Let’s get one thing very clear: Amadeus is not history. Nor, for the most part, does it pretend to be. Milos Forman’s film, for all its acclaim, has attracted its share of scorn over the years, often from those who find it to be an inadequate portrait of the real-life entity known as Mozart (to say nothing of the real-life entity known as Salieri, an accomplished composer who in his later years actually taught some of the greatest musical minds of all time). Liberties taken with the historical/biographical record are nothing new – especially for a film based not on fact but on a stage play, which itself was based on another play which became an opera. But there is one aspect of Amadeus’s poetic license that’s worth dwelling on, because it reveals something very profound about the film’s intentions – and, just perhaps, brings us around to (gasp) a better understanding of Mozart himself.
There have been a number of discussions (both here and elsewhere) about Amadeus as a two-hander between Mozart and Salieri – the genius versus the mediocrity, the sublime versus the earthbound. Amadeus is also certainly, on some basic level, Salieri’s story. It is through F. Murray Abraham’s face and his words, after all, that we enter the divine realm of Mozart’s genius: Sometimes within the space of one minute – as in this remarkable scene below -- he has to express surprise, love, resentment, disgust, exaltation.
But who, then, is Mozart in this portrait? If we are to believe Salieri, he’s a vulgar, childish man undeserving of the God-given genius bestowed upon him. Or maybe we should ask it this way: Who is “Amadeus”? In his painstakingly detailed book Mozart in Vienna, Volkmar Braunbehrens, clearly no fan of the film, observes this about the name:
Mozart never called himself “Amadeus” but always used simply Amade (or Amadeo), in an attempt to translate his baptismal name Theophilus (Gottlieb, or “love of God”). It is therefore quite appropriate that the theater and cinema associate themselves with “Amadeus,” thereby announcing that they want nothing to do with Mozart’s actual life.
Nobody ever really calls Mozart “Amadeus” in the film (aside from an early reference by Salieri). Indeed, he’s usually “Wolfgang” or “Wolfie.” So, consider for a moment the fact that this film is not a back and forth between Mozart and Salieri but rather a triangle – between Mozart (or Wolfgang) the person, Salieri, and the music of Mozart (the divinely tinged “Amadeus”).
Salieri would have it that Mozart has been given a glory he himself can never have. Perhaps, but then again, Mozart the character does not exactly have a happy life in Amadeus. Yes, we see him partying a few times, and yes he displays, as Zach Ralston observed earlier, all the hallmarks of a rock star. But he’s also constantly in debt, almost always at odds with his father, and often denied the things he wants – commissions, prestigious teaching assignments, etc. His operas usually run for a few shows and then close down. One could easily mistake this man for a failure.
But those are all external forces acting upon him. What about his internal accomplishments? Can we see, on the face of this little man, the contentment of being God’s instrument of musical grace? Not really. He has moments of pride, certainly – as when he boasts, awkwardly, that The Marriage of Figaro is “the best opera yet written” – but rarely do we sense the joy of creation in him. In fact, the first time we meet Mozart, the orchestra starts playing his music without him, and he has to rush to conduct them. It’s a funny gag, but it also suggests the music as a force separate from Mozart the person.
The Romantic (with a capital “R”) notion of Mozart’s instinctive genius – that he was merely channeling the divine -- has come under some scrutiny, and it was a sore spot for critics of the film as well. Pauline Kael wrote at the time:
The corniness in Amadeus is that the view of artistic accomplishment which Salieri spouts – that if art comes without plodding it must be a gift from above – is at least half shared by the writer and the director. They don’t appear to register that the whole notion of dictation from God is an insult to Mozart.
And here, too, is Robert Craft, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1985, suggesting that this is also historically inaccurate:
Amadeus grossly misleads … in the inference that Mozart’s music effortlessly sprang from him, a notion that does not need to be contradicted by reference to the evidence of human trial and error, the rewriting, the composition of new arias to improve his operas, the many abandoned fugues (including the much corrected K.401), and Mozart’s own description of his quartets for Haydn as “the fruit of [two years of] labor.” Innumerable constructions in Mozart’s music in “clean” manuscripts testify to efforts sustained at a scarcely imaginable level.
In other words, the real Mozart was not some guy who sat down and felt genius flow out of him. He worked ceaselessly, and often had to hold fragments of his musical visions in his head until he could find a way to complete them. As Alex Ross observed, in 2006:
Mozart’s mind may have been like a huge map of half-explored territories; in a way, he was writing all his works all the time. The new image of him as a kind of improvising perfectionist is even more formidable than the previous one of God’s stenographer. Ambitious parents who are currently playing the “Baby Mozart” video for their toddlers may be disappointed to learn that Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard, and, if Constanze was right, by working himself to death.
But let’s consider how the film presents Mozart’s music. Observe this celebrated scene, where Salieri, after his first glimpse of Mozart, walks up to his sheet music and, in voiceover, eloquently breaks it down.
It’s a magnificent moment, but also an ambiguous one: We could choose to read Salieri’s description of the music as symbolic – Mozart is the oboe floating high above Salieri and his “rusty squeezebox.” The scene, however, is more cunning than that. Here’s how Salieri describes the part of the music that takes his breath away:
"And then suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until, a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight. This was no composition by a performing monkey. This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing -- such unfulfillable longing -- it seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God."
In other words, Mozart’s music is one of transcendence. The oboe and the clarinet are almost an abstraction, the sound of perfection and grace floating high above the “rusty squeezebox” of reality – a reality that belongs to both Salieri and Mozart the man. Indeed, we often see Mozart use his music to escape his reality – as when he retires to his desk while his father and his wife bicker, or when he transforms his mother-in-law into the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute. “Wolfgang” can create this music, but he cannot become it. Remember, the longing Salieri senses in the music is “unfulfillable.” To quote Ross again:
Leopold Mozart once said of his son, “Two opposing elements rule his nature, I mean, there is either too much or too little, never the golden mean.” Often, an artist sets forth in his work what he cannot achieve in life, and Mozart’s music is the empire of the golden mean…Like the rest of us, he had to live outside the complex paradise that he created in sound.
The divided self is a running theme in Amadeus – Salieri talks about feeling like a man being torn in half; Mozart’s loyalties are often divided -- between his father and his wife, between the work on the Requiem Mass and work on The Magic Flute, etc. Leopold Mozart’s two-faced carnival outfit has even become the film’s dominant image. And Mozart and Salieri are the central duality in the film – the two faces of reality, the vulgar and the brooding, the loyal and the rebellious. In the end, however, the music exists outside them. Or perhaps because of them: Amadeus presents the Requiem as perhaps Mozart’s most monumental work (the piece became a hit in the film’s wake) and, in the film’s fictional presentation of events, it wouldn’t exist without Salieri.
That’s not the only time that the film presents the music as an almost collaborative effort. In an earlier scene, where Mozart is first introduced to the Emperor, the young composer is presented with a march Salieri has written in his honor. Mozart sits down to play the piece (all from memory) in front of the court, and, as he does so, he begins to comment and improvise on the music: “That doesn’t really work, does it?” he asks, before riffing on a few keys and improving the piece – by turning it, then and there, into the tune to “Non piu andrai” from The Marriage of Figaro, an opera he has yet to write. Here again we have a sly kind of collaboration – Mozart creates great art, but with an assist from Salieri.
The film isn’t saying, of course, that Salieri helped Mozart write his music. Rather, it’s setting the music apart from the men. It is ever-present, as are they: Every time Mozart conducts, there, too, is Salieri, in his box, taking it all in and marveling at it, the only one who truly understands the genius of the work. It's almost a kind of conjuring between the two. The two men, the composer and the listener, stand under the shadow of great art: They can create music, they can hear music, but they can’t touch it, or live in it. It belongs to the ages, and it will be playing long after both are gone – Mozart to his miserable early grave, and Salieri down the corridor to his madhouse of mediocrity.