I saw Out of Africa in 1986 on the big screen in Mumbai, when I passed my Xth grade. I was mesmerized by the movie’s visual grandeur and swept off my feet by the music. Later in 1987, I managed to rent a VHS video cassette and savored it several times. There were two hypnotic sequences in the film that had the same background score – a Western Classical piece by Mozart:
First, when Karen (Meryl Streep) is walking alone in her farm and hears the sound of music for the first time in her farm. She seeks the source of the sound and discovers Denys (Robert Redford) playing a gramophone. “Look, they finally made a machine that’s really useful!”, he exclaims.
Second, when they’re on safari, Denys places the gramophone with a string attached in the wilderness near a pack of baboons. He pulls on the string to play the music and see how the baboons react. After the baboons jerk off the pickup, he says “Think of it: never a man-made sound…and then Mozart!”.
The music sounded devilishly simple, yet there was subtle complexity. It was spirited, vibrant, mischievous, and relentless.
I was obsessed with that piece of music. Through the ending movie credits on the overused VHS cassette, I could identify it as a Divertimento, but could not discern the Kochel catalog number. This was 1987: Western Classical music was virtually unheard of in India. There were no western classical cassettes available in shops – and if there were a few in Mumbai’s Rhythm House, they were beyond my middle-class, student’s pocket. Moreover, how could I get this piece without knowing the full details?
My elder brother then went to the US for a year and on my insistence, brought back the Soundtrack CD of the movie. I was elated, and then disappointed when I found that the Divertimento was not on the CD!
I then learnt that Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai had a large western classical collection and offered a free student’s membership, where you could borrow 3 music cassettes a week. I traveled to the Bhavan every weekend, poring over the collection. Unfortunately, most of the cassettes didn’t even have any titles or identification of the contents. I didn’t relent, and picked my lottery cassettes every week. And one day, viola! I got the Divertimento on one cassette and immediately created my copy. I still didn’t know the Kochel catalog number, but I had it on cassette. This miracle happened in 1988.
In the 90s, I discovered a site called “Classics of the Silver Screen“. It was an excellent resource for identifying operatic and classical works used in popular Hollywood films. However, the Divertimento was not listed for Out of Africa. I wrote to the webmaster, and he didn’t know about it either. Neither did IMDB. (Both these sites now list it). But soon, the Internet exploded, and by 2000, I discovered that it was the 1st movement “Allegro”, of the Divertimento in D Major, K. 136.
In 2001, when I discovered in Gutman’s Cultural Biography of Mozart, that this Divertimento was composed by Mozart in 1772 – when he was just a teen of 16 years – I wept.
What a journey through the years! What is this obsession? Insane? Stupid? Call it whatever you wish, this is the way I am! It took me almost 16 years to find out the music composed over 225 years ago by a 16 year-old. It will take less than 16 minutes today. Here’s the YouTube version conducted by Menuhin:
This is what technology does – aren’t our children lucky?