Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Playing Mozart: Biopics and the Musical (Re)invention of a Composer

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Playing Mozart: Biopics and the Musical (Re)invention of a Composer

Article excerpt

Biopics or Biopics?

Composer biopics sit uncomfortably between musicology and film studies. For film scholars they are located somewhere on the fringes of the biopic - itself hardly the most reputable of genres, suspected of middle-brow hero-worship and formal conventionality - whereas musicologists tend to treat them as curiosities, distortions of the truth, capable of undoing decades of scholarly work in two hours of screen time.

But however doubtful their aesthetic or historical credentials, composer biopics can still be rewarding objects of study. They are a rich source for reception history, one that scholarship has only just begun to exploit, but they also pose film-music problems. They are a stage for the performance of their composers' music - or rather, a stage for the filmic performance of musical performances, providing opportunities for historical contextualisation as well as for narrative playfulness. And if they want to show composers composing, they have to externalise an often invisible, mental process, producing manifold attempts to represent composition as a performative act. And of course they transform their composers' music into film music, which adds layers of meaning to both films and music, and leads to intricate experiments with the place of music in the narrative structure of a film.

The focal point of this article lies at the intersection of these perspectives: how do films (re)invent a composer through the use of his music? The biopics discussed are not just a small sample of the genre, they are also just a small sample of Mozart films. As a topic, Mozart has appeared in film history at least since La mort de Mozart (Étienne Arnaud and Louis Feuillade, France 1909) and Simfoniya lyubvi i smerti (Symphony of Love and Death, Viktor Tourjansky and S. Yurev, Russia 1914, after Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri), and up to Bernd Fischerauer's German TV film Mozart - Ich hätte München Ehre gemacht from 2006, and beyond to Carlos Saura's forthcoming Da Ponte biopic, Io, Don Giovanni. This long history allows us to compare musical choices, strategies, and their development better than films about any other composer.

Re-invention occurs in these films on two levels. All of them necessarily re-invent Mozart and his music, but they also re-invent their predecessors - their Mozart images and musical strategies. The purpose of this study is to show how this double re-invention works across seven examples and more than 60 years of biopic history. The main films discussed here are (in chronological order):

Eine kleine Nachtmusik (Leopold Hainisch, Germany, 1940)

The first of the two Mozart biopics made during the Third Reich, loosely based on Eduard Mörike's novella Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag (Mozart on the Journey to Prague, 1855).

Wen die Götter lieben (Whom the Gods Love) (Karl Hartl, Germany, 1942)

The second Nazi Mozart biopic, more lavishly produced and heavily marketed, focusing on Mozart's relationhip with Constanze and Aloysia Weber.

Mozart (Karl Hartl, Austria, 1955)

Karl Hartl's third Mozart biopic (after Wen die Götter lieben and The Mozart Story, 1948) focuses on the last year of Mozart's life, constructing a love triangle between Mozart, Constanze and the original Pamina, Anna Gottlieb.

Amadeus (Milos Forman, USA, 1984)

The best-known and commercially most successful of all composer films, based on Peter Shaffer's play from 1979.

Noi tre (We Three) (Pupi Avati, Italy, 1984)

Uses the stay of Mozart and his father at the house of Count Pallavicini near Bologna in 1770 to imagine the teenage Mozart's private life, between the lines of the history books.

Vergesst Mozart (Forget Mozart) (Miloslav Luther, Germany/Czechoslovakia, 1985)

Uses a fictitious secret police investigation after Mozart's death to show his relationships with colleagues, friends, and enemies, constructing a more political Mozart image than other films. …

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