Friday, April 20, 2018

Mediocrities, I absolve you!

You can't get your history from Hollywood. Everybody knows that.

But we do anyway.

Drama is so much more memorial than history anyhow. Remember what year the Revolutionary War started? Anything about the Stamp Act? How about Washington flipping a coin across the Delaware River?

The last one didn't happen. Which is why that and some dubious arborcide are exactly what an entire generation knows best about our first president.

When it comes to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, everybody knows he was poisoned by Antonio Salieri. Which, of course, didn't happen either.

What makes the matter so much more intriguing, and fun, however, is that, if you believe accounts of an early biographer--Mozart's wife's second husband, who is supposed to have gotten the story from Mozart's wife--, Mozart did actually entertain the notion that he had been poisoned shortly before he died of rheumatic fever. Also, there was a rumor in Vienna, much later, that Salieri did the poisoning. That doesn't mean it happened, however, and neither was Salieri the man in the mask who commissioned the unfinished Requiem. But the Requiem? unfinished. And a guy with a mask? that story goes back to Mozart's widow also, and has to be at least partially true. Mozart was writing on order from an unknown patron. It wasn't Salieri, but it is still a very strange way to commission a piece of music.

At the intersection of myth and fact is a wonderful movie that was released in 1984 by the name of Amadeus, whose director, Milos Forman, died this week. It is hands down the best movie ever made that isn't really about the life of a composer. If it was a more careful biography it would have been a snooze, just like all of the bad Beethoven movies I've seen. But its writer Peter Schaffer, also deceased, was expert at sifting facts, legends, rumors, and just making stuff up in a way that makes Amadeus a fascinating film. It works wonderfully well as drama. As history, it should be approached with caution. And yet, the man did his homework into the real characters at the film's center so well that there are hundreds of true to life details. Things like Mozart's strange laugh, for which there are contemporaneous letters. Or his interest in fart jokes. Mozart's own letters give away his obsessions with this region of the anatomy. Or Salieri's love of sweets. Or the way Mozart composes while playing billiards. These can all be supported by letters and documents of the time, and by eye-witnesses.

The best parts, of course, the parts you remember, didn't actually happen. I'm still in the process of tracking some of this down, but I can tell you that there were plenty of people who thought that Mozart's music was too learned, too complicated, even if the Emperor himself never accused Mozart of writing "too many notes." And there was a real war going on between those who wanted German opera (which included the Emperor) and those who did "incline to the Italian," though it would be a stretch to paint Mozart as a guy who was striking a blow for democratic ideals in opera and against those stories of gods and goddess who were "so lofty they act as if they shit marble!" And then there is my favorite line in the movie, when Emperor Joseph is watching a bunch of dancers jostling about on stage silently because the accompanying music has been banned (by his own manipulated decree). Confused, he asks, "I don't is modern?" and nails the reaction of a large section of the movie's audience to the most uncompromising art of their own era. It isn't anything Joseph would have actually said, but it is the perfect joke/social commentary, and it says volumes about us.

I'll be participating (as organist) in a concert this weekend in which is presented Mozart's famous last work, the Requiem. It is filled for me with great memories of things cinematic that didn't really happen, such as the scene discussing the Day of Wrath movement, when Salieri's eyes grow wide when asked if he believes in the eternal judgement and wrath to come and he says fervently "oh yes!" turning the knife to torture the dying Mozart some more.

We all have our own interpretations of the movie, and of the Requiem itself. Tim Coles, the concert's conductor, says he find the piece "very honest." This is in distinction to later Requiems by composers like Brahms and Faure, whose music emphasizes comfort and solace, as if they were trying to engage in platitudes and to pull back from death's final punch. But it could be argued that Mozart's account is really colored by a pretty dark theology which was steeped in doctrines that persisted in Catholicism from the Middle Ages on through the Enlightenment, and that his music is really more about the standard grist from the flock-frightening mill than a personal cry of agony when facing grief and loss.

Whatever the case, Mozart did not finish his Requiem. Where he left off is still a mystery: trying to fulfill the commission and earn the money, Mozart's widow conspired with Mozart's student Sussmayer to complete it without letting anyone know who did what exactly. And the result is now anyone's musicological guess.

But judging from the quality of the music I've been practicing this week, I've a hunch that the movie (as well as at least one scholar) got it right when they suggest that Mozart left off during, or after, the Lacrymosa. It is, to me, the last truly gripping piece in the Requiem, right before the general quality abates and the repetition of (earlier) sections begins (my attention always used to start to wander at this point). And, cinematically, it is the perfect place to complete the story of Mozart's life because it contains one great big dramatic AMEN!, the only place in the entire work with such a close.

In any case, I don't find the ending very satisfying. Classical era composers didn't bring back entire movements to close a work the same way they began. Mozart certainly does not. And then, to have the entire piece end on a chord without a third, so inconclusively...

It could say something interesting about death, futility, frustration, knocking at the gates of what we do not know, but it would be borrowing from a vocabulary much later than that of the 18th century.

History does not seem to care about our debate. The movie, which does, chooses to end with that grand amen. And Salieri ends his beef with God by absolving all of the mediocrities who, like him, wanted to be great and just fell short.

Of course, in Salieri's day, he was a great success. And probably not that jealous of Mozart--he seems to have been very kind to him, actually. Mozart, on the other hand, was jealous of just about everybody, including, once in a while, Salieri.

...Salieri, who, it turns out, also wrote a Requiem. We won't be performing it. It is a bit dull, at least those parts I've heard so far. And do you know who he wrote it for?

For himself! For his own funeral!

Now isn't that just spooky? And a great jumping off point for a dramatist.....

Rest in Peace, Milos Forman.

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