In the play and film Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, the character Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart says:
“Look at us! Four gaping mouths. What a perfect quartet! I’d love to write it – just this second of time, this now, as you are! Herr Chamberlain thinking ‘Impertinent Mozart: I must speak to the Emperor at once!’ Herr Prefect thinking ‘Ignorant Mozart: debasing opera with his vulgarity!’ Herr Court Composer thinking ‘German Mozart: what can he finally know about music?’ And Herr Mozart himself, in the middle, thinking ‘I’m just a good fellow. Why do they all disapprove of me?’ That’s why opera is important, Baron. Because it’s realer than any play! A dramatic poet would have to put all those thoughts down one after another just to represent this second of time. The composer can put them all down at once – and still make us hear each one of them. Astonishing device: a Vocal Quartet! ….I tell you I want to write a finale lasting half and hour! A quartet becoming a quintet becoming a sextet. On and on, wider and wider – all sounds multiplying and rising together – and the together creating a sound entierly new!
…. I bet you that’s how God hears the world: millions of sounds ascending at once and mixing in His ear to become an unending music, unimaginable to us! That’s our job! That’s our job, we composers: to combine the inner minds of him and him and him and her and her – the thoughts of chambermaids and Court Composers – and turn the audience into God.”
When someone recited this to me today, I was struck by the notion that “a dramatic poet would have to put all those thoughts down one after another,” whereas “the composer can put them all down at once.” It speaks to the power of polyphony in storytelling, poetry, and song. Can you think of instances when a story speaks with many voices at once?