Mozart and Beethoven were real people, but our perceptions of them are colored by many things: movies like Amadeus and Immortal Beloved; anecdotes about their quirks; paintings and other visual representations; and the meanings we read into their music. A “biopic” about Beethoven, Immortal Beloved (1994) has us imagine Gary Oldman as Beethoven, a temperamental genius whose encroaching deafness and unhappiness makes him angry and difficult. The film takes many liberties with the facts, so much so that musicologist Lewis Lockwood wrote an article about the phenomenon called, “Film Biography as Travesty,” (The Musical Quarterly, 1997). In fact, the film goes as far as to “reveal” the true identity of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved as pretty much the only woman musicologists can agree was NOT in the running.
As a musicologist myself, I’m probably supposed to dislike movies that play fast and loose with the truth, but I can also get swept up in a good story. For me, the best part ofImmortal Beloved is the use of the composer’s music in the film. The Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony is used to great effect here, as it is in a more recent film The King’s Speech (it accompanies the King’s speech at the end of the film). It’s a great piece of music and seems to uplift whatever it accompanies. Beethoven wasn’t around for the advent of film, but I’d wager that he would have written some amazing scores.
When I was in school, I discovered Song of Love, a movie from 1947 starring Katharine Hepburn and Paul Henreid as Clara and Robert Schumann. Robert’s descent into madness is treated very gently, and again, the real star of the film is the music. Katharine Hepburn actually did all of her own playing, and she makes a very convincing Clara: talented, capable, utterly devoted to her husband. The reality of Robert’s illness, the stress Clara must have felt maintaining a busy career and caring for their seven children, was only hinted at, and even that in a lighthearted way. In the film — as it happened in real life — a young composer, Johannes Brahms (played by Robert Walker), comes to stay with them to learn from Robert, and eventually to help run the house. Brahms continued to live with Clara and the children (in an upstairs apartment, for propriety’s sake) after Robert’s commitment to a sanitarium and subsequent death. Brahms’ put his own art aside for a couple of years to care for the family. If I were a filmmaker, that’s the movie I would make. I’d cast Tom Hardy or Joseph Gordon-Levitt as young Brahms, but that’s just me.
Biopics have gone further afield, of course. Lizstomania (1975) springs to mind, with The Who’s Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt. Ken Russell’s re-imagining of the life and music of Liszt is a bit wild; Ringo Starr, for example, makes an appearance as the Pope. The music in this case is sometimes synthesized. Rick Wakeman, a composer in his own right, best known as a member of the band Yes, performed the synthesized versions of Liszt’s piano pieces and also appears in the film as the god Thor. Ken Russell was intrigued by musical subjects, andLisztomania was the culmination of a series of films about composers, each one taking more and more artistic license than the last. His 1962 film on Edward Elgar was conceived as a documentary with dramatic elements like re-enactments, and after this he moved on to Tchaikovsky with The Music Lovers (1970) — with Richard Chamberlain as the troubled composer, then Amadeus. It won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, and numerous other awards including Golden Globes, BAFTAAwards, and a prize from the Directors Guild of America. The popularity of the play and film Amadeus have given many viewers an indelible portrait of an immature, giggling Mozart. It has also recast the story of Mozart’s writing of his Requiem as a mysterious plot by rival composer, Antonio Salieri. Playwright Peter Shaffer was inspired to write Amadeus by Russian playwright Alexander Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri (1830). Pushkin’s play also inspired an eponymous opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1897, which incorporated Mozart’s own music, including the Requiem. Shaffer did the same thing for his play, using key musical works to set scenes.
Amadeus the film uses this music brilliantly, and introduced many of Mozart’s pieces to a public that might have been unfamiliar with it. Although there is no truth to the part of the story wherein Salieri commissions the Requiem under mysterious circumstances, ideas of their rivalry endure. It’s just too good a story to ignore, even if it isn’t fact.
Musicologists have ascertained that Mozart’s commission came from Count Walsegg, a rich man who fancied himself a composer. He commissioned the Requiem to commemorate the death of his wife, but did so through an anonymous emissary so that he could pass the work off as his own. Mozart’s death during the writing of this piece changed the ending of that particular story. Instead, we have a new narrative with wife Constanze struggling to find a composer who might help her complete the piece in secret in order to collect Walsegg’s payment. The story of the Requiem’s completion, and indeed, its re-imagining by composers in the twentieth century, could be a film of its own. We might have to invent some drama for the sake of the movie, but as you’ll see at the concert, the real story is, and always has been, the music.