You might have heard of Mozart’s starling. Lyanda Lynn Haupt recently wrote a book, Mozart’s Starling, that’s received a fair bit of acclaim. The short version of the story goes like this: Back in 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart acquired a captive European starling, Sturnus vulgaris, and somehow taught the bird to sing the opening bars from the finale of the composer’s piano concerto in G major. Needless to say, there’s a bit more to it than that. There’s an entire book out on the matter, as I just said. And, by the way, you can read Capper Nichols’ review of Mozart’s Starling in the “Book & Media Reviews” column of the June 2019 issue of Birding magazine.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart taught a captive European starling to sing the opening bars from the finale of the composer’s G major piano concerto, K. 453.
Another famous musical bird is Dvořák’s tanager. This story is basically the converse of Mozart’s starling. Instead of teaching a store-bought tanager to sing a song, the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák incorporated the music of a wild, non-captive, free-flying scarlet tanager into the rollicking scherzo of his “American” string quartet in F major. Or so we’d all thought ever since Dvořák penned the “American” quartet in June of 1893.
Antonín Dvořák incorporated into the scherzo from his “American” string quartet, Op. 96, the song of a bird he believed to be the scarlet tanager.
A few years ago, I was, for whatever reason, studying the score of the scherzo of Dvořák’s quartet, and it struck me that the celebrated “tanager” passage, measures 21–24, is an absolutely terrible transcription of Piranga olivacea, the scarlet tanager. However, it provides an eerily close match to an utterly different-looking bird species, the red-eyed vireo, Vireo olivaceus.
I wrote up the analysis and got it published, and I’m pleased that Mark McKone and David A. Beccue at Carleton College have extended the result to the rest of the scherzo. Part of what’s going on here is purely technical, requiring comparison between musical scores and birdsong spectrograms. Read the report in the technical literature if you’re interested. But another part, a big part, of what’s going on is, for want of a better word, perceptual. To be blunt: How on Earth did Dvořák confuse the searing tanager with the dinky vireo? And a corollary: How did this screw-up go unnoticed by generations of bird and music lovers?
A couple days ago, I was birding near the Boulder County foothills, and I came upon a singing red-eyed vireo, a low-grade rarity in the region. So I whipped out my pocket recorder and obtained high-quality audio documentation of this persistently singing bird. Then I tried to get a confirmatory photo. After a lot of straining and angling about and pacing back and forth, I finally got a blurry photo of a sort-of-a-bird way up in the dense foliage of a mighty crack willow, Salix fragilis. Even if you know what you’re doing, even if you’re specifically searching for a red-eyed vireo, the species is hard to see.
Dvořák, fresh off the boat from eastern Europe, had zero experience with vireos. Okay, he was fresh off the train from New York City, newly arrived in Spillville, Iowa, of all places, where he immediately began writing the “American” quartet. As the composer was getting to work, he heard an “annoying” and “incessant” bird, asked someone the name of the bird, and was informed that it was a scarlet tanager. The rest is music history.
I totally get Dvořák’s error. The dude was busy composing one of the greatest string quartets of all time. Not only that, Dvořák was tending to his large family and adjusting to life in a new land far from home. I have to say, though, I’m somewhat more impressed that it took well over a century for the rest of us to figure this out. The tanager passage, sung by the first violin, is so perfectly evocative of the experience of hearing a red-eyed vireo declaiming above the din and clamor of a busy summer afternoon in Spillville or any of ten thousand other places just like it.
In this passage from the third movement (Scherzo: Molto vivace) of the “American” quartet, the first violin sings the song of the red-eyed vireo. Mark McKone and David A. Beccue have shown that the vireo’s influence pervades much of the entire movement.
Here’s the deal. We all “knew” it was a scarlet tanager because, long ago, some expert or authority proclaimed it thus. And then we got trapped into that way of thinking. That’s not discouraging to me. On the contrary, it’s thrilling. It makes me wonder what else we’re missing.
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.