Amadeus Reconsidered


The same Mozart as played by Hulce and seen by Salieri.
The same Mozart as played by Hulce and seen by Salieri.

Amadeus as I See It

Poetrait of Mozart at the age in question.
Poetrait of Mozart at the age in question.

Salieri in the Asylum, expressing the eternal "Why?  God, I hate you."Salieri in the Asylum, expressing the eternal “Why?  God, I hate you.”

A friend whose judgment and taste I respect greatly, recently pointed out that Tom Hulce had reduced Mozart in that film to a silly, tasteless fool, and obviously held him accountable for desecrating Mozart’s memory, as bland as he seems today as a composer when compared to Bach or Beethoven.  It made me realize, after quite a while, that many people do not interpret the film as I do, nor as it was meant to be seen.

I did not know at the time that the movie was based loosely on something that Pushkin wrote, but I did know the German romantic tradition quite well.  As an undergraduate, I had studied German intently.  I also felt a great sympathy, even empathy, with the Weltschmertz of the period.

One of the works I read, in the very original German, script-type and all, was Edward  Mörike’s Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag, a short novel of the period with which I greatly sympathized, thinking of Mozart as the struggling artist and the protagonist.  I was not even aware that it was supposed to be somewhat humorous, but German Romantic humor is easy to miss.

Strangely enough, I had one of the most jocular of Professors I had ever studied under, before or since.  He was, to me, elderly, balding, with thin horn-rimmed glasses, and had a thick accent but perfect syntax and an impressive English vocabulary.

The assignment was to write a review and summary, or a paper, on the book.  I remember one sentence I wrote then almost verbatim: “Mozart was a creative genius with a cabal of practitioners of the vapid and artificial pastoral torpor that passed for art at the time.”  That’s telling them, I thought.

I did get an “A” on the paper, but Professor Ernst had written the following in the margin: “There is a certain charm in the poetry of the Baroque and Rocco Period, believe it or not!  Your professor has spent years re-editing such poetry!!!”  When he saw me reading his remark, he was laughing a hearty Bavarian sounding chuckling smirk and said “So Zere. Ho Ho!”

On another occasion, I informed him that I had just acquired a recording by Glenn Gould, the outstanding pianist most know for his interpretation of J. S. Bach, particularly The Goldberg Variations (1955), that had Mozart’s #24 on one side and Schoenberg’s #1 on the other.  He asked, “Dozen’t zis make loud noize during ze night?” and put his hands to his ears.  I assured him that I kept it in a plastic bag and that no sound was emitted unless I actually took it out and put it on the player.  He found that not only hilarious, so indicating with raucous laughter and slapping me on the shoulder, then himself on his thigh.

At any rate, Peter Schaefer who wrote the screenplay in the 20th Century, using accounts from the 19th, to describe events in the 18th, placed the entire story in the mind of Antonio Salieri, who is confined in an insane asylum in Vienna.  So, we have an insane 18th century figure, a rival of another 18th century genius, as related by a 19th century tradition, as interpreted by a 20th century playwright, using as a model the writing of Pushkin, a 19th century Russian, reflecting the views of an 18th century Italian living in a German insane asylum.

Salieri is convinced he murdered Mozart as God, remember the word in Latin, Amadeus, as a major part of this delusion, endowed Mozart with the talent he, Salieri, desired and for which he gave his chastity and that God cursed only with the ability to recognize.

F. Murray Abraham does a magnificent job of portraying him, the man who considered himself the patron saint of the mediocre.  Sir Neville Mariner was an excellent choice as conductor and musical director of the score.  Needless to say, any resemblance between the characters in the film and anyone who ever lived was entirely avoided.  Nevertheless, it is a delightful film.

Some of the more scintillating and rewarding lines and scenes come as a reaction to Mozart.  The Emperor has only one reservation to one of Mozart’s operas: “Now and then, how shall I say, hmmm, too many notes, yes, that’s it, too many notes.”  Mozart is flabbergasted and eventually asked which notes the Emperor have removed.  “It doesn’t matter.  Just snip a few here and there and it will be perfect.”

Or when an opera fails, Mozart complains to Salieri about it and asks why it happened.  “You overestimate the audience, my good fellow, why you didn’t even give them a good ‘bang’ at the end of a song to let them know when to applaud.”

Contemptuously, Mozart says “Yes, maybe I should be taking lessons from you.”

Salieri looks at him with an expression that cannot be adequately described and says “I wouldn’t presume.”

At any rate, the key to enjoying the film is NOT to view it as a documentary.  Forget about a pedantic insistence on historical accuracy.  Just remember this is Salieri’s tale of his own revenge against God.

It is worth seeing again.







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