There’s a scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne locks himself in the warden’s office after a large collection of 78s has been donated to the prison. He turns on the PA system and plays a passage from The Marriage of Figaro, smiling passively at the guards as they threaten him, struggle with the door and finally break the glass.
The performance by Gundala Janowitz and Patricia Johnson used in the film is from Karl Bohm’s 1968 recording of the opera, which of course couldn’t have been in an album of 78s donated to a prison in the late 40s, when I assume the scene was set. I don’t know that a detail like that really matters, although I’m sure the Mozart set was up in arms about it at the time – the point of the scene is not lost, anyway, as Andy explains it to his prison mates after he is released from two weeks of solitary confinement. “I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. Hardly felt the time at all,” he says.
Red (his friend, the narrator of the story): ‘Oh, they let you tote that record player down there, huh? I coulda swore they confiscated stuff like that.’
Andy: ‘The music was here (taps his head), and here (taps his heart). That’s the one thing they can’t confiscate. That’s the beauty of it. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music, Red?’
The music we love has an enormous capacity to inspire us, and while this exchange leads to a conflict between the two old friends, it also provided Andy with his first opportunity to express the film’s message. “Hope,” he later writes in a letter to Red, “is a good thing.”
Nothing in my life compares to the adversity Andy Dufresne faces in this story, although I have found myself in times of deep and dark despair. Music has always comforted me, whether it was “Waiting on a Friend” or Fauré’s Requiem. Andy’s southern friend Heywood later asks why he couldn’t play something good, like Hank Williams, but he too stood transfixed when Mozart’s music came over the loudspeakers. I guess this speaks to the universality of truly great music, but also to the need we all have to feel inspired. I think this need is, essentially, the thing that keeps Hymie’s in business.
This scene isn’t part of the Stephen King story on which Frank Darabont based his film (it’s in the 1982 collection Different Seasons). It’s hard to imagine a fair description of Mozart’s music in Stephen King’s compact prose anyway. I don’t think I could accurately explain the scene in which the duetino (yep, tiny duet) takes place. I guess I ought to try…
Boiled down, The Marriage of Figaro is a romantic comedy filled with the sort of dramatic irony that drives a season of Friends. The story takes place in Count Almaviva’s villa in the country near Seville. The Count’s servant, Figaro is to marry his love, Susanna, servant to the Countess Rosina. Several other characters enter the story, including Dr. Botolo who wishes revenge on Figaro and the ambitious adolescent Cherubino, who lusts after all women but the Countess in particular.
In the scene you’ve heard, the Countess dictates a letter to her husband while Susanna writes. It’s a strange selection in the context of the movie – If I were a prison, and I were going to play a passage of The Marriage of Figaro to my cellmates to inspire them, I would choose the scene immediately preceding this duetino. In that passage, the Countess is alone and laments the passing of the happiness in her life in what is one of Mozart’s most beloved arias, “Dove Sono”.
Red admits he has no idea what the “two Italian ladies” were singing about, an acknowledgement of the power of music to inspire if ever there was one. He is moved, truly if not quickly, by his friend’s gesture (even though he hardly touches the harmonica he is soon after given as a gift). Red doesn’t seem to lament his poor fortune after the record player incident, and his perseverance is rewarded in the end.