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Great play, ludicrous movie.

Where to start … it distorts Mozart’s character, he was not this continually asinine schoolboy, despite what one may infer from his letters. I don’t think there is evidence that his father became a source for fear, although he probably thought his father a prick stuck in Salzburg. It makes his composing look too casual and easy. The film makes the point that he works hard, but it undermines the concept.

There is no evidence that Salieri ever tied to seduce Constanze, a pure invention.

There is no evidence that Salieri had any even marginal involvement with him in his final weeks. His wife was not as portrayed, the idea they call one another “Wolfie” and “Stanzie” in inane voices generates a tone that also undermines the character of them both. She was bright, a gifted singer and hardworking. The children are pretty much kept out of the way.

I think that will do for now.

No, no, no …

Of course, the film gives a distorted view of the composer; Peter Shaffer was not trying to create a biographical play but only used events from Mozart’s life to create a model in which he could explore the nature of artistic genius as compared to artistic mediocrity.

Mozart’s life and experiences in Vienna were a convenient framework in which to set up this examination. This means that whenever Mozart’s life’s events fit the model, they were used or adapted; those events which did not fit the model were discarded or altered. Where events did not exist, and were needed to advance the thesis of the play, they were invented (e.g. Salieri commissioning the Requiem, and in the end helping him to compose it, the most ludicrous part of the movie). In the play, Salieri must destroy Mozart because Shaffer wanted to demonstrate that mediocrity is the mortal enemy of genius. The work is one of fiction and bears as much resemblance to Mozart’s life as any novel about a historic figure resembles that figure’s life. It is a great play, but Mozart’s life is the scenery and background; it was never about Mozart. The movie is a stupid movie, one of the worst screen adaptions of a stage play, but the music is really an exquisite frame for the ideas which are independent of Mozart as an historic personage.

BTW, I saw Amadeus at the National Theatre in 1979, aged 17, with Paul Scofield as Salieri, Simon Callow as Mozart, and Felicity Kendal as Constanze, directed by Peter Hall, music arranged by Harrison Birtwistle, so FUCK YOU!

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The Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, who led the opening concert at the Sydney Opera House and was the first non-Briton to lead the Last Night of the Proms, has died in London at the age of 84.

Charles Mackerras was born in the US and raised in Australia before coming to England to study music.

Though internationally acclaimed, he disdained stardom and missed out on the plum post at Covent Garden.

He had become maybe my favourite conductor over the last few years. What a great man – great conductor, great musicologist, great reader and lover of music, great arranger too (Pineapple Poll). This is really sad news. He was the one conductor among the current generation of 80-somethings I was hoping would live longest; sorry, Haitink, Harnoncourt, etc. Not least because he was due to perform Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Mozart’s 40th and Schubert’s 4th in London this year – concerts which, since I’m moving to London, I was expecting to be the best nights of my year.

I don’t think I ever heard a recording of his that was not good, whether it was 18th 19th or 20th Century – he seemed to bring a fresh and exciting and always musically rewarding interpretation to the works he conducted.

It is very sad news, but he had a long and full life and left behind a great recorded legacy; you can’t ask for much more than that.

I recall an excellent concert at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester nearly ten years ago, where Sir Charles conducted Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. This was issued on CD with the BBC Music Magazine about a year later and I recalled how special and heartfelt the performance was. It is this, which I am spinning now, preparing for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony from the BBC Proms tonight. Great memories, great performance, very sad loss.

R.I.P. Alan Charles MacLaurin Mackerras, conductor, born 17 November 1925; died 14 July 2010

Related:

The modest maestro

A piece of music resembles in some respects a photograph album, displaying under changing circumstances the life of its basic idea – its basic motive.

(Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition)

Here are some questions thrown at me by my young friend Melissa:

I think that many composers try to compose music that specifically and intentionally sounds “modern”. I wonder why they choose to do so. Isn’t it better to write music without trying to make it sound modern? What happened to purity of music and composition? Are they trying to copy the famous modern composers? Is it because they are incapable of finding their own distinctive style? Their music would be considered more “important” or “serious” because it sounds modern?

There could be many reasons but none of them seem convincing …

What would be the use of trying to sound like the old masters? Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc., have already done their work far better than most could ever emulate. Therefore the only options for serious musicians are to strike out in new directions or to find another set of musical tools: Oriental or other Asian scales, African-influenced polyrhythms, asymmetric rhythms such as you find in Bulgaria, and so on. (I have yet to hear a composer successfully combine Native American and classical idioms, although I have heard of one in the early 20th century, not one I had ever heard of before.) Such music may offend a few new music diehards but it will secure future audiences who love not mere novelty, but music that is different than others have done, music that breaks old moulds and creates new ones.

I think it was Lutoslawski who said “I try to write the music that I’d like to hear”. For the most part, that’s what composers are doing.

Of course, if you’re a composer in the 21st century, you have a huge range of potential influences which will inflect your musical preferences and style. It’s hardly surprising if some of them are “modern” in nature. Some of them also aren’t, even for “modern” composers: I find it impossible to conceive of Carter finding his late style without Mozart and Haydn – they’re such a massive influence on it.

Speaking as a composer I can only say that I don’t try to make my music sound like anything other than what I want it to sound like. I don’t know any composers who would say otherwise.

The music a composer writes is simply the sum of all the music he’s ever listened to and enjoyed, hopefully with enough original ideas thrown in to give the resulting mix a distinctive stamp. So if I happen to enjoy modern music, I’m going to have to practice a lot of self-censorship to keep it out of the music I write.

I would add that even the music I don’t enjoy makes a contribution. This would make a good compositional exercise, and I can think of a few composers who ought to try it: take some piece of music that you don’t like. It doesn’t even have to be a modern piece, maybe Wagner or Schubert for instance. It just has to be something that you know a lot of musicians greatly admire but you don’t. Try to copy that music and change whatever it is about that music that you don’t like; make it so that some essential part of it is still there, but altered in such a way that it suits your temperament, altered in such a way that you can call it your own.

For instance, recently I found myself composing something with the spare textures of post-Webern serialism. Well, I hate post-Webern serialism, but somehow what I was writing called for that sound, so the task was to see how to achieve it and still own up to it as my music. I was pleased that the resulting music sounded so much like what I think of as “me” even though a listener will definitely say “R.A.D. you’ve been taking your Webern pills again”.

Miles Davis once said the only reason to write new music was to that you were dissatisfied with what currently exists. There is no possible artistic reason to write music today in the style of Mendelssohn or Brahms or Schoenberg. We already have Mendelssohn, Brahms & Schoenberg. A composer today has to meaningfully address the question of what it means to write new music in this tradition in 2010. The answer is not to throw out the last 100 years of composition (and “atonal” music is now that old). Composers must both acknowledge the tradition they inherit and not be bound by it. This is an increasingly difficult task for each generation of composers, as they have to digest and adapt to all that has come before them.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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