineke van den Elskamp) The American writer describes, including the story of the starling, seventeen stories about animals that play a special role in history. In her first story, she invites the reader to imagine the world of Yuka, the mammoth whose well-preserved body was found in 2010 in Siberia. She writes:
“Thirty-nine years ago, young Yuka started to trot. She could have trotted all her natural life; the earth as it was then offered its space. She could have crossed the entire steppe lengthwise if she wanted to. If she had gone east of Yukagir, which was not then Yukagir, she could have trotted to what was not then Alaska. There was no ocean to stop her and there were hardly any trees, just the meager grasses that she pulled out of the permafrost with that special fist in her trunk.
Later in the book, Passarello tells of the rhino depicted in a woodcut in 1515 by the German artist Albrecht Dürer. For Europeans, it was a mysterious animal at the time. Dürer had never seen a rhino in real life. He based his ‘Rhinoceros’ on sketches of a specimen of the species called Ganda, which had been shipped to Lisbon in the same year. His rendition featured striking armor plates and an additional horn on the back. Despite the fact that the rhino Clara set foot in Rotterdam in 1741 and toured Europe, Dürer’s “Rhinocerus” has remained popular. Until the 18th century, images of them appeared on snuffboxes. “When rococo animal clocks were in fashion,” writes Passarello, “master craftsman Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain had a clock case with a one-horned Clara for sale, but he also had a Rhinocerus model. with an additional horn for its more traditional style. customers oriented.
Regarding Mozart’s starling, the author explains that starlings are able to pick up, imitate and combine all kinds of sounds. She concludes that the composer in fact did the same. His compositions often deviate from the norm. Therefore, Passarello raises the following question:
“What if Mozart played with wrong notes and rude texts, with foreign tongues and nonsense in order to gain as many possibilities of expression as possible, just as the Sturnus vulgaris collects all kinds of sounds for singing?”
She points to Mozart’s “A musical joke”, which she calls “a relentless twenty-three minute parody of the pitfalls of classical music.” According to her, the disturbances which occur there are “comparable to the speech of a starling: they are the riddle notes that the bird whistled in return in the shop, raised to virtuoso madness”.
Another species of bird on which Passarello elaborates is the pigeon. It tells the story of Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon who saved the lives of the men of the severely exhausted 77th Division during WWI. In a tube on her leg, she carried a note to their own lines with a message from Major Whittlesey that he and his men were under fire from their own artillery. The story of another pigeon is reminiscent of a line from the well-known song of the Dutch musical group Small Orchestra. The author may not be familiar with the song, but the West German carrier pigeon she writes about also flew over the Iron Curtain in 1954. The animal returned with a secret message from a citizen of the Czech Republic calling the West …
“… Unstoppable in the fight against communism because communism must be destroyed”.
The pigeon was then brought to the United States, where she “Lena leaping” was named and used in a fundraising campaign, “as a lure for US bonds.” Probably not unfairly, the writer puts his doubts on the veracity of the story.
Perhaps the most remarkable chapter of his beautifully illustrated book concerns elephants in the United States. The story begins with the arrival of the first elephant in New York in 1796 and ends in 1903, with the release of a film showing the electrocution of an elephant. Passarello describes how, in the years that followed, several circus and zoo elephants suffered horrific deaths – including hanging and strangling – and how the discovery of electricity led to the invention of the electric chair. The fact that Elena Passarello teaches creative writing at Oregon State University is evident in this chapter, among others. She wrote her book in a surprising and original way. Those who like writers who experiment with text and language will therefore appreciate Mozart’s Starling. The reader who is looking for factual information and prefers a more accessible writing style should read “Animal Heroes” recently published by Clare Balding, which also describes various animals from Passarello’s book, but without the literary approach.
~ Kevin Prenger
Delivered: De spreeuw van Mozart – Elena Passarello
Also interesting: How the cat killed Simon Mao Zedong and other animal stories
Our section: animals
See this book on:
“Bacon trailblazer. Certified coffee maven. Zombie lover. Tv specialist. Freelance communicator.”