“On the page it looked nothing”

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Movie: Amadeus (1984)

Director: Miloš Forman

Music supervisor: Sir Neville Marriner

Amadeus is one of the finest movies ever made. There, I said it. I don’t even know where to begin whenever I want to talk about this movie; not because it’s a mess but because there is so damn much to talk about. The characters are extremely well-developed, the editing is some of the finest I’ve ever seen, the acting hasn’t been matched in over 30 years, the set decorations are astonishingly beautiful, and, above all else, the music is simply magnificent. It’s hard to pinpoint something in this movie that stands out; it is perfectly balanced, just like its main character’s music. I’ve always been intimidated to write about this movie’s soundtrack because I feel like I don’t have the right too. It’s not that I don’t think my opinion doesn’t matter, it’s just that it seems over-pretentious to write about this man’s musical legacy used in a “biopic” of his life. My thought process can be summarized to this: who am I to write an opinion piece on the greatest composer of all time? How can a kid from Montreal have a valuable opinion about Mozart’s musical genius? Well, were in 2018 and we live in a cult of self-expression so you’ll just have to bear with me on this one.

Before I dive into the movie and its musical dimension, I have to tip my hat to Sir Neville Marriner. Marriner was hired as a musical supervisor and conducted all of the recordings made for the movie. He’s one of the great minds behind the genius of this movie and should not be overlooked. Now, onto the matter at hand.

There’s a reason we all know Mozart’s music. Ask anyone in the world and they could probably sing you one of his melodies. Why is that? How is that possible? I believe there’s a simple explanation to it and it can be summarized into one word: simplicity. Although his music sounds very complex and rich (which it is), Mozart’s melodies aren’t that hard to keep in mind. I could sing you the first four notes of one of his melodies and you’d know how to finish it. He understood that music doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult to be memorable. The simplest alignment of notes can create the greatest emotions. It’s almost mathematical; he went to the roots of emotional triggering and played with the strongest strings. There’s a certain logic to his composition; you feel as if you already know how it’ll end. Even Salieri says it explicitly in the movie: “Displace one note and there would be diminishment, displace one phrase and the structure would fall.”

The logic and simplicity in Mozart’s music is what made him such a great composer, and it’s also what makes this movie’s soundtrack so amazing. The music works with the movie because it exploits musical themes we already know. It doesn’t have to implement them because everybody knows his music. We already associate it with him and that is something the filmmakers understood. Simplicity works. Let me give you an example. Can you think of any other film composer that has marked the history of cinema with his musical themes? If I say Indiana Jones, you know what to sing. If I say Darth Vader, you know what to sing as well. If I say Harry Potter, you also know what to sing. John Williams has captivated our ears with the simplest melodies. However, these are the ones we remember the most. Williams is someone who composes like Mozart. He understands that simplicity is his best friend. However, it’s also his worst enemy but that’s another subject for another time.

What I’m trying to say is this: great composers know that to add notes is not to add emotion. Emotion comes when you align the little dots so that they love each other. That’s why this movie works so well, because the music goes right to your strings.

I know this blog is supposed to talk about soundtracks specifically composed for their movies, but I like to go off the road sometimes. I decided to write this entry because of my grandfather. That’s right, buckle up ladies and gentlemen for it is time to take a ride on the feels train!

I can’t remember at which point in my life I started having an interest for music, but I remember my grandfather’s reaction when I told him I preferred the classical genre. I remember seeing the delight on his face when I told him about it. The setting is quite simple: I was 8 or 9 years old and we were leaving my parents house to go see a play. As we were walking down the steps towards the driveway, I told him I preferred classical music over every other genre. He stopped, looked at me while processing what he had just heard, and continued his way to the car with the biggest smile. We then sat in silence for the whole ride but he kept humming classical songs for me to hum with him (his radio was broken). From that moment on, I knew he was going to give me something I would cherish for the rest of my life: his love of classical music.

Fast-forward to a couple of years later. It was cold outside, and my brother and I stayed at home because the school was closed so we decided to watch Amadeus. At the time, I had no idea what the movie was about but my brother loved it. That afternoon, we sat down and watched whole thing from start to finish. I didn’t understand shit. The whole thing was in english and I wasn’t fluent with the language at that point. The only parts I understood were the parts where Salieri describes Mozart’s music. I understood them because the music spoke for everything else. However, I was young and I didn’t think much of it, I thought it was normal filmmaking.

Fast-forward (again) to my final high-school year. On a similar day to my original viewing, I decided to watch the movie once again. I thought it was going to be a fun ride and I was starting to have an interest for cinema. Barely 5 minutes in and I was shook. I was taken away by Salieri’s character. Not because of F. Murray Abraham’s performance (although my favorite of all time) but because of his love for music. His way of describing the effect of music is absolutely mesmerizing. Every time he was on-screen, I was hypnotized by his meticulous way of illustrating his love for melody. And this is where I link my grandfather.

In the first half of the movie, Salieri expresses his love for Mozart’s music although he hasn’t even met the man. However, in the sequence were they “meet” (they only cross paths), Salieri starts reading Mozart’s music and defines it as God’s voice. So, picture this: a high-school kid crying his heart out when he sees and understands this scene for the first time. My friends, I was rocked to my core. I didn’t cry of sadness; I cried of… comfort. My grandfather wasn’t feeling very well at that point. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was slowly drifting away from the man he once was. I was crying because I was watching my grandfather talk about music. I was crying because this particular scene is the filmic depiction of one of my most precious memories. It is the visual representation of my grandfather expressing his love for music. It is exactly like the first time he made me listen to music in his apartment. That memory is part of who I am and is why I love classical music so much.

I think of him whenever I watch the scene. I think of his love for classical music he so kindly passed on to my brother, my sister, and I.

Merci monsieur le professeur.

Merci grand-papa.

On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons, basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey. This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.

Interesting trivia: In order to make the most out of Mozart’s music, the filmmakers searched for a conductor to re-record all of the material that was going to be used in the movie. They asked four prominent members of the concert world to submit a list of three conductors known for their affinity with Mozart; Marriner was chosen because his name topped all four lists.

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Album Cover

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Trailer

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Album Highlights

Song: Serenade #10 in B Flat, K361, “Gran Partita ” – 3. Adagio 

Song: Symphony #29 In A, K 201 – 1. Allegro Moderato 

Song: Requiem in D Minor, K 626 – Lacrymosa 

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Thanks for reading (and listening). See you next time!