Tuesday, August 15, 2006

In Search of Mozart

I just saw a wonderful documentary by Phil Grabsky called In Search of Mozart. See it - you'll be very glad you did. It's a very thorough account of the life of the composer for whom even words like "genius", and "inspired" seem to miss the mark. There are excerpts from performances of a great range of his work for solo instruments, chamber groups, orchestra and, of course, from his operas. The interviewees include musicians, conductors, directors and singers. The musicians are charming, and passionately devoted to Mozart's music, but are probably not in the best position to articulate in words why this is so, or just what it is that makes Mozart's music so sublime. If you want to know how a musician feels about Mozart, I guess, ask him or her to play - not, er, talk. The musicologists, singers, historians and directors, including surgeon/writer/director/polymath Jonathan Miller, fare a little better with the explanations and elucidations; Miller, a gifted mimic with great comic timing, is a fascinating source all on his own. He's just an all-around interesting guy to listen to. English baritone Sir Thomas Allen and conductor Sir Charles Mackerras also have interesting things to say. (Sir Roger Norrington appears to be just as pompous and dull as I ever feared.) Also interviewed a few times is Canadian bass-baritone (and 2006 nominee for Gramophone Magazine's Artist of the Year award) Gerald Finley, otherwise known as the World's Best Baritone. (Okay, in Sandman-world.) I could have wished for more concert footage, but I can't complain about the use of The Marriage of Figaro - the 1994 production from the Glyndebourne Festival is excerpted very nicely, and Finley and the brilliant English soprano Alison Hagley are shown to great advantage. What great chemistry they have: Two wonderful singers who look their parts, sing like angels, and can act pretty damned well, too. I never saw the Glyndebourne production, but I saw Finley and Hagley in a production for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto around the same time. I still get shivers when I think of it. Of that now-famous Glyndebourne production, which was created for the re-opening of the Glyndebourne Festival Hall after two years of renovations in the early '90s, English critic Andrew Porter said that Finley was "the best Figaro we've seen in fifty years." (See? WBB.)

Mozart's early life must have been one long, crazy dash around Europe. From the age of about six or seven, he was touring something like 75 cities on a schedule that would have today's musicians checking themselves into rehab clinics for exhaustion. (Oh, wait - they do that anyway. Never mind.) The documentary goes a great distance to undo some misconceptions which probably began with Amadeus, and which have acquired the power of myth, if not the legitimacy of historical fact, in the public mind - such as that Mozart died penniless (he didn't); that he was buried in a pauper's grave (he wasn't - it was most usual in Vienna at that time for any member of the public to be buried in a group grave). Though the Milos Forman film is only mentioned once in Grabsky's, a few of the documentary's contributors, such as historian Cliff Eisen, make no bones about the fact that the play and the movie got lots of things wrong. (No use talking to a historian about dramatic license, I suppose.) Oh, and Mozart wasn't poisoned, and there is no indication in the record that he and Antonio Salieri despised one another. Although the Italian-born court composers of Vienna apparently did conspire together to make sure that 12-year-old Wolfie's first opera, La Finta Semplice, was never performed, and probably made it very difficult for subsequent operas, including Figaro and Così Fan Tutte, to succeed, at least in Vienna. (They probably weren't jealous, so much as having a giant collective coronary over their job security. Can you imagine the cussing in Italian? Who writes operas at twelve, for the love of heaven?)

The film left me with the conviction that Mozart's life - and the man himself - was full of contradictions; his music sparkles with pure joy, but it also carries hints of deep sorrow. He usually composed with great ease, but he also worked very hard and was often unsatisfied with his own work; his music is full of self-assertion and assurance, and he wanted to be treated as a genius, as what we think of as a star; at the same time, he could be very humble and self-effacing, and had a deep sense of how connected he was to other people. He was a Freemason, possibly attached to the ideals of freedom and brotherhood expressed in the Enlightenment, but he was also deeply religious. His education was not extensive, except in music, but his compositions suggest an intimate and profound knowledge of the human heart that few have matched. The film also left me humming.

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