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Review by Brad Green:
If all could feel
Like you the force of harmony! But no:
The world would crumble then; for none would care
To bother with the baser needs of life

… so proclaims Salieri in Alexander Pushkin’s poem Mozart And Salieri. It is this poem which inspired the Rimsky-Korsakov opera of the same title, and the Peter Shaffer play Amadeus, which in turn spawned the Oscar-winning movie. 

The basic premise for all of these is that Mozart was poisoned out of jealousy by the Italian-born, Viennese court composer, Antonio Salieri. The conjecture is not intended to be taken seriously, although it was already a popular myth before Pushkin’s poem. Such speculation had taken root because – as portrayed in the movie – Salieri did indeed end up in a mental institution, and rambled on about having committed the murder. Historians don’t believe him, but the story has become what Salieri himself might have referred to in his native tongue as ben trovato – an utterly appropriate invention.

This double-disc anthology tells us why. Here we have two CDs brimming with extraordinary music and yet it is a tiny representation of Mozart’s output. No wonder a merely accomplished contemporary might be envious. While the beauty of the music stands for itself, it is impossible not to also contemplate the abilities of the man behind it. 

One nice touch here is the inclusion of dialogue establishing the scene in which Mozart is first introduced to Emperor Joseph II. The Emperor himself plays Mozart a Salieri March, which Mozart not only reproduces (sans manuscript) upon a single hearing, but in a flash of improvisation transforms into a superior passage from The Marriage Of Figaro. The most astonishing thing is that this is scarcely cinematic hyperbole. There are extant court letters suggesting Mozart really was capable of such superhuman feats. Yet we also know that he was in many ways all too human. 

In the film, Salieri first discovers Mozart rollicking on the floor, sharing scatological wit and a braying giggle with Constanze, his wife-to-be. Was this an immortal maestro or just a very naughty genius? Well, we shouldn’t take the character of the film too literally. The historical Mozart was undoubtedly profligate and not without his peccadilloes, but it’s unlikely he was such an eternal adolescent. He was simply too busy with music to get up to much mischief. (Except perhaps in artistically challenging the “too many notes” mentality of the traditionalists.) Composing came as naturally and necessarily to Mozart as respiration. In every moment in his life that he didn’t create melody he was holding his breath, and every time he exhaled the world became a sweeter place. Yet for all the ease with which he worked, and which apparently so irked Salieri, Mozart’s output is scarcely comprehensible. The Requiem he was composing when he died is designated as K.626 – the K stands for Kochel, who compiled the definitive, chronological catalogue of Mozart’s oeuvre – and those 626 works comprise a musical cornucopia that will be treasured forever. 

Mozart’s very fallibility should lead us not to envy but to adoration. The child prodigy, the Wunderkind, did indeed grow into a musical Ubermensch; just not the kind of Superman envisioned by Nietzsche to be the apotheosis of humanity. Mozart died young, but it is his music which is immortal. People who claim no knowledge of the classical repertoire respond with recognition – like Father Volger in one of the film’s early scenes – to a few notes of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. 

You’ll find that here, of course, along with selections from the Requiem and from the operas The Abduction From The Seraglio, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, as well as a number of symphonic movements and a generous offering of Mozart’s superlative concertos. 

As I indulge in the sublime performances of the Academy Of St. Martin-In-The-Fields I am reminded of a little contrivance of the late, music-loving Douglas Adams. In Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency the new director of Radio 3 is bailed up by two academics who thrust upon him the sage advice that “’too much Mozart’… [is] an inherently self-contradictory expression”. 

The important role of the average mortal is not to be a genius but to appreciate it. For aficionados the clarity of these 24-bit re-mastered recordings will be a delight. For Mozart neophytes the greater joy – that hearing a Mozart piece for the first time is like hearing music itself for the first time – awaits. The true wonder of Mozart is not only the escape he provides from those “baser needs of life”, but the richness his music continues to bring when we return to them. 

Published October 24, 2002

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TITLE: Amadeus
ID: 335032
MUSIC BY: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
ORCHESTRA: Academy Of St. Martin-In-The-Fields
CONDUCTOR: Sir Neville Marriner

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