Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 18, 2007

In Search of Mozart

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:14 pm

Director Phil Grabsky checking out his subject

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.



  1. I have always wondered why Mozart refused to
    move from aristocratic Vienna to Prague, the most bourgeois city (except Amsterdam) in Europe, where he was assured both an excellent income and a wildly enthusiastic public. Was he still, perhaps, hoping to “make it” as a court composer? Or were there political reasons involving his Freemasonry (he and his only peer, the great Haydn, were members of the same Lodge)? I also wonder whether, if he had survived his last illness, he might have moved to Paris under the Masonic-friendly
    Directorate and Napoleonic regimes? Mozart
    as official composer for the
    First Empire–that would really have been Something.

    Comment by Shane Mage — July 18, 2007 @ 5:52 pm

  2. Mozart was adored in Prague. When he arrived there in 1787 (commissioned by that city to write Don Giovanni),he commented to his wife how everyone in the streets was singing the arias from Figaro (written the year before). But Prague was not Viennna. Imagine an American actor opting out of a career on Broadway for the bright lights of …Peoria!

    As for moving to Paris – he detested the place because of its cold reception for him as a job-seeking 21 year old. Haydn, after almost three decades of service to the Esterhazy family, toured London to great acclaim and begged him to leave beind the petty intrigues of Vienna and come to England, but one of Mozart’s children was very sick, so he put it off – and never lived to make the trip.

    Comment by Dennis Brasky — July 19, 2007 @ 2:53 am

  3. I look forward to seeing the film. For another Marxist take on Mozart, I highly recommend Paul McGarr’s little book Mozart: Overture to Revolution, conveniently available here: http://www.marxisme.dk/arkiv/mcgarrp/1991/mozart/default.asp.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — July 19, 2007 @ 5:28 am

  4. […] those who are familiar with the marvelous 2007 documentary “In Search of Mozart”, my recommendation of director Phil Grabsky’s latest—“In Search of Beethoven”—might […]

    Pingback by In Search of Beethoven « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 23, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

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