Mozart’s “Colly” Bird
On January 6 (the 12th day of Christmas), the magi visit the baby Jesus. This is the beginning of Epiphany, the climax of the Advent and Christmas Season in the Western tradition of rejoicing. The Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, is a day of wonder, and is celebrated by baking cakes and even herding lambs, according to Christian History.
But in the culture at large, a true love gives four calling birds instead, which along with a bunch of other stuff equals 36 of these birds. The question is, what is a calling bird?
“Is the piece a musical joke? Perhaps,” West and King said in American Scientist. “Does it bear the vocal autograph of a starling? To our ears, yes.”
Calling birds seem to have played no part in the history of Christmas. In Western liturgical traditions, for example, the first day (of the 12 days of Christmas) can include Christmas Eve, but nowhere is a "calling bird," or even "a partridge in a pear tree" mentioned.
In fact, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which many believe to be historically relevant, has nothing to do with traditional celebrations, or the incarnation — the entry of God as a human baby into the world. One source says there may be a smidgen of historical relevance, but mostly concludes “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a jingle.
The day before Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016, Michael E. Ruane, a general assignment reporter for the Washington Post, reported that a Blog post at the Library of Congress said the four calling birds in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” were not calling birds at all, but rather “colly birds,” a bird black in color.
The author of the post, Peter Armenti, a literature specialist at the Library of Congress, said that most of his family were certain the correct term was “calling birds” since "colly" wasn’t a word anyone had heard before. Calling made intuitive sense —“calling birds,” he wrote, must be birds that “call out” in song…. But Armenti, and a few others in his family disagreed. Thus began his search for the true bird.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was first published (likely after years of oral circulation), around 1780, Armenti said. Both he and Ruane (the Washington Post reporter who wrote the story for newspaper distribution), said colly birds were black birds.
Armenti had found the word in “The Oxford English Dictionary,” and colly, he said, is used as an adjective to describe something covered in coal dust, or the color of coal.
But interestingly, the compact addition of the dictionary also lists the water ouzel bird (or dipper), as “water-colly," bird, a gray bird that dips and dives into the water looking for food. In all fairness, the second definition does say colly birds are black (it is called a blackbird), but the fine print also includes a dipper, the "water-colly" bird.
The Library of Congress blog post is fascinating. Armenti said the dictionary traced colly back to Arthur Golding’s 1565 translation of Ovid’s "Metamorphosis":
“As thou thou prating Raven white by
nature being bred,
“Hadst on thy fethers justly late a
coly colour spred.”
Ovid's “Metamorphoses” was an epic poem. In it, the Roman poet retold Greek and Roman myths, including the tale of the white raven, a bird of such prolific chatter, it was chastised and punished:
“His tongue was cause of all his harme,
his tatling tongue did make
“His colour which before was white,
became so foule and blake.”
Thus, a fair, white bird's feathers became, according to mythology, a mottled coat "foule and blake." Or perhaps in modern verbiage, speckled and drab and black. The obnoxious, invasive species everyone loves to hate, except Mozart, the starling. And others too in Germany, and elsewhere.
Interestingly, some have learned to love the bird's charm and wit. People from centuries ago, and people today. The beguiled ones. Bird lovers captivated by the verbal and social skills of Ovid's fallen Raven, the starling.
Starlings have been pets since Roman times, according to Devin Johnston. They were popular as pets during the 18th century, and by the 1850s were even seen in novels. In “The Foundling," for example (a novel written by Carl Gustav Nieritz), the bird is more like a dog than a bird. When the protagonist, Christlieb is forced to leave his foster father, because of a false accusation, his pet starling refuses its freedom repeatedly.
"Go now my little bird," Christlieb said in Nieritz's telling, "to your companions in the trees." He threw it up into the air; but after a short flight it came back, and again alighted on the shoulder of its master. "What! wilt thou not go?" he said, much affected. "Poor bird, I cannot keep thee." He threw it again from him, and again the little creature came back."
These birds are remarkable pets. In a study by Meridith J. West, and Andrew P. King in "America Scientist," starlings were found to reward their owner's with verbal acrobatics.
“One bird, for example," West and King said, "frequently repeated 'We'll see you later,' and 'I'll see you soon.' The phrase was often shortened to 'We'll see," sounding more like a parental ploy than an abbreviated farewell. Another bird often mimicked the phrase "basic research," but mixed it in with other phrases, as in "Basic research, it's true, I guess that's right....
"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.”
On May 27, 1784, Mozart held a funeral for his pet starling. Whyfiles.org said hymns were sung, a poem Mozart wrote was read and and the bird was laid to rest. Eight days later he wrote his "Divertimento for 2 Horns and Strings in F major, K 522," nicknamed "a musical joke." (Although in a footnote on Wikipedia, a commentator on a BBC Radio broadcast, October 3, 1981, said a more accurate translation might be "some musical fun.")
Mozart once wrote to his father that he never felt more alive than when he was composing. But in "Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life," in a rare view of Spaethling's thoughts, he wrote that Mozart could be emotionally detached.
When he composed (or finished) his "String Quartet in D minor, K 421," for example, his wife was giving birth to their first child. Spaethling attributes this anecdote to Georg Nikolaus Nissen, a Mozart biographer, but adds (apparently in his own opinion) that it's: "a remarkable feat of emotional detachment."
Not so. Music was life for this man. In a letter dated July, 31, 1778 (translated by Spaethling himself), Mozart poured his heart out to his father regarding the death of his mother in Paris, and begged for understanding, not only for his pain and guilt, but for his need to write; "...you know that I am, as it were, completely immersed in Musique — it is on my mind all day long — I love to plan — study — reflect on it...."
And reflect he did. In his String Quartet in D minor, K 421, which was finished on the night of his son's birth, listeners can actually hear Constanze giving birth. 1 How can this not be empathy? And we can hear a starling in his "musical joke." In fact, a brief search on Google Translate suggested it could be a thesis. A serious study "on musical fun." Or a wake. Not detached frivolity after the death of his father and a bird.
It’s difficult to believe "A Musical Joke" could have that much depth. Much the same, perhaps, as believing a starling could be a gift on the 4th day of Christmas. But Armenti's blog post shows, in an old historical piece called, "Old Christmas Rhymes" that turtle doves were given as gifts on the 4th day of Christmas, not calling birds. And on the 2nd day of Christmas it's French hens given as gifts, not turtle doves.
But colly birds have a place in history too. They could have been given as gifts during “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” at least according to tradition. And it could have been a starling. After all, Mozart wrote music for the birds. Or did he? His musical joke brings belly laughs, wet, welling tears and cringe-worthy confusion. 2 It's a lot like family relationships, actually, and Leopold would have delighted in reading the musical score. His son wrote breathtaking music.
1 Alexa Vivien Wilks, in his thesis, “A Biography of a String Quartet,” reported that Edward Holmes, in “The Life of Mozart” (London: The Folio Society, 1991), 195. noted that the German biographer Nissen said Mozart wrote the third movement of K. 421 in Costanze’s chamber while she was in the early stages of labour with their first child. Nissen says that Mozart’s “agitated state of mind” can be heard in this composition, given the anxieties of impending first-time parenthood, and the grave dangers of child birth during the eighteenth century. A reporter also heard (or rather, felt emotionally) Costanze’s contractions in the second movement. Hopefully the next YouTube upload of K 421 will bring even better understanding to this master work.
2This is an amateur opinion: Some biographers, Robert Greenburg, for example, believed the music was payback because of a disinheritance (his father left him nothing). Mozart, according to Greenburg's lecture in The Great Courses’ series of 2000, does “...things that Mozart’s father. as his composition teacher, would have taught him to do correctly." Thus Greenburg believed it was written in anger. But others disagree. Britannica.com, for example, called it “a good-humoured parody of bad music, in a vein Leopold would have liked…." Although, Britannica.com also said, “...(it was thought to have been provoked by his death until it was found that it was begun much earlier).” Still, it might well have been completed after his father's death. "A Musical Joke" is pathos, pain, release and humor. It could not have been created out of spite. Sons love even stupid, cruel and jealous, idiot fathers. The Irish celebrate the life of the deceased often by sharing food and drink throughout what is known as a “wake.” Music, dancing, and physical games can make wakes feel like a party. This is what this music does. It is music for a wake.