Mozart's Musical Storytelling
When Miloš Forman first saw Hair on Broadway he loved every song. He considered Hair, along with West Side Story and Cats, three of the best musicals ever made. But his film Amadeus, in collaboration with Peter Shaffer, is one of the most celebrated in the history of film.
The play, and its subsequent screenplay, brought classical music out from the shadows, and despite the historical inaccuracies, Forman and Shaffer fleshed out precisely how Mozart's compositions could be used to tell a story.
Granted, Mozart’s music was not written for film. But the forceful impact of Forman and Shaffer’s collaboration should not be missed.1
“Do you know how I expressed it?” Mozart asked, “—even expressing the loving, throbbing heart? With two violins playing in octaves.”
Mozart told stories with his music, and he took it very seriously. In a letter to his father September 26, 1781, he talked about his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, explaining how an aria in A Major for Belmonte, whose betrothed, Konstanze, had been taken to a harem, is anxious and passionate.
"Do you know how I expressed it?" Mozart asked, "—even expressing the loving, throbbing heart? With two violins playing in octaves.
“This is the favorite aria of everyone who has heard it — mine too...(and) one can see the trembling — faltering — one can see his heaving breast — which is expressed by a crescendo — one can hear the whispering and the sighing — which is expressed by the first violins with mutes and one flute playing unisono.”
Even without understanding octaves, or crescendos, it is easy to understand that a musical master is at work. And it's not just in opera Mozart tells stories with his music. The Tyrolese story, for example, finds expression in a Quintet, according to Bruce Adolphe, a resident lecturer for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Ia letter dated August 8, 1781, Mozart wrote about a man named Baron Buffa, who bullied a theater director, Herr von Wiedmer, over a poor performance presented on stage.
Apparently Buffa became so angry he "boxed" Wiedmer on the ear, which Wiedmer returned in kind, only to learn that a Tyrloese custom allowed that no man with impunity could strike a privileged person, whatever provocation he may have received. Thus Wiedmer received fifty lashes for defending himself against Buffa.
Mozart was outraged.
"If I were Wiedmer," Mozart said, "I would demand the following satisfaction from the Emperor: that the President (Count Wolkenstein, who had allowed an improper punishment) should receive fifty lashes while I was present, and likewise pay me 6,000 ducats (many thousands of dollars); if I could not obtain this demand in full, I would accept no other, and stab him to the heart at the very first opportunity."
Thus, according to Adolphe, a stabbing sword can be heard (or imagined) in the second movement of Mozart's Quintet in G minor, which Mozart wrote around the same time he saw Buffa bullying Wiedmer.
“...it's not just a note,” Adolphe said, “it's a character. It returns demanding it's place.... But the feeling that these notes are people in an opera, that's very Mozart.”
This is common theme in Adolphe's lecture series. In the lecture on Mozart's Quartet in D minor, K. 421, for example, he calls out the minuet, this time in the third movement, as an interruption of everyday life, where the Minuet, a dance of the nobility, interrupts the hard working, everyday life of the common man, which most certainly included the impoverished Mozart.
"Now there are a lot of people," Adolphe said, "who think that music is only about music: 'This is minor and dark; this is major and light.' To link it to real life is absurd. I am not one of those people."
Nor should anyone be. In a wonderful segment of this lecture Adolphe talks about a single note used to take away the natural order of the composition, a "chaotic note" he calls it, that returns again and again, which makes it operatic.
"...it comes back,” he said, "it's not just a note, "it's a character. It returns demanding it's place.... But the feelings that these notes are people in an opera, that's very Mozart.”
Understanding a composition's musical history is not a requirement, however. The stories in the music are always there to hear. They do not need a history, or even an understanding of classical music.
Mozart's piano Concerto No. 23, for example, was written for a love interest (as remembered 2 ), but the lyrical beauty of this piano concerto is easily heard without knowing anything about musical composition, or the history of Mozart's music.
And listening to Mozart, or any classical music, is in the ears of the beholder. For example, in one recording of Mozart's K 421, the musical "interruption" in the third movement can easily be heard as Adolphe describes it. And yet a reporter hears a baby, sometimes wild and annoyingly hyperactive, other times a wonderfully, well-behaved baby, depending on the interpretation of the musicians.
Adolphe reported Mozart wrote music all the time, endlessly. A doctor who told Mozart he needed to stop writing so much, for example, said he needed to relax and get away from writing so much. He did; but only in between writing his music.
It is well documented that Mozart finished K. 421 (an exceptional recording here) while his wife was giving birth to their first child. One biographer reported he was with his wife during her contractions, and then went back to work until the baby was born.
Another biographer, Spaethling (or perhaps Nissan), said Mozart simply spent his time composing, calling it "a remarkable feat of emotional detachment." But whatever happened, the music is remarkable, and should not be missed by anyone. .
1 The music in the opening scene above is actually from two of Mozart’s musical compositions. The ominous opening at the beginning of the film is from Don Giovanni. While the symphony that opens when Antonio Salieri is found lying in a pool of blood is Mozart’s Symphony No. 25.
2 The original source cannot be found. However, Roeder said in A history of the Concerto, that the concerto's extraordinary lyricism is evident from the very first measure:
“In the first movement,” he said, “Mozart postponed the introduction of the new second theme until the second tutti section and then permitted the orchestra to present it. This is unusual, for he customarily assigned the new theme to the piano during the solo exposition. This second theme dominates the development section that follows.
“The Adagio (a slow passage) is the only F-sharp minor movement in Mozart's music and is possibly his most romantic sounding....”