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October 19, 1999 - Image 10

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The Michigan Daily, 1999-10-19

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10 - The Michigan Daily - Tuesday, October 19, 1999

Suchet to portray
Mozart's nemesis

Classical music fans
remember Chopin

Los Angeles Times
LONDON - One of the many
ways David Suchet prepares for a
theatrical role is by making private
lists of the attributes he shares with
his character and those he doesn't.
Seeing him without the weight
and waxed mustache of Agatha
Christie's Hercule Poirot, then, it's
fun to imagine what he might have
in common with the brainy,
pompous, irritating and charming
Belgian detective with whom he has
become so identified.
It is somewhat more daunting,
however, to consider what the 53-
yearold Suchet might see of himself
in the character of Antonio Salieri,
Mozart's nemesis in Peter Shaffer's
"Amadeus," now playing in Los
Angeles before heading for
The play had been in rehearsals at
the Chelsea Center Theater here
after a run at the Old Vic.
Salieri, as many film and theater
fans will recall, is the Hapsburg
court musician who agonizes over
his own mediocrity in the face of
Mozart's genius and feels betrayed
by God, who gave such musical gift
to a giggling, scatological upstart
instead of to the devoted Salieri.
Exactly how he identifies with
Salieri, the highly successful British
character actor isn't saying. A pri-
vate list is private, after all.
But Suchet will say why he thinks
the tortured man who tried to silence
Mozart's music strikes a chord with
so many people, himself included.
"Salieri represents all of us in his
envy and jealousy, in his hopes and
ambitions and his realization of the
fact that there are going to be people
better than him," he said. "It is
something that every person past 35
is aware of.
"A-lot of people start life with
huge hopes. There is such a thing as
the American Dream. We all have
dreams and get caught out by our
Shaffer's Salieri, however, might
be more actively vengeful than most
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'The play is based on rumors that
circulated after Mozart's death that
Salieri had killed the younger com-
He didn't, but he worked hard to
ensure that Mozart lacked gainful
employment and that his brilliant
operas were heard by as few people
as possible. He tried to kill Mozart's
But Suchet insists that Salieri is
no two-dimensional villain.
"He is a very complex man. He
has evil intent," he said. "But the
play starts with Salieri as an old man
who desperately wants to confess.
One only wants to confess if one
feels shame. Throughout the play,
when he is narrating, he is not just
saying, 'Look how clever I am. I
destroyed Mozart.' He is well aware
of the shame.
"He never asks for forgiveness.
He asks for understanding. If you
understand him, you won't sympa-
thize with him, but you have a deep-
er appreciation of why he did what
he did."
In his efforts to understand
Salieri, Suchet visited the compos-
er's birthplace in the Italian village
of Legnano. He made his way from
there to "the huge, baroque city of
Vienna," as Salieri might have seen
"He arrived with a chip on his
shoulder. He was an outsider, prov-
ing himself, trying to maintain
respectability," Suchet said. "He
tried to behave well, to please God
and the emperor.
"He is essentially a weak man, not
a natural courtier. He is a small-
town man, sort of out of place in the
city. His music was quite good, but it
was court music that he wrote to
order. He was a conservative, tradi-
tional musician, not a Mozart, who
felt he had to write. Who needed to
Suchet seems to need to act. At
least, he seems to have been born to
the medium.
His mother was an actress; his
father was a successful gynecolo-
gist, and Suchet was expected to fol-
low in his father's scientific foot-
steps until he proved hopeless at
He made his stage debut at age 5
as an oyster in "Alice Through the
Looking Glass," and at 23 became
what might be the youngest Shylock
in British stage history.
The stocky, deep-voiced Suchet
quickly made his mark as a character
"My gift, if I have a gift, is to be
different people, to understand peo-
ple and to become them. I'm told
there are not many of us around any-
more," he said.
"There have always been film
stars who will put bums in the seats
and make the film industry a suc-

David Suchet rests at a rehearsal of "Amadeus."

cess. I would hate to be in that pro-
fession. It's rather dangerous for an
actor to have so much adulation."
This might be the spiritual side of
Suchet peeking through. Married
and the father of two, Suchet is a
religious Protestant who feels an
affinity for Salieri's struggle with
"Salieri believes naively that God
is on his side, that he has a relation-
ship with God because of the way he
behaved," he said. "His contest is
with God, and he fights God by
destroying Mozart.
"One always likes to believe God
is on your side. Salieri believes God
has let him down. He is betrayed by
God. I put myself in the same posi-
tion and wonder how it would feel to
be in his place. It is despair when
you feel God has let you down. It
leaves you so isolated."
There are three roles Suchet has
always wanted to play.
One is the embittered academic
George in Edward Albee's "Who's
Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," which he
played in 1996 in London's West
Another is Napoleon, which he
has just finished doing for a black-
comedy film called "Sabotage" that
was written and directed by Spanish
brothers Esteban and Jose Miguel
The third is Salieri, an intensely
demanding role that keeps Suchet on
stage for most of the play, switching
back and forth between the 31-year-
old Salieri and the composer as an
elderly man.
On this wet fall afternoon, Suchet
and director Peter Hall are going

over the timing of his lines with
Mozart's music, and of his move-
ments with those of his fellow
actors. Suchet's voice resonates
above a noisy rain.
"And now! Gracious ladies!
Obliging' gentlemen! I present to
you - for one performance only -
my last composition, entitled 'The
Death of Mozart - or Did I Do
British actor Michael Sheen plays
Mozart in L.A., as he did in London,
but most of the rest of the cast is
American and new to the show.
Shaffer has tinkered with the 20-
year-old script, trying to perfect it,
and Hall is making changes in the
staging. The play is still a work in
Sheen, 30, who received favorable
reviews in London, says he tries to
portray Mozart not simply as a
genius-victim but as a party to his
own downfall.
"Salieri describes Mozart's music
as having incredible need in it. I
started thinking of him as a needy
person - in modern-day terms,
someone like Michael Jackson who
might have certain parts of his per-
sonality develop hugely and other
parts stultified," Sheen said.
"He is not a genius, but possessed
by genius. He has to live life almost
with a terrible curse that he can't
"As much as Salieri and the estab-
lishment, he is being destroyed by
his own genius."
That makes two, of course,
because Mozart's genius also
destroys Salieri, who doesn't stand
up to comparison.

The Baltimore Sun
Five and a half feet tall and never
weighing more than 110 pounds,
Frederic Chopin looked delicate,
almost transparent, and not quite of this
Novelist George Sand, whose .10-
year love affair with him has become
the stuff of legend, called him her "little
one." His friend, composer Felix
Mendelssohn, not exactly a heavy-
weight himself, dubbed him
He was always suffering from some-
"Chopin has been dying his whole
life long," said one malicious Parisian
lady, and another: "He has the most
charming cough"
He was also a bit of a prig. He found
foul odors intolerable, noise anathema
and an unannounced visitor could make
his hair stand on end.
He possessed a mordant wit. During
the notoriously cold and wet winter of
1838-1839 on Majorca, when he had
his first serious brush with death, he
wrote to a friend: "The three most
famous doctors on the island have
examined me; the first sniffed what I
had spat out, the second pummeled me
where I spat and the third felt and lis-
tened how I spat. The first said I was
dead, the second said I was dying and
the third - that I am going to die."
When Chopin finally did die of
tuberculosis 150 years ago, he was only
39. But in the less than two decades
since his arrival in Paris in 1831 from
his native Warsaw, Poland, this weak,
tubercular man had succeeded, however
quietly, in revolutionizing music in gen-
eral and his own instrument, the piano,
in particular. He had anticipated many
of the innovations usually attributed to
composers such as Wagner,
Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mahler.
Without Chopin, it is impossible to
imagine either the jagged, almost bar-
barically powerful achievements of
Russian music or the polished urbanity
and nuanced sophistication of French
music in the 20th century.
Almost everything by Chopin has
entered the standard repertory - a
claim that cannot be made about any
other composer, and that includes Bach,
Beethoven and Mozart.
It seems strange, therefore, that this
major anniversary is being celebrated
with considerably less fanfare - in the
way of performances, recordings and
scholarly conferences - than those of
Schubert (in 1978 and 1997), Brahms
(1983 and 1998), Bach (1985) and
Mozart (1991).
"That Chopin should be relatively
neglected in so important an anniver-
sary year seems inexplicable," says
Vincent Lenti, the administrator of the
Eastman School of Music's piano
department and one of the foremost
authorities on the history of keyboard
style. Although perhaps unfortunate is a
more accurate term than inexplicable.
Such anniversaries generally are
sponsored by large institutions, such as
orchestras, performing arts centers,
music schools and opera houses. And
Chopin wrote almost exclusively for
solo piano, eschewing orchestras,
chamber ensembles, choral groups and
opera companies - the musical media
large institutions are created to support.
And Chopin's ubiquity in the reperto-
ry of almost every pianist makes
anniversary performances of his music
superfluous. "Chopin is our daily
bread," says pianist Horacio Gutierrez.
"Every year is a Chopin year for me
and the audiences I play for"
Still, Gutierrez, along with several
other noted pianists and music histori-
ans, agrees that Chopin rarely receives
scholarly and critical attention that
accords with his greatness.
He was indeed an isolated figure.

He was a Pole who wrote his most
important music in France and who
worked in the Austro-Germanic musi-
cal tradition of his idols, Bach and
Mozart. But Chopin's ears had been
filled by the folk songs and dances of

his native land, and his music exudes an
"exotic" Eastern European appeal
(some earlier critics even called it
Chopin's successful championship of
miniature musical forms when other
composers gravitated to ever grander
musical colossi confounds our attempts
to compare him to contemporaries such
as Berlioz, Liszt and Schumann.
His music likewise confuses our
sense of gender boundaries, He was a
male composer who wrote in "femi-
nine" genres, such as the nocturne and
the waltz, for the salon, a domestic se
ting in which his most enthusiastic lis-
teners tended to be women.
And while all pianists study and per-
form his music during their student
days, a surprisingly large number of
celebrated musicians - Alfred
Brendel, Glenn Gould, Rudolf Serkin,
Radu Lupu, Walter Gieseking and Artur
Schnabel among them - have chosen
not to perform Chopin, ignoring his
music in a way they would not dream A,
doing with that of Mozart, Haydn,
Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms.
"There are two pianistic lines,"
Brendel says. "One is the central
European tradition that links Bach,
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert
and Brahms. The other is the more
exotic but minor line, in which Chopin
is the central figure, that extends to
Russians such as Rachmaninoff and
Scriabin and to French composers suc
as Ravel and Debussy. Chopin is a kind
of bird of paradise among composers;
and he seems to require specialization
more than any other."
There are three central myths about
Chopin that distort our image of the
man and his music.
The first is that of the sexually
ambiguous salon composer, whose rel-
atively insubstantial music was aimed
at, as well as partook of, the feminin
sensibility. The second myth surrounds
Chopin with the aura of the doomed
Romantic artist. It was especially,
although by no means exclusively, in
France that Chopin was regarded as the
pianist, par excellence, of the emotions.
It was also French audiences who culti-
vated the image of Chopin as "a com-
poser of the sickroom' for whom musi-
cal inspiration, erotic yearning and
impending death were inextricably
Finally - and this comes closest to
the truth - there was the notion of
Chopin, the Slavic composer, embraced
by the Russians much more than by the
composer's Polish countrymen. The
first of these myths - that of the effete
pianist-composer, specializing in
miniatures - has been the most perni
cious and pervasive. Chopin did write
exclusively for the piano, and small (a
least in duration, if not in emotiona T
power and musical complexity) forms
constitute most of his output: more than
50 mazurkas, 21 nocturnes, 19 waltzes,;
26 preludes and 27 etudes. Chopin's
small stature and poor health probably
contributed to the lack of forcefulness
in his playing, about which most of his
contemporaries commented.
This attitude resulted in the com-
monplace derogation of Chopin's"
efforts in genres such as the sonata ant
concerto. Most critics of the time sim-
ply found it implausible that the "femi-
nine" Chopin was capable of writing
sonatas that measured up against those
by the more "masculine" Haydn,
Mozart and Beethoven.
But the truth is that Chopin was the
only composer of his generation who
felt comfortable with creating new
large forms. Each of the ballades and
scherzos, as well as the F Mino
Fantasy, the F-sharp Minor Polonaise
and the Polonaise-Fantasy, is as long as
or longer than an average movement of
Beethoven. Moreover, Chopin's two

mature piano sonatas are more satisfy-
ing in public performance than any,
written after the late masterpieces of
Beethoven and Schubert, including
those by Schumann, Mendelssohn,
Liszt and Brahms.

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The University of Michigan
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Friday, October 29, 4:00 p.m.
Rackham Auditorium, 915 East Washington Street
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