Tom Service’s ‘The Joy of Mozart’ Back

Tom Service’s recent short film for BBC Four, The Joy of Mozart, set out to deconstruct some of the most engrained Mozart myths. To attempt this in a single hour is a tall order; it is surprising that so much of what we think we know about Mozart’s life is actually a curious mixture of historical fact and hagiography that crept into circulation soon after his death, when his first biographers – Friedrich Schlichtegroll, Franz Xaver Niemetschek and Friedrich Rochlitz – laid the foundations for Mozart as a ‘Romantic genius’. Service begins in Vienna, standing in front of Viktor Tilgner’s Mozart monument (erected in 1896), where he boldly states his intention to remove the transcendent, romantic-artist-Mozart from his pedestal – ‘for his [Mozart’s] sake and for ours’. Accordingly, the film explores various manifestations of the ‘Mozart myth’, from our treatment of historical sources to biographical narratives and Mozart tourism. However, the extent of these myths’ entrenchment means they are not equivalent to a house of cards (remove one and they’ll all topple); rather, each heavily sedimented layer, when pulled back, reveals yet more myth and uncertainty.

A scene in the British Library with Professor Cliff Eisen, where we were treated to a look at the autograph score of Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet, K.458, and his own, handwritten Thematic Catalogue, provided an important lesson in the capacity historical documents have to challenge romanticised notions of the compositional process. Extensive corrections to the final page of the quartet reveal that, far from being ‘divinely inspired’, Mozart’s working methods often involved a considerable amount of trial and error. Yet Service seems reluctant to abandon romanticism completely; both Service and Sir Nicholas Kenyon view Mozart’s incomplete Thematic Catalogue as ‘touching’ and evocative of a life ‘cut short’ (cue Mozart’s sombre Masonic Funeral Music, K.477), on account of the number of blank pages left unfilled. Eisen, however, takes a more objective view: we cannot invest so much emotional weight – what ‘might have been’ – into a document made by the composer during his life, for whom it had no such significance.

Particularly enjoyable was the brief foray into the role the Mozart tourism industry – overwhelming in Salzburg but also prevalent in Vienna – has had in perpetuating an idealised Mozart. Service views Mozartkugeln (or ‘Mozart balls’: nougat and marzipan coated in dark chocolate) as ‘transubstantiations of the Mozartean myth’, their sweetness being the ‘confectionary embodiment of sentimentality’. And, as Service points out, while we can never know exactly what Mozart looked like, the most widely reproduced image of Mozart – the airbrushed face of Mozartkugeln – is a far cry from Joseph Lange’s 1782/3 portrait of the composer, considered to be the most accurate likeness.

Unfortunately, crucial biographical misconceptions, such as those regarding Mozart’s childhood and early career in Salzburg, were largely skimmed over. While Service sought to repudiate the image of the child Wolfgang being forced to perform tricks on the European travels, he had no problem with the idea of the Mozart children being ‘paraded around the courts of Europe’. Consequently, one of the most loaded myths of all is left intact. A closer look at the family’s correspondence (which, incidentally, was almost entirely absent from the film) suggests that the European tour exposed the Mozart children to a wealth of cultural and musical education, directly opposing notions of their suffering at the hands of their exploitative father. What made Mozart unique was not that he suffered as a travelling ‘circus act’, but rather that his early musical training was unrivalled at the time.

Service’s treatment of Salzburg is similarly underwhelming, perpetuating the misconception that Mozart was blameless in his own misery, desperate to escape the constraints of his father and his employer Archbishop Colloredo, and that becoming a freelance musician in Vienna provided a ‘path to emancipation’. At the very least, this is an oversimplification; although Colloredo was generally unpopular, Mozart himself was far from a good employee, and his open defiance of the court’s requirements eventually resulted in his dismissal. Likewise, Mozart readily accepted a court position in Vienna when one eventually became available. In short, Service seems reluctant to fully remove the romanticised Mozart from his pedestal.

It is clear early on that the documentary in fact has a dual aim. In addition to myth deconstruction, Service also seeks to explore what it is about Mozart’s music that has such a capacity to emotionally move us. Indeed, Service’s accompanying article in The Guardian emphasises a desire to uncover ‘his’ Mozart. This became a theme throughout, with contributors including soprano Miah Persson, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and music critic Paul Morley discussing the significance Mozart’s music holds ‘for them’. Whether these views are compatible with the film’s anti-romantic aims is unclear; emphasising the personal meanings of Mozart’s music is a far cry from the objective lens set out at the beginning of the film. Viola player Lawrence Power’s contribution was perhaps the most ill-judged, who hears the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat Major, K.364, as being written in response to the tragedies and disappointments suffered on Mozart’s tour of Mannheim and Paris (namely his mother’s sudden death, a failed romance, and failure to find employment). Power hears the viola as so fatherly and consolatory that he is ‘sure’ Mozart and Leopold must have played the piece together. Actually, with a complete lack of documentary evidence supporting any of these suggestions, Power has perfectly demonstrated how readily we read into Mozart’s music what we want to hear.

The broader issue here, though, is that the very act of trying to pinpoint the uniqueness of Mozart’s music reinforces the notion of his divinity, meaning that, throughout the film, Mozart is still accorded the very untouchable status that is epitomised by Tilgner’s monument and questioned by Service. To be clear, individual responses to pieces are a vital part of our personal understanding. We all have such moments that are intensely personal to us as individuals (incidentally, I also ‘stop breathing’ at exactly the same moment Nicola Benedetti identifies as magical in K.217/ii). Yet the significant exploration of what the music ‘means to us’ is not a viable model for historical enquiry, and certainly cannot assist with deconstructing myths.

This film was interesting, enjoyable, and there are certainly things to be learnt. However, Service’s tendency to selectively read mythical significance into particular pieces of evidence, even replace old myths with new, confirmed that the programme was not fully committed to its stated aims. The result, then, is perhaps a less ‘mythical’ but no less romanticised (and certainly no more historically accurate) depiction of Mozart. We have – yet again – merely rebuilt Mozart’s pedestal with new materials.

The Joy of Mozart was first broadcast on BBC Four on 18th January 2015, and is available in the UK on BBC iPlayer until 18th February 2015.