Monday, June 21, 2010

Real genius

I was a kid when the movie Amadeus was released, and I remember when I watched it first with my parents, sister and grandmother in a cozy pizza, drinks and conversation one winter Saturday evening by the fireside. My mother plays the piano and in the 80's both my sister and I were taking music lessons too, so we did know who was this Mozart person well before seeing the film. We knew he had lived long ago, that by our ages he already mastered the instruments we played, but we weren't really conscious of his time and space and we were really impressed by the movie.

Curiously enough, it weren't the lavish costumes or the luxurious classical interiors displayed in the film what caught our attention, but rather was the notion that for all his talent and consequence Mozart was probably an unhappy man. Around that time we also saw the documentary From Mao to Mozart by Isaac Stern (my sister played the violin and her teacher lent us the tape) and the swedish film The magic flute by Ingmar Bergman, so it was clear that the movie was about Mozart's life but not his work.

In spite of the exposition to Mozart's work (we both were able to play some simple tunes) in the classical musicians' popularity ranking we ran at home, he wasn't the one at the very top. It wasn't Beethoven either, Haydn, Schumann or even Hanon or Kaiser (the authors of our exercises books), but the one and only Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach deserves every music student and amateur's respect, but now I suspect our devotion was rooted more in the conservatory we attended and the teachers we had (all members of the same family) rather than personal choice. Anyways. After watching Amadeus we ground my mother on biographical information on Bach, anecdotes of his whereabouts and whether he had also lead such a glamorous and chaotic life.

Turns out that we found soon that Bach was a product of his time and place. As it was usual then, his craft was his ancestors' and he passed it on to his descendants. Like everyone who hadn't a nobiliary title he worked hard, occasionally struggled with poverty, married a woman who died of birth complications or illness (but with today's medicine she had probably survived) and then married a second one, had many children but not all of them survived childhood, never traveled far, and never did anything outrageous or exceptional in his long life - unless he was at work. But his work, we realized, spoke by itself and his life wasn't movie material.

I'm not excessively fond of musicians' biopics but after watching two about Beethoven, I've always wondered about a film on Johann Sebastian. My guess was that it had to be a very boring movie, or an incredibly technical one explaining some of the wonderful innovations he made to the art - likely to be stone boring, too.

But in the past months I've found out that not one but two, yes, TWO different groups of people (at least) have taken the challenge. And maybe because I'm older now I found them quite satisfying actually.

The older film is from 1968 and its title is Chronik der Anna Magdalena. It's European arthouse at its prime: there must be maybe 3 minutes of acting and the rest is a female voice in the background reading letters Anna Magdalena wrote while musicians in period costumes play period instruments. Every letter comprises only one piece of music and is shot in only one take and plane - the camera doesn't move at all. Some pieces don't have the off voice, but it's just the performance. Boring? Well, for audiences expecting another version of Amadeus, yes, probably. But it conveys the life and times of the Bach in a surprisingly timeless fashion (which is more than I can say of Amadeus, which hasn't aged very well).

The newer film was released in 2003 and it's Mein Name ist Bach, and again it's more about life in Bach times than a biography, but unlike every other musicians' biopic I've seen before (not that they are too many), its focus is all about character. Well based and with only a couple of assumptions that can be argued from existing documents, it describes a meeting between Johann Sebastian and his two sons Friedemann and Emanuel with Frederich II of Prussia. Issues like family bounds, popularity, employment, health and aging are in our favorite composer's mind. Power, expectations, abilities are on the monarch's. Together they play a cat and mouse game with music, instruments and performance as their hostages, but not their real interest. Given that the works of both Bach and the King have survived until today but there has been little delving into their personalities, I think this is a great film in spite of the poor reviews.

While nobody argues Bach's genius, I think it does take some hard work to figure out how to tell his story, even a little of it. Some hard work, and maybe even some real genius.

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