Some Remarks on Amadeus

As far as I know, Amadeus is one of the most beautifully made, lavishly created and gorgeous film on Mozart's life with a very interesting dramatic story. I love this film for many reasons and make a point to watch it often. For whatever its flaws and shortcomings I owe an enormous debt to this movie, for it exposed me to Mozart's music (and I'm sure many others) who otherwise would not have experienced it. Also to present Mozart, his life, his times and his rival in such a dramatic way only inspired my curiosity toward him, his music and his era. Whereas a dry documentary or biography would have caused me to quickly get bored or lose interest.

What I have learned over the years, however, was that this romantic recreation of Mozart's life is wrong. The worse thing about Amadeus is that some people mistakenly have taken the movie to be fact. For this reason I am writing this page to correct some of the errors and dramatic liberties the movie took.

  Salieri Killed Mozart

This is Myth Number One perpetuated by the movie. Surely without this myth Amadeus would dramatically crumble. Unfortunately Salieri, for a time, was actually believed to have killed Mozart. What started this false legend was for several reasons:

1.) Mozart's sudden and unexpected death
2.) That at the time no one knew what actually caused his death
3.) Mozart's belief that someone was poisoning him
4.) The mysterious appearance of an anonymous "man in grey"
commissioning Mozart for a "Mass for the Dead" (The Requiem)
5.) Salieri confessing to murdering Mozart

You might think the Fifth Point would be enough to convict Salieri, except for one problem. Salieri's "confession" came many years later when he was confined in an asylum, he was completely insane by then. The movie retained that element, if you notice. Salieri, after his attempted suicide, was strangely not taken to a hospital but an insane asylum. Don't you find that curious?

You might wonder, however, "What if Salieri really did kill Mozart? Is it possible?"

It might be possible, but the chances are incredibly slim. Salieri was merely a business colleague, not a close friend. In order to poison or kill Mozart successfully he would have to be on very close terms which Salieri, in reality, never established. At best he could only intrigue from afar at court, but never slip Mozart poison or accomplish the equivalent of Mozart's famous death scene in Amadeus.

  Mozart's Death

Then how did Mozart die if Salieri didn't kill him? Historians and modern physicians have concluded that Mozart died from a sudden attack of rheumatic fever which he often suffered as a child. The previous fevers had weakened Mozart's heart and by the last and fatal attack Mozart's heart failed. Certainly Mozart dying of heart failure is much less interesting and dramatic as Salieri driving him to death or being poisoned maliciously by a fellow rival.

The wonderful death scene of Mozart (which is one of my favorites in the entire movie) never happened in reality. To begin with, Mozart didn't collapse on the premiere night of "The Magic Flute" nor was he brought back to his apartment by Salieri nor did he die the next day. Mozart managed to conduct a few performances of "The Magic Flute" until his health wore away and he was confined to bed. Several months passed of the "Magic Flute"'s performance before Mozart died.

Constanza, though suffering from ill health herself, never left for the "spa" once her husband became seriously ill. She remained by Mozart's bedside with some members of her family and some singers who occasionally came to perform the few completed passages of "The Requiem" for him. The key point in this was Mozart was never left alone and therefore could never be brought back or attended to by Salieri.

  Salieri the "Mediocrity"

The main plot pivot in Amadeus features Salieri's mediocrity compared to Mozart's genius. Since the movie I have gotten the chance to listen to some of Salieri's music. I have learned that Salieri's work was not the work of a mediocrity. Salieri's music fits all the requirements of music at the time and they are good, enjoyable melodies. Salieri and many of Mozart's contemporary composers, however, were not redefining music the way Mozart did. It was on this point that the court composers became jealous of Mozart, realizing that he was out doing them in every way. Their music was talented, but not a work of genius.

  Mozart's Personality

Another element in Amadeus is the behavior of Mozart who is often portrayed as a childish and unworthy person to be bestowed with such overwhelming genius. Mozart, of course, never had that famous and silly giggle Tom Hulce (who played Mozart) had in the movie. Mozart did have his playful and vulgar sides to him. He was particularly fond of "toilet humor", but only showed this side to his close family and friends, never to the aristocracy and certainly none of his musical rivals.

Mozart did know how to behave himself in public. We must not forget that Mozart was touring Europe as a child, visiting the most esteemed courts of royalty and the aristocracy. He was impressed at a very young age to be on his best behavior, to learn his manners, to be polite, courteous and genteel. It is absurd to assume that this upbringing would suddenly be lost upon Mozart's adulthood and he would be as rude, crass, and arrogant as portrayed in the movie.

I've always believed that the real Mozart could never tolerate seeing his beloved music mocked the way it was in the "vaudeville scene". I also think that if Mozart saw either the movie or the stage version of Amadeus he would be furious. He would resent being portrayed as childish and vulgar, but most importantly, he was hate the fact Shaffer made it seem like his music came "naturally" to him, that there was no effort exerted in his compositions (see quote on the top of the page).

  Mozart's Morals

One of Mozart's traits in Amadeus is that Mozart was unfaithful to Constanza (his affair with Caterina Cavalieri in the movie) and that he became an alcoholic as he became destitute.

From the many biographies I have read I've never come across an account about Mozart's affair with Caterina. Many of Mozart's so-called affairs are usually widely speculative. Whether true or not, Mozart was very devoted and very faithful to Constanza, especially for the period, when promiscuity was open and more widely accepted. He even nursed Constanza back to health from a near-fatal illness: far from the portrayal that Mozart neglected Constanza, "only caring about [his] music".

As for alcoholism, I have not found any biography mentioning this. Beethoven was more of an alcoholic than Mozart might have been. It would seem out of character with Mozart to resort to alcohol, especially when it would impair his mind and his compositions.

  Operatic Errors

Up until now I have just provided some factual nit-picking which is easily overlooked when viewing the much more powerful drama Amadeus has provided by straying from these drier, less exciting elements about Mozart and his life. What is surprising are the continual and obvious errors in the spectacular operatic scenes featured in the movie.

The Marriage of Figaro

This error is the most minor and easily overlooked unless you know your history. It is the scene where a rival composer rips out the score of Mozart's music for the bridal scene. When Emperor Joseph views rehearsals he sees a scene where the singers are bouncing around on the stage with no music. The reason for the rival composer tearing out Mozart's music for the scene, however, was that the Emperor prohibited ballet, but in the scene, the singers are still performing the ballet, just with no music. The ban, therefore, was on the ballet itself, not the music Mozart composed for the scene.

Don Giovanni

This is when The Commendatore (the statue) smashes through the wall to confront Don Giovanni and Leporello. If you do not know what happens before it the scene doesn't seem to be wrong. In fact, it looks very impressive. The problem with the scene is that it does not work with the action that happens before it.

In every production Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni's ex-lover) goes to the door to leave, but sees the ghost of The Commendatore and shrieks. When Donna Elvira flees, Leporello peers out the door and begins to panic. The Commendatore begins to knock loudly on the closed door (you can hear the knocks in the music). So if The Commendatore was behind a brick wall, neither Donna Elvira nor Leporello could see him, neither would react to the ghost and why would The Commendatore knock loudly on a brick wall? How could they possibly "let him in"?

The Magic Flute

Out of all the opera scenes featured in Amadeus I love the "Queen of the Night" scene the very best. It is dramatic, beautiful and has surpassed many different versions I have seen. There is nothing wrong for the Queen to be perched high on a cloud surrounded by stars, singing that dazzling aria. What is wrong is very minor, but still wrong.

The Queen is singing to Pamina, urging her to kill Sarastro in that aria. The one problem is, where is Pamina? She is singing this wonderful aria to no one, telling Pamina to avenge her when there is no Pamina to be seen.

  Peter Shaffer's Play

"Amadeus" first began as a theater production, written by Peter Shaffer. The title means "Loved by God" in reference to Mozart and his middle name. Peter Shaffer's play is quite different in many respects from the movie. Like many plays, there is a much more personal feel to "Amadeus" in the theater. We get to know Salieri better than we ever do in the screen adaption. In fact, Salieri is the principle character in "Amadeus". Even Mozart is a secondary character in comparison.

The play begins when Salieri, now an old man, invites the audience to listen to his life story and how he tried to defeat God through Mozart. Sound familiar so far? There are some more differences.

For one thing the character of Mozart is much more childish and vulgar than in the movie. Shaffer obviously toned down some of the language for the screen adaption.

Here's a sample of it. It's from a scene we're familiar with from the movie.

Although we get this much cruder picture painted of Mozart, Salieri tries to cause his downfall in even lower schemes than in the movie. Salieri, at one time, even tries to seduce Constanza to hurt Mozart. There are some rare moments in the play, however, when we get a brief glimpse at Mozart's deeper side and complexity. This is toward the end when Mozart is poor, miserable, freezing in his home and starving.

The highest mark of Shaffer's play, however, is the end itself. Mozart's death scene is different and if seen on the stage, it is very dramatic and heart wrenching. Salieri, in a last attempt to drive Mozart mad, appears himself as the mysterious "man in grey" who comes to represent death to Mozart. And even more surprisingly, Salieri reveals to Mozart his life long quest to destroy him, striking the final shocking blow on Mozart's psyche before his death.

  Shaffer was Not the First

If you think that Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus" is the only dramatized version of the conflict between Mozart and Salieri, think again. Ever since Salieri's insane cries about him murdering Mozart, the Romantics and Victorians were quick to grab on this rich melodramatic material for their own stage.

If you are interested in reading another play about Mozart and Salieri, check out Mozart and Salieri by the Russian writer, Aleksandr Serygeyevich Pushkin.

Excerpt of the play from "Amadeus"
by Peter Shaffer (Penguin Books, 1981)

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