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Creating calm in chaos | The Shawshank Redemption | Mozart's Sull'aria from The Marriage of Figaro

What is happening?

Andy, an inmate at Shawshank, is serving 20 years for allegedly killing his wife and lover. Red (Morgan Freeman) is an inmate for contraband smuggling. The film charts their struggles with the corruption of a prison and the development of a close friendship between them both. Andy escapes from prison and Red is eventually let out. They reunite in Mexico as was their dream whilst in prison.

The scene here captures the moment when Andy realises that one of the old inmates, whom he had been caring for as part of his responsibilities at the prison, has recently committed suicide, unable to cope with the outside world after being released. Through an act of defiance, Andy locks the doors so that none of the guards can stop him and he plays 'Sull’aria' over the tannoy as a mark of respect to his friend.

As the camera pans across scenes of inmates stopping and looking skywards, Red delivers a soliloquy that sums up the music so perfectly that there is no need for any other explanation...

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is... I don’t wanna know; some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think that they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a great place dares to dream. It was like a beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.” (Morgan Freeman, Shawshank redemption, 1994). Morgan’s words, not ours!

Why does the music work?

Other than what Red said...

The lilting effect of the metre (the regular pattern with accents) cradles the listener. The soft, tender sound of the woodwind together with the two women singing shares a warmth that is compassionate and sympathises with the prisoners.

That beauty can exude from relative musical simplicity is a powerful message set against the backdrop of a corruption and cunningness.

The story behind the music

This is a duet from Mozart’s famous opera 'The Marriage of Figaro' (1785). A setting of Beaumarchais' play (1784) , this is a comic opera about a couple of servants who are in love and struggle against the archaic and oppressive patriarchal laws within the iniquitous feudal system.

Figaro (the count’s servant) is about to marry Susanna (the countess’ servant). However, the count has decided to reinstate an old law whereby he is allowed to sleep with the bride on their first night. Outraged, Susanna and Figaro seek allegiance with the countess and hatch a plan to catch the count red-handed. In the end he is caught out because the countess, who disguises herself as Susannah, meets him in the garden and reveals herself in front of the rest of the cast. He begs for forgiveness and the countess goes on to pardon him.

This opera was hugely controversial as it was about the lower classes opposing the upper class at a time when the French were on the brink of a revolution for that exact reason. Also, it was forward-looking in that the 'man of the house' had to beg for forgiveness from his own wife.

This duet relays the moment when the countess and Susanna are writing a letter to the count to trap him. There is irony in the music in that this sisterhood of different classes – between his wife and 'his lover' (or so he thinks) – are both creating the tender words but with the intention of catching him out. (To come back to our film, the juxtaposition is fascinating in that the irony runs parallel with the context of the Shawshank redemption.)

This opera really was the defining point for Mozart in his career. He had found his true voice and this piece is revolutionary in its use of musical narrative; endless innovative tunes and quality of composition and drama wrapped up in a 4-hour-long masterpiece.


Film: The Shawshank Redemption. 1994 [Film]. Frank Darabont. Dir. USA. Columbia Pictures

Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756 – 1791. "Sull’aria” from The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492, Act 3 (1785)

Performed by: Gundula Janowitz and Edith Mathis conducted by Karl Böhm with the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin

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