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joy and pain through mozart

March 14, 2013

I remember distinctly when I first saw Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. The theatre was in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, it was a Saturday night in the fall, and I went alone. Which is probably just as well because I was blown away – so enraptured by the performance that I had no need or desire for company. I wish I could remember the name of the actor who played Salieri – Michael ?? – so I could give him credit now, but I didn’t see him – I saw only his character. To me, he was Salieri.

A number of years later, then working for the Natal Performing Arts Council in Durban, I was thrilled to learn that we were going to present the play at the Natal Playhouse. But as talks proceeded about the budget for the presentation, I was confused that it was being dubbed as expensive, big cast, lots of costumes and set changes. Slowly, I came to realize again how completely Salieri – I mean Michael ? had bewitched me. In my memory, it was a one-man show.

I saw the play many times during its run in Durban, getting to know the other characters, and to love the words Peter Shaffer put into their mouths:

  • “How shall one say, Director?” [Franz Joseph is looking for words to describe Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio.]
  • Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Director of the Imperial Opera replies, “Too many notes, Your Majesty.”
  • Joseph: “Very well put. Too many notes.”
  • Mozart: “There are just as many notes, Majesty, neither more nor less, as are required.”
  • Joseph: “Ah . . . Well, there it is.”

(I have used that “too many notes” phrase a few times myself since then. And still do. But usually not for Mozart.)

But there was another treat in store for me when the Oscar-winning movie came out. While Michael ?’s Salieri had blown me away in my first encounter with Amadeus, and Peter Shaffer’s language captured my imagination during its Durban run, I had not yet fully felt the impact of the music.

I don’t know what Peter Shaffer’s musical background is (or is not), but he couldn’t have chosen a better piece of music for the scene in which Salieri learns to his horror and despair that the “obscene child” whose antics he has just observed is, in fact, Mozart. And that the music piercing his heart is that of Mozart.

FROM THE PLAY:
[Quietly and quite slowly, seated in the wing-chair, SALIERI speaks over the music.]
“It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lower registers – bassoons and basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity. And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note on the oboe . . . It hung there unwavering – piercing me through – till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling . . . The squeezebox groaned louder, and over it the higher instruments wailed and warbled, throwing lines of sound around me – long lines of pain around and through me – Ah, the pain! Pain as I had never known it. I called up to my sharp old God, ‘What is this? . . . What?!’ But the squeezebox went on and on, and the pain cut deeper into my shaking head until suddenly I was running . . . dashing through the side-door, stumbling downstairs into the street, into the cold night, gasping for life. ‘What?! What is this? Tell me, Signore! What is this pain? What is this need in the sound? Forever unfulfillable yet fulfilling him who hears it utterly. Is it Your need? Can it be Yours?’” “Dimly the music sounded from the salon above. Dimly the stars shone on the empty street. I was suddenly frightened. It seemed to me I had heard a voice of God . . .”

HERE IS THE SCENE FROM THE MOVIE.

The piece is Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in B-flat major, “Gran Partita.” LACO performs it as part of Mostly Baroque, March 23 & 24 and I can’t wait. Echoing Salieri, “what joy, what pain!”

Listen to a clip performed at the International Chamber Music Festival in Salon-de-Provence, France.

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