Searching for a Mozart you never knew was lost
The grand festivities marking the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth have come and gone, but the party favors are still arriving. "In Search of Mozart," Phil Grabsky's informative feature-length documentary, has been making the rounds at various museums and festivals since last year. It opens today at the Museum of Fine Arts for eight screenings.
Narrated by Juliet Stevenson, the film is a thorough treatment of his life and work that covers all the bases you would expect and mostly with the reverent tone you would imagine: the emergence of his miraculous talent, the massive tour of European capitals he embarked on as a boy with his father and sister, the return to gloomy old Salzburg, the allure of Vienna, his great successes in the 1780s, the mysterious commission of the Requiem, and so on. Most of the stories have been told in countless program notes and biographies -- how exactly we are still "in search of" Mozart is never made clear -- but they are assembled here in one smoothly flowing and easily digestible narrative that serves as a fine overview and introduction.
Grabsky also seems highly aware of the way Mozart's life was sensationalized by Milos Forman's successful film "Amadeus," so he calls on a phalanx of historians and musicologists to debunk myths and set the record straight. It is particularly moving to see the scholar Stanley Sadie , the editor of the sprawling "New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" who died since the time of the filming, speaking with humane seriousness about Mozart, one of his enduring passions.
But most of the color and zest among the movie's many talking heads comes from the refreshingly irreverent opera director Jonathan Miller. After one hears excerpts read from Mozart's famously scatological letters -- far too explicit to quote in this family newspaper -- the camera cuts to Miller, who wryly reassures us that we don't have to think of Mozart as having a dirty mind. Rather, Mozart and his family "are coming to terms with the fact that we are these vessels of food and feces, and what's odd about that?"
What's less effective is the strange crosscutting to shots of contemporary life in various European cities to illustrate the historic narrative. At one point, the camera randomly follows attractive women walking down the street while a voice - over reads family letters cautioning Mozart about his budding love for Aloysia Weber.
Better managed are the film's thumbnail sketches of the three operas Mozart wrote to librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte , which Grabsky and his experts richly embed in a cultural context. Perhaps best of all, there are many fine performances of Mozart's music captured in the film, though they seldom run for longer than 30 seconds. Among the performers featured are the singers Renee Fleming, Magdalena Kozena, Gerald Finley, and Ian Bostridge; the pianists Leif Ove Andsnes, Lang Lang, and Ronald Brautigam; and the conductors Rene Jacobs and Louis Langrée. It's a pleasure to hear these musicians perform and then rhapsodize about Mozart, often sharing their first hand insights into his scores. In keeping with this theme, another musician -- the Boston-based violinist Daniel Stepner -- will introduce "In Search of Mozart" at this evening's screening.
The film ends with Mozart's death, but in a way, that's where the fresher subjects for exploration begin: the posthumous creation of his legend, the birth of the cult of Mozart worship, the invention of today's "timeless" musical canon, the appropriation of Mozart by the Third Reich, the breathtaking modern-day commercialization of his image . As one example of this, in the case of the famous Austrian sweet that bears his likeness, how and why, precisely, did this musical genius become a dessert filled with marzipan?
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.