-What Is It?-
Amadeus is a 1979 play by Peter Shaffer and a 1984 film by Miloš Forman, both based on the 1830 play Mozart and Salieri, written by the Russian Romantic Alexander Pushkin. Because the story is relatively the same across all three forms—exempting expansions/embellishments on the original 1830 piece by the other two—Amadeus from this point on will be used to refer to all forms as one combined tripartite story, rather than any singular version.
The story follows Antonio Salieri, the esteemed and pious Court Composer for the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, and his introduction to a young upstart composer named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a precocious, divinely talented, and in Salieri’s opinion, insipid and childish man whose gift for music is wasted in such an infantine form. Salieri develops a deep hatred for Mozart, who is able to compose beautiful, transcendent music that the Italian cannot help but fall in love with, thus revealing Salieri’s own mediocrity as a man and a musician. Over the course of the story, Salieri becomes more and more convinced that God is mocking him, with Mozart as his instrument, and makes it his mission to destroy the man at any cost.
-Why Is It Important?-
Amadeus, taken as a holistic story across its three variations, is a fascinating examination of one of the most fundamental relationships in art, and perhaps in nature: that of form and impulse. This is not solely, or at times even remotely, what the story is about, but it serves as a decent distillation through which greater themes can be extrapolated.
Salieri represents what some would call the Apollonian, or form. He is morally erect, studious, and has pursued art with a fervent discipline for his entire life. His main motivation for all this is that he wishes to experience a kind of Absolute—he wants to honor, and find, God in music, and hopes that through the path of his art, and his devotion to his faith and his craft, he will accomplish both. Of course, Salieri is shown to be somewhat duplicitous to himself and others in what he says. He may believe himself to be a man of God, but is shown across all three stories to be jealous, gluttonous, lustful, murderous, and often interested solely in high appointments of status and the maintenance of a respectable reputation. He is more fixed on what his faith and art can bring him, rather than performing it for love, for its own sake, to begin with. The man is innocent, to a degree, in his awareness of how his baser urges govern him—he even feels guilty, and says so many times, for the thoughts he has, though he carries out sinful actions regardless. Salieri, in all his attempts to become divine, is arguably the most human—for better and for worse—figure in any variation of Amadeus.
Mozart, on the other hand, is immediately shown, and in some cases flat-out stated, to be godless. He is vulgar, impetuous, childish, spoiled, erratic, and short of patience, though never short of appetite. The man is always in motion, always drinking, always talking, always laughing—he never stops, and any time he is confronted with having to stop, or wait, he becomes instantly and embarrassingly upset. However, despite these many shortcomings, he is also gifted with what could only be called sublime talent and insight. The music he makes often centers around places of ill repute—like brothels and boudoirs—but is graceful, elevated, even legendary in scope and design. He is capable of taking ordinary and uncouth situations, and revealing the humanity within them. Because of this, Mozart is illustrated as a kind of impish, Pan-type figure, a playful eternal rascal who has come down from Heaven to play songs that will shape humankind forever, only to return a few short decades later. He represents what some would call the Dionysian—the chaos, the wild drive, inherent within art and human beings.
Ultimately, Salieri is a student of discipline, and Mozart is a child of impulse. And it is in their opposition that they reveal much about each other and the various conditions they stand for. Salieri is, again, the human being—he believes himself to understand God, and therefore his own person, and is thrown into total disarray when confronted with what is taken to be a true instrument of God. Without Salieri, the story is not human.
Conversely, Mozart represents eternity—he is a vessel for divine creation, precisely because he does not care, and is therefore unaware, of the more lofty trappings, pretenses, and beliefs that men like Salieri hold. Without him, the story loses its Absolute. Salieri is fixed on what should be; Mozart is what is.
There is a moment, revealed in Peter Shaffer’s play, where Salieri is attending Mozart’s showing of The Marriage of Figaro. Near the end of the First Act, the song “Non Più Andrai” begins. This song, Salieri realizes, is a variation on his own “March of Welcome” a piece he composed for Mozart’s initial arrival to the Court of Vienna. Mozart even performed the variation now in the opera in front of Salieri on that day, experimenting with the composer’s march and changing and crafting it in real time. In the play, Mozart departs afterwards, saying, “Thanks for the march!”
Salieri, for all his assumed mediocrity, has had his own piece immortalized through one of the greatest composers to have ever lived, in one of the greatest operas yet written. For a moment, he has become God, and Mozart has become his instrument; but it is because of his devotion to presupposed form, and his rivalry with Mozart, that he is unable to see the opportunity for what it is. And Mozart, because he is all impulse, and has no sense of self-awareness or concern for anything greater than the immediate moment, is unable to make a greater connection with Salieri over this adaptation. It is in this little scene that the story takes on, in this author’s opinion, a truly tragic form. Here was a potential opportunity—granted, in fiction alone, but that doesn’t make it any less an opportunity—for two great men to form a bond that could have immortalized one, and saved the other from an early death. But because both are bound by their own impulses and forms, they miss each other.
Amadeus, like many great stories, has much to say, and the above analysis is one piece in a greater mosaic of theme and color that the piece in its disparate parts has to offer.
If anything, at all and finally, there is a part of the story that implores its readers and watchers to be able to recognize the eternal in each other, while accepting the human in themselves. To be able to grapple with, synthesize, and perhaps one day understand those truths is what could one day lead to a kind of Absolute humanity, and an effortless sort of eternity.
Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeyevich. Mozart and Salieri: The Little Tragedies. Angel, 2002.
Shaffer, Peter. Amadeus: A Play. New American Library, 1984.
Forman, Miloš, director. Amadeus. 1985.
Link to Amadeus Podcast – Spotify
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Link to Amadeus Podcast – SoundCloud