A Little Ear Music

A couple of weeks ago I sat in on a sort of cocktail request gig and somebody wanted Hotel California “with the guitar bits”. Never actually done that on the piano before, strange to tell, but I had a little think and a sip of my libation while the band were getting ready and then played it.

Someone was asking afterwards how difficult it is to just hear or remember something and be able to play it. As so often, I replied “it depends”.

Here’s a famous scene from the film Amadeus (which takes extreme dramatic licence with history and is of course, extremely unfair to Salieri – grazie, Signor Pushkin). It’s interesting for lots of reasons. The late Sir Neville Marriner insisted that the screenplay should be written to performances of Mozart’s music, refusing any suggestion of rewriting bits of Mozart to fit the edit.

As with a lot of fiction based on fact, various events are conflated, exaggerated and jumbled around. And invented.

Young Mozart heard Allegri’s Misere (a score the Vatican revered so highly that it was virtually kept under lock and key) twice and transcribed it whole from memory. Bootlegging the Pope, pretty cool eh?

That’s an astonishing feat, and the real story behind this scene, which is cleverly concocted for dramatic purposes. And sort of getability.

There are some interesting issues in playing music from a single hearing. First, most music is somewhat stylised. Certain harmonies, chord voicings, figurations and rhythms are just par for the course. If you’re familiar with them, you just hear them.

The other thing to bear in mind is that in the film, Salieri had written this piece for the Emperor (who was in real life genuinely interested in music, had a fair degree of talent, but wasn’t exactly a virtuoso) to play.

So in the scene, the assembled eminent composers are astonished that Mozart can just effortlessly produce what Salieri wrote and he heard the Emperor play once. Could you do that? You really should be able to…

To give you a clue, it’s made up of I, V and IV, and the melody mostly arpeggiates those chords. Oh, and it’s in C major. How would Mozart know it was in C? Well, leaving considerations of perfect pitch aside, in the well-tempered tuning of the day, different keys really did sound different. A reasonably experienced musician of the day would have been able to tell C from Eb by ear.

(And of course, it wouldn’t do to burden His Majesty with troublesome key signatures – so C would have been a fair guess anyway…)

Of course, the lovely joke in this scene is that when Mozart starts improvising on it, he comes up with the basis of Non piu Andrai – a very distinctive and well-known Mozartian theme. It’s an aria from Marriage of Figaro, which is the subject of further scandal, courtly debate and skulduggery later in the film. Foreshadowing, and all that jazz…

I’ve no idea whether the bagatelle the film presents as written by Salieri is genuine or whether it was a sort of de-evolved version of Non piu that the music editors came up with. In any event, there’s nothing remotely unusual about a classical-era march piece going I V V I. You really should be able to hear that. Pause the video at the point when Mozart sits down and try to play it yourself.

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings
2 comments on “A Little Ear Music
  1. Unfair to Salieri, but I don’t think that was the writer’s intent. If you think about it, the whole film recreates what Salieri remembers as his part in Mozart’s death, not what actually happened. Salieri in real life did believe he killed Mozart, though there’s no evidence to suggest that he did, and so that’s what he remembers. The film is therefore accurate in terms of what’s in Salieri’s head. A great post that makes it clear what’s up in that scene!

    • Jason says:

      Hi Adam. My take on it is that the rumours began to swirl, inflating the undeniable asymmetrical rivalry between the two in the public imagination into something more scurrilous (and intriguing). The rise of Romanticism would surely have played a part over the years. As would the growing public association of Italians with Machiavellian practices, so the rise of nationalistic tensions would have been part of the brew as well.
      Pushkin wrote a play largely based on the rumours, which framed Salieri in terms of envy and guilt, and portrayed Mozart as a kind of socially vulgar divine, but also a troubled pioneering individualist pitted against authority – a Romantic theme and right up Pushkin’s alley. Nowadays, Mozart would be instantly recognised as high-functioning Asperger’s.
      Anyway, that play was the main source for Schaffer’s play and screenplay.
      It’s possible that Salieri did come to feel that he was responsible much later in life, when he was institutionalised for dementia. Which is after all the perspective from which the film’s story is told. It’s the unreliable private confession of a lunatic. A priest taking confession doesn’t actually take every word as true – the horrified reactions are just as much to do with having to stare into the moral darkness of such a broken personality.
      Not all priests were very enlightened in the day, but surely modern therapy sessions are pretty much a lay version of confession?
      Salieri can’t be redeemed in the traditional way – in fact, he doesn’t even seek redemption. Mozart’s very existence and Salieri’s own mental degradation have shattered his sense of order and faith. He’s left with the modern condition of moral uncertainty, but it breaks him.
      What has been established from earlier correspondence with friends though, is that while still sane, Salieri wearily accepted he’d have to live with the rumour around his neck, admitted that he had thwarted Mozart on occasion, but did deny that he killed him.
      Perhaps in his mentally degraded state of paranoia and delusion, Salieri conflated the rumours with his own darkest feelings. Who knows? Dementia is a catch-all term, but it generally doesn’t just randomly destroy memories, it also results in a progressively degraded present consciousness warping it to make a version of sense that it craves. It’s the mind making a last-ditch stand to defend against its accelerating decline. Any kind of defence.
      Cheerful stuff eh – gazing into the abyss? As I said, just my take on it all…

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