[Marxism] My review of "In Search of Mozart" from July 2007

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 23 18:58:05 MDT 2009


This Friday “In Search of Mozart” opens at the Cinema Village in New 
York City. As the title implies, it is an attempt to come to grips with 
perhaps the greatest composer of all time who died at the age of 35 in 
1791. It mixes interviews with musicologists and performers who all 
share a love of his music as well as uncommon insights into his 
particular gifts. While the musical excerpts tend to be on the brief 
side, the film is “wall-to-wall Mozart” with performances from many of 
the interviewees including Renée Fleming, Roger Norrington and Lang 
Lang, the rising virtuoso pianist from China. It is also an 
old-fashioned travelogue as we follow the same path the young Mozart and 
his ambitious father took from city to city in pursuit of fame and fortune.

Although this might sound like the typical PBS fare, it is much more 
interesting and much more human. The Mozart director Phil Grabsky is 
intent on showing us is not a deity, but a living, breathing human 
being. We learn that he, like his parents, enjoyed writing scatological 
letters, filled with references to farting, oral sex and other off-color 
topics. He was also bent on enjoying the good life, even if it meant 
going into debt, not unlike millions of Americans today. Although he was 
prodigious in his output and a total disciplinarian when it came to his 
craft, he also knew how to relax–spending his afternoons playing 
billiards or cards.

His life was also filled with conflict. Like many child prodigies, he 
had to contend with an overbearing father who wanted to use his son as a 
vehicle for his own ambitions. Unlike many prodigies, however, Mozart 
handled all this pressure with great aplomb. Even as a very young man, 
he had a good grasp of human relationships as opposed to the almost 
“idiot savant” version of Peter Schaffer’s “Amadeus.”

Indeed, he not only had a gift for harmony but also for understanding 
the human condition from an early age. Operas like “Marriage of Figaro,” 
“Don Giovanni” and “Cosi Fan Tutti” demonstrate a level of understanding 
about society that transcends just about everything that preceded it. 
The librettist for these three masterpieces was Lorenzo Da Ponte, a 
Venetian who had been born a Jew but converted to Roman Catholicism. 
Expelled from Venice for his democratic leanings, he ended up in the 
United States, where he opened a grocery store in the Bowery! Eventually 
he moved on to better things as a local opera promoter and Professor of 
Italian at Columbia University in New York.

While “In Search of Mozart” focuses as it should on the music and the 
details of Mozart’s life, there is an underlying social drama that is 
akin thematically to “Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”. Like the 
more plebian characters in these two masterpieces, Mozart was basically 
at the mercy of his aristocratic patrons for every penny. He was always 
under pressure to turn out banal entertainments like Divertimentos or 
other dances for the court (that he always managed to turn into 
masterpieces), but preferred to compose more ambitious works like 
symphonies and operas.

Maynard Solomon, founder of Vanguard Records and author of “Marxism and 
Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary”, summarizes Mozart’s attitude 
toward the feudal gentry ruling Austria in his superb biography that I 
have been looking through since seeing the film:

     Beyond his fantasies of retribution, Mozart has scant deference for 
rank or position, whether in the secular or the religious spheres: 
archdukes, archbishops, emperors, and empresses alike are the subject of 
his scorn.

     He is skeptical of all authority, whether princes, kings, priests, 
or legislators. He cannot be taken in, as Beethoven was, by benevolent 
emperors and first consuls, perhaps because he knew these men at first 
hand in a way that Beethoven did not. “Stupidity oozes out of his eyes,” 
writes Mozart of his admiring patron, Archduke Maximilian Franz. “He 
talks and holds forth incessantly and always in falsetto—and he has 
started a goiter.” Hearing of Empress Maria Theresa’s mortal illness, he 
is irked that he would have to feign grief: “Next week everyone will be 
in mourning—and I, who have always to be about, must also weep with the 
others.” He is, we know, particularly sensitive to issues of economic 
exploitation: “No man ought to be mean, but neither ought he to be such 
a simpleton as to let other people take the profits from his work, which 
has cost him so much study and labor, by renouncing all further claims 
upon it.” With heavy irony, he writes, “You know well how services are 
generally rewarded by great lords.” Even Emperor Joseph II, whom he 
admired and wished to serve, did not escape Mozart’s scalpel: he was 
characterized as “a skinflint” who “was well aware of his own meanness.” 
For Mozart, the movers and shakers of society are fallible human beings 
rather than objects of veneration. He reports that the emperor has a 
sexual interest in Elisabeth Wilhelmine Louise, the teenage princess of 
Württemberg: “This affair is an open secret m Vienna, but no one knows 
whether she is going to be a morsel for himself or for some Tuscan 
prince. Probably the latter… I am really astonished, because she is, you 
might say, still a child.”

As a critic of the 18th century ruling class, Mozart would 
understandably resonate with modern day rebels, especially those who are 
thinking about ways to sharpen culture into a knife directed at the 
heart of the capitalist system.

Seven years ago, British Trotskyist Alan Wood wrote an article on 
“Mozart and the French Revolution.” He noted that the play that provided 
the libretto for “Marriage of Figaro” provoked bloody riots:

     Beaumarchais’ play, which depicted the aristocracy as degenerate, 
lustful and depraved types, was considered dangerously revolutionary at 
the time. In one speech his central character, the servant Figaro, dares 
to state that he is as good as his master. In the years before the 
French Revolution, this was subversive stuff! So dangerous was it 
considered that Louis XVI at first tried to have the play banned. 
Eventually it was put on stage, and its first performance in Paris 
caused a riot in which three people were trampled to death.

In a five part series of articles occasioned by the composer’s 250th 
birthday, the World Socialist Website’s Laura Villon makes a number of 
interesting musicological and political points (the website’s cultural 
coverage maintains the highest standards, even if the political analysis 
of questions facing the left tend to the dogmatic.) Among them is the 
impact of the visit to London on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father 
Leopold, who obviously shared his son’s democratic aspirations:

     In April 1764 the family crossed the English Channel and headed to 
London, where they would stay for 15 months. Within four days, they were 
warmly received at the English court of the German-speaking King George 
III and Queen Charlotte.

     If Paris was intellectually liberating, London was a social whirl. 
Leopold took pains to describe the democratic atmosphere in the city’s 
great public parks. For one shilling, all classes could enter the parks 
and hear great music. In St. James Park, the King waved to them from his 
carriage. “Here everyone is equal, and no lord allows any person to 
uncover before him; having paid their money, all are upon equal terms,” 
he wrote home to his patron Hagenauer (Gutman 188).

     Leopold and his son set out to better their knowledge of English 
and devoured English literature. He praised the courage of striking 
weavers who protested their unemployment and poverty in the capital in 
1765. He and his family came to see England as a symbol of freedom.

“In Search of Mozart” is an excellent introduction to the music and life 
of a very great composer. For information on screenings in your own 
area, check the film’s website which has a trailer.




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