Going off script: on a new Radio 4 programme, even reading Mozart's scores proves entrancing

Tales from the Stave and The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4.

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Tales from the Stave; The Film Programme
BBC Radio 4

A new series of the brilliant Tales from the Stave – “examining the process of creation through handwritten manuscripts of the world’s greatest pieces of music” – began by looking at Mozart’s Requiem (21 February, 3.30pm). The composer’s original score is dated 1792, which was the year after his death. So, how come? Because several other people subsequently had their pen on it. And yet enough of Mozart’s own pencil-strokes exist to see how he worked and what he wanted for the piece.

Much of the show sounded like some marvellous, loopy, impressionistic response to the markings by various commentators and musicians, each talking off the top of his or her head in front of the document – in effect translating. “Those rather serpentine basset horns weaving in and out of each other like fish down a stream . . .” muttered the music scholar Nigel Simeone, while the singer Jette Engelke hummed along over his shoulder. “Those markings there,” someone cried, “that say sotto voce! That’s a very romantic marking to put on a score . . .” The magical emergence of the shape of the Mass had everyone sort of drunk.

A similar buzz came a few days later on The Film Programme (26 February, 4pm) when the Brando biographer Susan L Mizruchi spoke about the actor’s work on scripts, having had access for the first time to his personal copies, which he had kept in an unlovely shed in his Mulholland Drive garden. Unique among his biographers, Mizruchi has charted Brando’s own painstaking markings and amendments.

It made me pick up her (wonderful) book again. What an ingenious reviser of dialogue Brando was! Here’s a good one: where in Mario Puzo’s script the Don says to the Undertaker at the start of The Godfather, “Why are you afraid to give your first allegiance to me?” Brando confidently amends his own script (and croons on screen): “Bonasera, bonasera [sic], what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?” Mozart and Brando, their pencils and manuscripts, their talent and brilliance. Their greatness: the one quality distinct from any other, that conceals, as they did, all the scribbles and amendments. Conceals everything, in fact – that’s what greatness does. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west