Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Music of "Amadeus" Part II

This is Part II of a three-part study of the use of music in Milos Foreman's 1984 film, Amadeus. You can find Part I here.

St. Stephen's Cathedral in Amadeus
actually St. Giles Church in Prague, Czech Republic.

Shortly after the premiere of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart marries Constanze Weber. Dated from this time (Summer 1782) is Mozart's C minor mass, the Kyrie of which sets the tone for Mozart's marriage. The use of this movement is simple but nonetheless effective. The insistent, limping four-note phrase in the strings in C minor creates a sense of the inexorable, a sense relevant in three respects. First, young Wolfgang is getting married without his father's consent. Second, Mozart's wife will gradually replace his father in terms of significance and influence over Mozart. Third, and most importantly, this new rift between father and son will prove the weakness Salieri exploits to sabotage his rival. This occasion that should be most happy is thus a source of inexplicable unease to the viewer unaware of Mozart's fate.

The image in the background is a reproduction of an actual painting
of Mozart in Verona at age 14, painted by Saverio dalla Rose, January 1770.
The original is in a private Parisian collection.

What follows is another simple yet effective combination of sight and sound. Mozart's new wife brings some of her husband's work to Salieri in the hopes that he, as court composer, could persuade Emperor Joseph to offer Mozart a lucrative position as royal tutor. Salieri, already amazed and intrigued that the music Constanze has brought are first editions, opens the folio and is simply overwhelmed by the music. Salieri narrates his shock at the seeming impossibility of the fact that he was looking at perfect drafts as the soundtrack plays the pieces. The choice of pieces and editing is brilliant. The soft, gentle duet between harp and flute of the concerto KV.299 starts to carry us away. . . and Salieri, desperate to see another piece, crashes the pages together to see another and turns to Symphony No. 29, (KV.201.) (The piano opening to the piece is actually skipped and we come in forte at measure thirteen.) He noisily turns the pages again to a stormy passage from the E-flat concerto for two pianos, then again to a charming violin theme from the Sinfonia concertante (KV.364), and finally back to the C minor Kyrie, amidst a soprano solo. Like Salieri, we have gone from delighted to overwhelmed to transfixed and Salieri, carried away in ecstasy by the Kyrie, loses himself and drops the pages in a sort of musical. . . fulfillment. Confused, Constanze asks if the music is not good and Salieri responds without hesitation and with exhausted honesty, "It is miraculous." Moments later when she asks for his help again Salieri is back to his calculating, envious self.

Another scene, while not necessary for the plot, adds much color and character to the film and is one of my favorites. Mozart tells off a boorish aristocrat who insults him, takes the bottle of champagne he servant brought, and walks off into the streets of the city in the afternoon. To the music of the rondo from Piano Concerto No. 15 Mozart strolls the streets with bottle in hand.

It is a typical day in Vienna, a garrison is coming through the square, merchants are selling their wares, people run errands, and street entertainers catch the fancies of passers by. (The dog on the ball, the fire-eater, and the bear were especially playful touches.) The piece has a certain casual urbanity to it and perfectly complements the pleasant busyness of the city. "Its refrain, given out by the piano and repeated by the tutti, which adds a long ritornello, is one of [Mozart's] most pleasing rondo themes, both fiery and graceful, and perfectly illustrative of the union of these two qualities which characterize Mozart's genius." [Girdlestone, 204]

The opening theme from the 3rd mvt. of Piano Concerto No. 15, KV.450. [2]

The ebullience of this scene and music are shattered when Mozart enters his apartment building and we are presented with Leopold to the tune of the "Don Giovanni chord." Why here? We don't yet know when we hear it this time. Surely Leopold was angry his son married without his consent, but why this sinister music? Leopold, cloaked in black and blotting out the light behind him, certainly seems a foreboding presence and indeed we are a little uneasy as Mozart runs with childlike trust into this character's grasp. Mozart is enveloped in his father's cloak as well as his embrace and this is an appropriate gesture as Leopold, for all his love, was a domineering father.

To Mozart though, this is just a pleasant visit from Papa and so it is time to celebrate, which they do with a party. First, though, they pick their costumes out to the Janissary march from Die Entführung. This music is actually an arrangement, sans words, of Mozart's march, and perfectly complements the joyful haste with which Mozart and his wife, though not the reluctant Leopold, pick out their costumes. It also plays right into a similar piece, an arrangement of Mozart's song Ich möchte wohl Der Kaiser sein, a swaggering little "war song" which serves as the music to their game of musical chairs.

A scene not unlike Mozart's afternoon walk through town follows. Likewise, this rondo from Piano Concerto No. 22 (KV.482) is something of a cousin to the spirited rondo heard earlier. Girdlestone's description of the opening heard here so succinct it bears repeating:
The refrain of the rondo is a stiffer version of that of the B-flat concerto, K.450, but it is more of a dance than a gallop. The piano gives out the first part and the tutti repeat it. The second half belongs exclusively to the piano and a longish transition, braced by woodwind and horn calls, brings back the first part. This is the usual ABA design of rondo refrains. A very long ritornello follows it, the chief elements of which are an alternating motif, given out by clarinet and bassoon, and an active figure, quivering with the bassoon, chirping with the flute, which plays a part later on.

The piano's entry in the second couplet is more arresting than usual.  It is preceded by nearly three bars where the silence is broken only by chords in the strings, lightly repeated, and when it occurs the piano does not start with a well-market theme but with a faltering figure. . . all the clearer for being followed, as the piano grows bolder, [by a demisemiquaver figure played in the bass then treble], on the vaultings of which the solo instrument sets sail for its first cruise. [Girdlestone, 361]
This tuneful, playful-yet-regal piece starts out as background music to Mozart and his wife setting out in carriage for one of his outdoor concerts, then switches to diegetic as he plays and conducts it, and then shifts back to background music for Salieri's snooping in Mozart's apartment. Like its cousin-scene earlier, this one offers a little glimpse into Mozart's work routine and daily life in 18th century Vienna.

I will refrain from commenting much on the productions of Figaro and Axur in the film as Salieri's narration over the former is self-explanatory. Likewise, the contrast between the two pieces is easily perceptible. The former is a work of groundbreaking brilliance that fails at the box-office and the latter is a competent but uninspired work praised beyond all reason. We know Salieri's seething envy toward Mozart is not assuaged by the emperor's praise and his shiny medal. In fact the medal becomes a constant symbol of his mediocrity. Similarly, his inability to produce something completely new is subtly emphasized by the fact that as his opera pales before Mozart's, likewise has Mozart already had the leading lady and moved on.

The finale of Axur, re d'Ormus ("Axur, King of Ormus.")

[1] Girdlestone, Cuthbert. Mozart and his Piano Concertos. 1964. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY.

[2] Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Piano Concerto No. 15, KV.450. (Score.) IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.,_K.450_%28Mozart,_Wolfgang_Amadeus%29

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