Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Music of "Amadeus" Part I

As readers may be aware, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is held in especially high esteem in this corner of the internet. In my short piece on The Magic Flute I mentioned in passing Milos Forman's 1984 film Amadeus and in the future I'll be posting (in parts) a somewhat lengthy review of it.

Today, though, I would like to highlight one aspect of the film: its music. More specifically I plan to discuss why and how the use of music in this film is so spectacularly successful.  Sir Neville Marriner, who conducted the music for Amadeus, accurately expressed the reason in saying, "My main concern in Amadeus is that the music be presented faultlessly, not just technically, but as the perfect complement to what is on the screen. You can't cut the music to the film. One of the good things about Amadeus is that the film was shot around the music–not the other way around as is usually the case."

To elaborate on that, the music in this film does not simply pop in with a series of cameos. We do not have a scene of drama followed by a musical interlude, nor do we have music as simply background atmosphere.  In contrast, we have an almost constant and always appropriate musical presence in the film. Sometimes it is diegetic (i.e. actually produced in the world of the film) as when Mozart is playing at the piano or conducting an opera.  Other times it is laid over the film either as complement or contrast to the drama. As writer Peter Shaffer said, the music became a character in the story. Indeed. Mozart's music, his genius, is a constant hovering presence in Amadeus. In some sequences the use of the music is complicated and in others relatively simple. Let us look at some examples in the order they appear in the film.

The opening is one of the most complicated scenes and one in which the music is tied most closely to the material on screen. The terrifying first chords of Don Giovanni open Amadeus against a black screen giving way to shots of a snowy Viennese night. This musical phrase becomes a motive in the film. Its first appearance associates itself with Mozart's death, since we hear it as an elderly Salieri cries out and admits to killing Mozart. We are then treated to a relatively lighthearted moment where Salieri's bumbling servants try to entice him out of his room where he has locked himself. Perhaps he did not kill Mozart.  Is Salieri simply a kook? The servant breaks down the door and the opening of the "little" G minor Symphony (No. 25, KV. 183) bursts in forte and hammers out an insistent five-note phrase as we struggle to see why Salieri sits on the floor hunched over. Salieri falls back, hands and neck bloodied and with a razor in his hand. Like his servants we look on aghast and confused as a fierce and frantic arpeggiated phrase takes over. As the phrase is repeated in the music the camera cuts back and forth between Salieri and his horrified servants. As he is taken out in a stretcher the violins yield the foreground to the winds who try to hold the suspense with half notes piano.  They hold it and hold it as the men carry their ungainly cargo through the snowy streets until the winds conclude pianissimo and we finally get the title card.

Music and film take off once again with tremolos in the second violin and viola and the descending element of our arpeggiated phrase returns ,alternating between the first violin and the basses. As the delirious Salieri is carried he glances about and into the windows of the buildings, glimpsing a dance party. The scenes are then intercut between Salieri's delirium and the party-goers. This music is all diegetic and thus inaudible to the characters, but at this moment the line is blurred and the difference becomes important. The music continues to play just the same but the visual context changes: what is buoyant and strong in one moment (for the dancers) is sinister for Salieri. Poisoned by envy and distraught that he killed Mozart, the music is instead a source of pain. (This is likely only noticeable on a second viewing of the film.)

We see several shots of the dancers, but surely Salieri only glimpsed it for a moment. Perhaps he is imagining them, recalling a happier time when music was still beautiful to him. The music continues with tremulous strings doubled every other measure by the winds until we get a lighter theme piano followed by a return to the opening theme that fades out as Fr. Vogler arrives as Salieri's guest at the asylum.

In the asylum Fr. Vogler disappoints Salieri with his inability to recall a single tune of the once famous composer. Salieri begins to conduct and relive the time when he was considered "the brightest start in our musical firmament." We cut back to the late 1780s and see Madame Cavalieri, Salieri's favorite leading lady, performing in his most famous work, Axur, re d'Ormus ("Axur, King of Ormus") and then we cut back to Salieri in the asylum.

Soon after, Salieri recounts his first meeting with his idol, when Mozart came to Vienna to play at the Viennese palace of his patron, the Archbishop of Salzbourg. Played in the scene is a folk gypsy tune, Bubak and Hungaricus, that creates an exotic atmosphere. Playing a game with himself, Salieri walks amongst the visitors at the palace trying to find out which of of the young men is Mozart. Does such talent show on the face? Thus Salieri is on a bit of an expedition here, one which culminates when he is lured by his sweet tooth into the reception room. He is followed by a young couple flirtatiously playing and he ducks behind a table to get out of sight (and continue observing them.) Hearing some music being played several rooms away, the young man soon departs for they are playing his music without him. To Salieri's astonishment, the young man is Mozart! The exotic music leading to that scene and the silly behavior give way to one of Mozart's most subtle and sublime pieces, the adagio of his Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, "Gran Partita." Salieri goes on to describe to his confessor the beauty of the music.

Later, when Mozart is invited to the emperor's palace, Salieri composes a modest march of welcome for the visiting musician. The emperor, enthusiastic about music but spastic at the keyboard, insists on playing Salieri's little march, an act for which Salieri feigns deep honor. An ungainly little march by itself, the piece suffers more at the hands of the emperor. As Mozart approaches the two guards escorting Mozart are told to walk slowly to give the emperor time to practice, thus they lead Mozart too slowly for the sprightly march making the whole scene even more awkward. In wonderful little touches to demonstrate how banal the tune really is, Mozart stops to scratch his leg while walking and when he enters, greets the librarian as the emperor. At the end of the scene the emperor gives Mozart the sheet music of the little march and Mozart casually refuses it since he has the piece memorized already. Curious and playful, the emperor asks him to play it. As the emperor looks at the sheet music, Mozart not only plays the piece but unthinkingly blurts out "it doesn't really work does it?" and begins improvising, turning it into Figaro's vigorous march from the end of Act I of "Le nozze di Figaro" as listeners pile in, the emperor looks on approvingly, the opera director looks aghast, and Salieri looks on with thinly repressed envy.

The last scene I wish to look at in this Part I discussion is the production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, (The ("Abduction from the Seraglio.") Mostly self-explanatory, the scene begins with a brilliant edit from Salieri's music room in which he is flirting with and teaching his favorite leading lady, Katerina Cavalieri. At the keyboard Salieri gazes at her with both frustrated longing and joy at the purity of this songbird practicing her scales. The scene cuts right into the production of Die Entführung and Constanze's scales in her Act II aria "Martern aller Arten" and Salieri looks on, furious and betrayed, as his favorite leading lady, now a "greedy songbird," sings Mozart's "ghastly scales." Foreman and Schaffer elected for Mozart's two singspiel's, Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte, to translate the German into English. It is not at all distracting, but I am not sure how necessary or effective it was either, since it is still rather difficult for someone unfamiliar with the text to understand. The scene concludes with a full and beautiful production of the opera's finale, a great vaudeville. This is the perfect piece to characterize a very happy time in Mozart's life.

Just to draw a little attention to the breadth and depth of Amadeus I would like to note that the scene I just described contains 1) a full orchestra playing the music, 2) a fully staged version of the finale, 3) an opera house full of period-specific costume extras, and 4) descending candle-lit chandeliers.  All of that for just a ten minute scene in a three-plus hour movie.

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