The real Mozart

Documentary debunks myths behind a maker of immortal music

by Benjamin Woodward

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The genius, the divinely inspired child, the idiot savant, the skilled populist craftsman, the underappreciated artist in his time who died tragically young in anonymous penury. Every generation makes of him what they will; the legends abound. And 250 years after his birth in 1756, he still remains, despite a well-documented life, an elusive, myth-bound figure.

Phil Grabsky, the British documentary filmmaker behind “Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World” and “The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan,” seems, at first, an unlikely candidate for untangling the “real” Mozart. But his fresh perspective helps and the 129-minute film, “In Search of Mozart,” gives a lucid, fast-paced and beautifully shot account of a man very different from the one who appeared in the 1984 film “Amadeus,” adapted from Peter Schaeffer’s play and directed by Milos Forman.

Including excerpts from more than 80 works and through interviews with a surprising number of major figures in the classical music world — Renee Fleming, Roger Norrington and Imogen Cooper to name just a few — Grabsky puts Mozart in context and debunks popular notions that he was a dirty-mouthed philanderer, who wrote as if from divine dictation and died neglected, forgotten and poor. In a telephone interview, the director spoke to The Japan Times about the true Mozart vs. the mythic Mozart, and his attempts to discover what exactly makes the Austrian composer’s music so timeless.

What prompted you to make a film about Mozart?

I’d just finished doing a film on Afghanistan and I was trying to decide what my next project would be, and while I was thinking about that, I was taken to see the opera “Idomeneo.” I have to be honest, I’d never heard of it before. I spent the entire 3 1/2 hours just wondering to myself to what extent the character in Shaffer’s and Forman’s “Amadeus” — a brilliant performance by Tom Hulce — was true. That’s when I decided I would make this film.

And how true was the film “Amadeus”?

A Hollywood film is going to cut some corners and play fairly free with history. The father’s character is myth, the wife’s character is myth, Salieri [a contemporary of Mozart portrayed as a bitter rival], complete myth, the character of Mozart, myth. The real Mozart was much more practical, much more hard-working, much more determined. He knew how to behave at court. Of course, there were times when he couldn’t hold his lip and he was arrogant and he resented his position as servant, but he wouldn’t have gone to court with his hair flying out, and rolled under the tables eating chocolates with a semidressed woman.

The degree to which the events of Mozart’s life directly influenced his music divides musicians. Some interpret his music as a form of emotional self-expression and try to turn him into a Romantic artist, which he wasn’t. Where do you stand on this issue?

When I started, I didn’t have a view on this. But I think it becomes very clear that the biography did impact upon the music. There were some people who said, no, I don’t buy it. He can write a happy piece in the morning and a sad piece in the afternoon, irrespective of what was going on his life and how he felt, but I think they were in the minority. I think it’s easiest to see in the operas. Obviously he’s working with a libretto that he hasn’t written, but I think because they take a longer time to write, there’s more of a chance for his mood to come across. Clearly he’s in a somber mood when he wrote “Don Giovanni,” or he’s happy and he’s falling in love when he wrote “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail.” For me, knowing the man who wrote it, when he wrote it, why he wrote it, who he wrote it for, adds something to it.

But the myths are important as well, as they add their own resonance to the way many people listen to Mozart.

There probably is an appeal in going to a concert or an opera, thinking that the person who wrote the music is very charismatic, devil-may-care, almost like an 18th-century punk like in “Amadeus.” Maybe there’s an air of danger and rebellion about that character which makes hearing the music more lively, rather than, say, Haydn, who stayed in the same place, a grandpa figure in slippers with a pipe. The real Mozart — and I think my portrait is more accurate than anything else I’ve seen — is very human. He did like to dance all night, did like to go to bars. At the same time he always had a pen and paper with him. The character may not be as lively in reality, but maybe knowing who he really is will add something else to your appreciation of his music.

Did you encounter any major areas of disagreement about Mozart’s life?

The biggest area of discussion was the extent to which his attachment to the Masonic lodges plays a role in the latter part of his life. Some say it’s just a talking club and others say that he really did associate with those ideals. In “The Magic Flute,” how much did he want to bring Masonic values to a more popular audience? Also, take “The Marriage of Figaro.” Is Mozart really a revolutionary, or is he just interested in the relationships of love? How much thought of political emancipation was in his mind or was it just the libretto that he’d been given? The extent to which he was a political man was a very interesting area.

How did your appreciation of Mozart change as you made this film?

I hadn’t been exposed to the full breadth of his music. And it’s just amazing. The operas were the biggest revelations. I reckon if I’m being ambitious, 20 years from now, maybe three of my films will still be played; 50 years from now one; 100 years from now all forgotten. You go through Mozart’s music, and you know it’s not one or 10 or 50 or 100. About 200 of about 600 works are being played. It really is extraordinary.

Why do you think that is?

One of the questions that nobody could answer was — but I did ask — was why does Mozart’s music sound good? Why does this particular arrangement or assortment sound pretty or moving? Some people started talking about Hertz rates, but I think it was [opera/theater director] Jonathan Miller who says it’s “the great unknown” — 99.9 percent of notes don’t have any relation to natural sound, but in the right order, in a certain arrangement, they can move us to the depths of our soul and we don’t know why. It’s fascinating.

Some people believe that Mozart is over-rated at the expense of other just-as-worthy composers.

That came up recently. The controller of BBC Radio 3 said he was too chocolate-boxy. It’s a silly comment. It’s like saying a view is too pretty. The problem, though, is that a lot of the composers of the period have been ignored, but you listen to them and they’re fantastic. They may not have the variety of Mozart, and they don’t have the life story, which does sell, and the music industry is about what sells. It was the same with Muhammad Ali. He doesn’t even come in the top 10 of some boxing experts, but you wouldn’t guess it because the life story takes over. There’s no question that Mozart was supremely talented, but he wasn’t the only composer working at the time and he wasn’t the only composer writing great works.

How did the music influence the way you filmed “Searching for Mozart”?

The great thing about Mozart is that he does write for two audiences. He does write melodies that people can whistle the next day, for the general audience, and in the same way, I tried to make this for people who know absolutely nothing about Mozart except his name. Mozart also does things that are musically very complex for the connoisseurs, which I can’t hear, which I have to be told about. In the same way, if you’re a musician or a filmmaker, you’ll get something out of this as well.

How do you think our age has redefined Mozart?

With recent scholarship, we are moving away from the idea that things are divinely given to us, that great genius is a gift from God. I make no comment on whether Mozart was a gift from God or not, but clearly there’s something. Just because you’re hard-working and determined and have fantastic advantages from your family, and you’re lucky enough to meet the perfect wife, it still doesn’t mean you’re going to write fantastic music. There’s always something else. Also, I think we are in an increasingly debased celebrity culture, which wants Mozart to be a philanderer or have Tourette’s. I react against that. There’s no evidence for it. I’m trying to make an intelligent film that doesn’t pander to populist demands.

How do you think Mozart is relevant to us now?

He’s completely contemporary, like Shakespeare, Picasso, Caravaggio. The great things about their genius is that they’re completely human and the human condition hasn’t changed very much. The issues that Mozart was dealing with are just as relevant now: love, ambition, jealousy, the innermost thoughts of men and women. That’s why we react to Mozart just as powerfully now as did the bewigged, the bejeweled, fancy-clothed men and women 250 years ago.

Mozart bonanza

There’s never a shortage of Mozart in any year, so festival organizers have been working overtime to make the 250th anniversary of his birth stand out.

One of the most accessible and large-scale events this year is the La Folle Journee, now in its second year, which is aimed at the Mozart enthusiast and the classical novice alike. Over four days, May 3-6, 9 a.m.-11 p.m., the Tokyo International Forum will host a marathon 150 concerts with 1,500 musicians from Japan and abroad. The program will cover Mozart’s opera, chamber and symphonic works roughly in chronological order.

Those used to paying obscene amounts for classical concert tickets will certainly welcome the 1,500-2,000 yen yen admission prices. Brevity will also be a boon for some, with most concerts lasting roughly 45 minutes. And children are welcome to attend the day-time concerts.