In Search of Mozart Review
No matter how great a piece of art, a work of literature or a piece of music it is at times perfectly easy to become blasé about its merits. Case in point: over the past year I’ve been lucky enough to attend a goodly number of the productions in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival. While never completely failing to appreciate what I was seeing and hearing, after a while I found that I become almost inured to it - indeed, it was only when I found myself helping my nephew revise for an English exam, for which the teacher had for some bizarre reason chosen the play Arden of Faversham as the set text, that I was reminded that not all Elizabethan theatre came up to the same standard. I’m the same in art galleries: fevered concentration at the beginning of an exhibition slowly dies away so that by the time I’m nearing the end my mind is more on wondering what the novelty erasers are like in the Gift Shop than what I’m standing in front of. When one is constantly presented with a certain standard, it no longer seems remarkable or unique. Familiarity really can breed if not exactly contempt then certainly deep complacency.
It’s a phenomenon that can happen with music just as much, and particularly with Mozart. For many he is the archetypal classical composer, the one who even those with not the slightest interest in the subject can name. Over the two centuries since his death his work, perhaps more than any other composer, has been a staple of orchestras across the globe, so much so that it is nearly impossible to approach his more famous pieces with anything like a critical ear. For some, his very ubiquity can cause an absurd snobbishness. He’s too popular, goes the thinking, not exclusive enough, and actually a lot of his work really is rather simplistic, isn’t it? He doesn’t have the complexity of a Bach or the ambition of a Wagner, so in the end he’s not really worth much trouble. For people in that frame of mind his music almost becomes muzak, a bit of background noise filling in the time before the really good stuff can begin.
Which is where Phil Grabsky’s ambitious documentary In Search of Mozart steps in. He reclaims those “tunes” and allows us to hear them afresh, as if, once more for the first time. The film reminds us anew of just how magical and beautiful the composer’s work is, and emphasises that he was not just some populist tunesmith. The director achieves this by putting the music into context by putting Mozart’s character centre stage. Whereas a lot of documentaries will reel out a dull list of chronological facts about their subjects without ever once threatening to come close to what they were actually like, Grabsky concentrates far more on the man himself than the events of his life, and through that approach explores the inspiration and emotion behind the composer’s over six hundred compositions. At its highest level music is an expression of what lies in our souls, so it’s perhaps only by truly examining a composer’s that we can expect to fully appreciate his work. The two are intertwined, and, while arguably we can never truly know someone else’s inner thoughts, it is to Grabsky’s credit that he comes very close: not only does he go in search of Mozart, but to all intents and purposes he finds him too.
This is not to say that we don’t also get an account of the man’s life: we do. Grabsky has assembled an extraordinary coterie of more than seventy contributors, experts on everything from the composer himself to the historians of his period and on to some of the finest operatic and orchestral performers in Europe. Everyone from Sir Roger Norrington to Jonathan Miller, over the course of two absorbing hours, lead us through the ups and downs of Wolfgang’s life, from his early days as a child prodigy wowing the great and good of Europe, through to becoming the Archbishop of Salzburg’s resident composer and on to his premature death. We follow him around Europe, taking in all the usual details one would expect such as his romance with wife Constanze and estrangement from his father Leopold, packing more into his short life -he was only 35 when he died - than most do in twice that time. Told in a clear, linear way and accompanied by many extracts from his own correspondence (read with conviction by Sam West) and lavishly accompanied by artwork from the time, very little that happened to the man is left out. That said, what is missing might surprise some: although we get a very clear picture of what the man himself was like, complete with all his various idiosyncrasies, comparatively little attention is paid to the personalities or opinions of those who surrounded him, with the possible exception of his father. Those whose only previous encounter with the man has been Milos Forman’s Amadeus will wonder why his supposed rivals, such as Salieri, get little attention (although we do hear a bit about how Haydn was a great admirer, something which brought great pleasure to both Mozart and his family).
But that is because Grabsky is firmly focused on the man himself and, primarily, his music. which suffuses and saturates the whole two hours. While the first hour concentrates on the composer’s life, the second pushes the biographical detail to one side in favour of allowing the work to speak for itself. As well as all the experts he has assembled, the director has also toured Europe recording some of the continent’s finest orchestras, from the expected London and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras through to the Opera of the National Theatre Prague and on, making a wonderful collection which even without any context would be worth your time. The old axiom that showing video of orchestras on their own isn’t that thrilling is shown to be simply not true, as the skill and intensity of the musicians shines through. On its own, the music is a powerful argument, and, placed in its chronological context in Mozart’s life I find it difficult to believe that anyone could help but be enraptured by the legacy we see - and hear- unfolding before us, especially given the passion that everyone in the film brings to their subject. It’s as though we’re living through the age itself; we hear Mozart’s evolution from his earlier works (composed while still a youth) to his masterpieces. Whether it’s your first time hearing it, or familiar stuff you’ve encountered hundreds of times before, it feels like a voyage of discovery, and there’s a real sense of how exciting it must have been at the time, and as the film includes over eighty pieces (each clearly marked using the standard Kochel Catalogue) there is the full range. It allows one, put bluntly, to wallow.
Through both his work and his story, Mozart comes to life. As the film points out, it’s very easy to elevate our geniuses to a state higher than our own, make them mythological paragons of virtue who descended to earth, blessed us with their powers and then ascended again, without ever really becoming flesh-and-blood. Grabsky’s film makes clear that, on the contrary, Mozart was a very real human, a passionate yet temperamental man (it cites his “chippiness” with the Archbishop of Salzburg for example), at times frustrated, at others enraptured, who delighted as much in coarse humour as in the finer things in life. It also underlines the fact that, as one contributor puts it, ““Mozart never wrote a note because he felt like it; it was because it was his job.” He was a hired hand, composing to make a living, reminding us that great art often comes about as much as necessity and sweat as fevered inspiration. Despite the success he had in his own lifetime, he often had financial difficulties, as well as personal tragedies such as the death of his firstborn (a particularly moving moment in the film is when we hear an affectionate letter from the new father describing his infant, followed closely by the news of his death). He was a genius, but he was a very human genius, and that is the lesson one takes away from this superlative, seductive film which brings both the man, and his legacy, to such vivid life. After watching it, it will be very difficult for even the most refined musical snob to be blasé about his work again.
On playing the disc, one is first presented with a language option screen, with the options being for English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese - selecting one of these other than English provides subtitles for that language during the film (although, unfortunately, you can't toggle them on and off). It's also worth noting there are no English subtitles. Briskly passing a Copyright screen, one arrives at the simple but effective Main Menu. Backed by a well judged medley of the composer’s work, the options are Play Programme, Scene Selections (15 chapters, clearly defined by years and events in his life) and Special Features. An image of Mozart is accompanied by a faint clock counting the years of his life.
The Video is not the best. The recordings of the various operatic performances in particular are of poor quality, with low definition and digital artefacts aplenty. Fortunately the rest is better, with the artwork coming across particularly well, but some of the interviews suffer from harsh lighting which doesn't look the best. Watchable but not attractive. The Audio, on the other hand, is very nice, which is just as well given the subject. Although only using two channels, the orchestration has a satisfying depth while the singing is crisp and clear. No complaints there.
The only real extra is an Interview with Director Phil Grabsky (32:52) which is a pleasingly substantial piece in which he explains the thought behind his film and how he went about putting it together, a momentous task. Well worth a listen. The only other thing on the disc is a trailer for The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan (1:48), another of Grabsky's films.
A marvellous documentary gets an attractive and well presented release onto DVD, and is heartily recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject - and even those who don’t. All in all a quality product.