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27 November 2014

Rude awakening: how Mozart’s filthy mind shocked Maggie

Mozart was fond of “scatological smut” and found “the sound of rude words especially hilarious”.

By Antonia Quirke

Composer of the Week
Radio 3

In the week of the release of the markedly conventional film The Imitation Game (about the cryptanalyst Alan Turning; a truly conformist movie about nonconformity), five days happily hearing about the life of Mozart reminded me of why the play and film Amadeus worked when so few dramas concerning the lives of geniuses do. Composer of the Week (10-14 November, noon) gave us a series of simple, informative, daily monologues with music. Mozart spent a lot of time away from home travelling and performing and his letters to his friends (hundreds of which survive) reveal, as the presenter Donald Macleod daintily put it, “an earthy sense of humour”.

Mozart was fond of “scatological smut” and found “the sound of rude words especially hilarious. Although not everybody does . . .” It was the bounce and dirt of these letters that allowed the playwright Peter Shaffer to create a vulgar, volatile, immature, hyperactive version of the composer to hang his story on: not a full-blown portrait exactly but, according to Simon Callow, who played him in the original stage production, Mozart “glimpsed by lightning”.

Macleod recalled Margaret Thatcher going to see the play at the National Theatre in 1979 and deploring its use of four-letter words, upbraiding its director, Peter Hall, and stating that it was “inconceivable that a man who wrote such exquisite . . . music could be so foul-mouthed”. Hall pointed out the letters and their “extraordinarily infantile” sense of humour but still the PM insisted: “He couldn’t have been like that.”

The letters gave Shaffer that rare thing: a way around having to “talk out” Mozart’s genius, a means of enlivening the whole “1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration” idea that must to a certain extent consume a genius story. This was an alternative to the archetypal multiplex shape, forcing the story out of expected beats and into something more melodramatic and messy (and, paradoxically, somehow more true). We also heard Mozart’s appallingly silly canon in B-flat major, which he unblushingly titled “Leck mich im Arsch” (no translation required), composed as a pub song for friends. Presumably Mrs T only heard the version renamed by an 18th-century music publisher: “Let Us Be Glad”. 

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