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‘Amadeus,’ with H&H, comes to Symphony Hall

H&H’s Ian Watson, who worked on the “Amadeus” soundtrack in the 1980s, will help provide live accompaniment for screenings of the film.Lara Silberklang/Handel and Haydn Society

The scene is a bacchanalian revel. Mozart and his friend, Emanuel Schikaneder, are drinking heavily and carousing with a bunch of women. The composer is at the piano, banging out eminently Mozartean tunes as the women sing along. Suddenly, Schikaneder plants himself heavily at the bass end of the piano and instigates a drunken duet. Out of the chaos emerges “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” Papageno’s famous aria from “Die Zauberflöte.”

This scene from Milos Forman’s 1984 film, “Amadeus,” has an air of effortless spontaneity. In reality, though, the music was the creation of a 28-year-old London-based keyboardist named Ian Watson. At the time, Watson made a good part of his living playing on movie scores. He’d been hired to work on “Amadeus”; and one day he’d entered Abbey Road Studios, breakfast in hand, and encountered a room full of actors and the director.


“’Right!’” Watson remembers Forman telling him. “’So, Mozart and Schikaneder, they go up the pub and have a few drinks and then they go back to Mozart’s house and Mozart starts improvising at the piano, as well he might, and they all start singing and out of this melee Papageno’s aria comes out. What have you got in mind for that?’”

“And I was standing there with my mouth open, coffee in one hand and cheese roll in the other,” Watson continues, speaking by telephone. “I thought, you must be kidding me.” But after a day’s work with the actors — among them Tom Hulce, as Mozart, and Simon Callow, as Schikaneder — they recorded the music for the scene that night, “with me on one end of the fortepiano and [choral conductor] Simon Preston on the other, beating the heck out of it.”

“Amadeus,” based on a play by Peter Shaffer, reimagined Mozart’s life, art, and death through the prism of the jealousy of Antonio Salieri, an older contemporary. The film is back in Watson’s orbit this weekend: “Amadeus” is screening at Symphony Hall, this time with live accompaniment provided by the Handel and Haydn Society, for whom Watson is now keyboardist and associate conductor. (Richard Kaufman, a conductor who works largely in film scores, will conduct.) It’s the first time the film has had live accompaniment on period instruments.


While “Amadeus” would go on to be massively popular and win eight Academy Awards, working on the music was “just another gig to do,” Watson says. He remembers that the process was unusual in that the assembled musicians — who included the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, an eminent British chamber orchestra of which Watson was a member — seemed to be recording a lot of Mozart’s music without there being a clear idea of exactly where in the movie it would go. Much of it was never used, he says. “It was all rather low key.”

Watson hadn’t seen or read the play when he began working on it, and as he did so he came to regard the film as a good way into Mozart’s music for those who knew nothing about it. But he also thought (correctly) that it played fast and loose with history. He even got into an argument with Shaffer one night in the bar at Abbey Road, telling him that although he found the movie “a good entertainment,” he didn’t think its portrayal of Mozart as a potty-mouthed man-child was accurate.


And how did the playwright respond? “Dismissive,” Watson says. “I mean, who was I? He didn’t know me from a hole in the ground. But I thought it was important to say my piece.”

It helps, perhaps, not to think about “Amadeus” as being about Mozart, and instead to take its title literally. “Amadeus” can mean “beloved by God,” and the movie is really a character study of an artist with a deeply imperfect exterior whom God nevertheless so treasures that he endows him with history’s supreme creative fluency. Whatever the correspondence to or divergence from the historical Mozart, it remains an excellent vehicle for a story about talent, jealousy, and human tragedy.

Perhaps for that reason, Watson’s attitude toward the movie has softened somewhat. Playing the soundtrack on period instruments, in real time to the film, will be “a completely new experience. I’m rather excited, to be honest with you.”


Presented by Handel and Haydn Society. Nov. 10-12 at Symphony Hall. Tickets $25-$119. 617-266-3605,

Celebrating Boulez

A Nov. 13 concert at Le Laboratoire in Cambridge offers a rare performance of a section of “Structures,” Pierre Boulez’s radical early work for two pianos, as well as pieces inspired by Boulez’s creation by Fred Lerdahl, Frederic Rzewski, and the MIT Media Lab’s Tod Machover. Quattro Mani, the superb piano duo of Steven Beck and Susan Grace, performs.

The concert was curated by Machover and has a deeply personal connection for him. “I left Juilliard (where I was studying with Elliott Carter) when just a kid to help Pierre Boulez start IRCAM in Paris,” Machover wrote in an e-mail, “only to discover how melodic and dramatic and American my music really was. ‘Re-Structures,’ composed to honor Boulez’s 90th birthday, documents that struggle and journey of mine, while teasing out the wildness and passion that I believe exists between the notes of Boulez’s music. Rzewski’s and Lerdahl’s works also represent surprising, almost violent reactions to Boulez’s powerful influence and legacy.”


David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.