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Documentary filmmaker Phil Grabsky was watching Simon Rattle conducting Mozart’s Idomeneo at Glyndebourne in 2003 when he had his epiphany. It struck him that, nearly 250 years after Mozart’s birth, his music is being played every moment of every day, packing out concert halls around the world.
"I looked round to see an audience in which people had paid up to £150 for a ticket,’ Grabsky recalls. ‘It set me thinking. Who was Mozart? Where did he come from? What made his music?"
After two years spent following in Mozart’s footsteps round Europe, Grabsky presents his answers in the feature-length documentary, In Search of Mozart. Featuring interviews with leading Mozart historians and performers – from René Jacobs to Renée Fleming – the two-hour film tells Mozart’s life story from beginning to end. It features live performance excerpts from his works, plus readings from his correspondence, and it dispels the popular myths that surround his life and death in an attempt to reveal his true identity.
Grabsky claims, for example, that Mozart’s father Leopold, far from being a money-driven ogre, was a sympathetic man who took his son on tour across Europe to ensure his prodigious talents would not be overlooked. Wolfgang did not suffer from Tourette Syndrome: his scatological humour was in keeping with the colloquialisms of his time. And his communal grave was not fit for a pauper, but in keeping with tradition. With such a comprehensive overview of Mozart’s life, In Search of Mozart is already being hailed as the definitive documentary for the composer’s 250th anniversary year and so, when I call Grabsky, it’s hard not to be curious – not just about Mozart but about Grabsky himself. Who is he? Where is he from? What made his film?
Far from being a musicologist, Grabsky has been making documentary films for more than 20 years, and now runs his own company, Seventh Art Productions, in Brighton. Just back from a round tour of Afghanistan and Ukraine, he’s surprisingly upbeat when we speak, describing how his travels took him north of Kabul to film a sequel to The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan – his award-winning 2003 documentary about an eight-year-old boy’s life in post-Taliban Afghanistan – and then on to Chernobyl to make a documentary assessing the 1986 nuclear disaster. "Both are sad situations in many ways," he says. "But both also produce extraordinary human spirit and resilience."
Chernobyl may seem a world apart from the Austrian opera houses and concert halls Grabsky visited in search of Mozart, but it’s this desire to capture the human spirit that underlies much of his work. Even his profiles of sporting heroes, such as Pelé: World Cup Hero and Muhammed Ali: Through the Eyes of the World, have prepared him for tackling Mozart, he says.
“Whether it’s the subject of Wolfgang or a child in Afghanistan who has nothing apart from optimism, I am fascinated by what individuals can achieve in vastly different circumstances. What they all have in common is blind determination and a lifelong desire to learn.”
What sets Mozart apart from the rest is his more than 600 sublimely crafted works. For Grabsky, the transcendental quality of Mozart’s music makes him an intriguing and elusive subject, raising the question of whether events in his life are even relevant to our understanding of his brilliance.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint the extent to which his life is reflected in his music but I believe his relationships and circumstances did affect his work,” Grabsky asserts. “You only have to listen to Idomeneo to hear how his tensions with his father infiltrated his approach.”
In Search of Mozart is as informative as it is accessible. But that’s not to say that Grabsky’s commentators hold all the answers. As the director explains: “When I was making the Pelé film we would ask our experts who was the best footballer. Some said Garrincha, others said Pelé. Yet when we asked the top musical experts which composer was best, they all said Mozart – but none could really explain why.” The journey, however, still manages to illuminate his unquestionable genius.
The documentary begins with a performance excerpt of one of Mozart’s last works – his 1791 Clarinet Concerto in A – before transporting us to a snow-covered Salzburg where more than 600 works and 35 years earlier Mozart was born. We’re shown his birthplace by a local guide who points out the basic living conditions in which Mozart grew up; historian Nicholas Till then sheds light on Salzburg’s cultural proximity to Rome. From the outset, Grabsky’s message is clear: Mozart’s compositions did not spring from a void but grew out of the time and place in which he worked. “All archbishops in Salzburg had studied in Rome and brought back with them modern Italian culture,” Till explains. “So the music Mozart would have heard was up-to-date.”
As the documentary unfolds we begin to see the extent to which Mozart’s life affected his work. We hear excerpts from his London Sketchbook, K15, and learn how Mozart absorbed the influences of Cannabich, JC Bach and Handel on his tour of Europe; we hear how his young love for Aloysia Weber infiltrated his aria “Alcandro, lo confesso – non sò d’onde viene” (“Alcandro, I confess it – I know not whence comes”), K294, as well as the aching second movement of his Sinfonia concertante in E flat, K364. And while a question mark hangs over the extent to which the death of his mother may have stirred up the emotional storms of his Piano Sonata in A minor, K310, Mozart’s Idomeneo emphatically suggests the composer’s turmoil over his rebellion against his father.
But it’s the performances of around 70 of Mozart’s works within the documentary that bring us up close to the composer’s brilliance. Among the clips are notable performances by Leif Ove Andsnes playing the Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466, Renée Fleming as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and Janine Jansen playing the Violin Concerto in A, K219.