Amadeus (1984)

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Directed By: Milos Forman
Written By: Peter Shaffer

Amadeus is a movie for all of humanity. Brilliantly directed by Milos Forman and adapted for the screen by Peter Shaffer, who also wrote the play the film is based on, the film follows a man, Antonio Salieri, who is filled with envy for his great hero and rival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri’s character seems to be the ultimate foil to Mozart’s – pedantic and unimaginative, he is a composer for the court of the Emperor Frederic who simply plays by the rules. Mozart, on the other hand, is the visionary – a true genius, willing to break down convention and somewhat recklessly create with a confidence that is staggering.

The tragedy of Salieri’s character (played to Oscar-winning greatness by F. Murray Abraham) is that he is so aware of his own mediocrity. Unlike many mediocrities, he knows that Mozart’s music is unparalleled to anything else at that time. Contrary to members of the public and the Emperor’s court, he is able to understand that Mozart was creating art so beautiful, so brilliant, Salieri believed it had come from God. This causes Salieri to hate yet love Mozart (Tom Hulce). He cannot stand the man, whom he believes crass and rude – a poor vessel for which God chose to give these immense talents, but the music he creates is irresistible. To Salieri’s mind, his pious and chaste nature is providing a much more suitable vessel for divine talent, he does not understand why God did not choose him.

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How would any normal person respond to this without deadly envy? Piety cannot protect from very base human instincts. To Thomas Aquinas, envy was to “sorrow over another’s good”, although Timothy Perrine in his essay, “Envy and Self-Worth: Amending Aquinas’s Definition of Envy” links envy to the comparative notion of self-worth, writing that envy is to sorrow over one’s good while feeling self-worth diminish. Comparative self-worth, comparing ourselves to others is something I think everyone practices from time to time, and not the least Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus”.

Yet just as Salieri poses himself as a pious man, he is in fact sinful – or he would be in the eyes of Aquinas who wrote: “we grieve over a man’s good in so far as his good surpasses ours; this is envy properly speaking and is always sinful.” This is envy in connection to pride, putting into question one’s very excellence in his craft. Throughout Amadeus, Mozart somewhat precariously and naively damages Salieri’s pride. Just by writing what Salieri knows as superior operas, like Figaro, Don Giovani and The Magic Flute, Salieri’s pride is weakened. The court of the Emperor may be unaware of Mozart’s genius – seeing him only as a fiend – but Salieri’s one true gift is being able to comprehend Mozart’s brilliance, which is undoubtedly to him a curse.

Yet more damning is Salieri’s vainglory. Mozart’s public dismissals of his music, when he modifies Salieri’s march, and the party scene where Mozart not only makes a mockery of Salieri’s music, but of the man himself damages not just Salieri’s own pride, but also his standing in the eyes of others. Aquinas considered vainglory a vice, and that every form of envy brought about by vice is a sin. Salieri thinks himself a pious, faithful man, but he cannot beat those vices he fails to see. In short, Salieri, despite promising his humanity to God as a boy in the opening act of the film,
cannot fully give it away.

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So what to make of this? Are Salieri’s sins preventing him from attaining greatness, as Aquinas would most likely say? This is where the point of Amadeus comes in. Throughout the film, Mozart operates with a certain Dionysian abandon. He drinks, he parties, money slips through his fingers, he’s uncouth, damning of authority, and also prideful – declaring at one point he is the best composer in Vienna. Mozart seems the opposite to the pious Antonio Salieri. Yet Salieri stalks, schemes, is envious, equally prideful, and has an amusing addiction to sweets. The difference between the two is that Mozart embraces his humanity while Salieri shuns it. This is why Mozart could compose great art, he wasn’t bothered with repression or convention – in fact, he was a bit of an iconoclast, saying in the film to the traditionalist Emperor Joseph, “Why must we go on forever writing about Gods and legends?” Mozart wanted his art to reflect the passions of real life, and of real people.

Mozart’s will is brimming with creative energy. If we follow Nietzsche’s conception of will, it is much different than Judeo-Christian belief, where the will is considered something individual. To Nietzsche the will was something that could unite, and each person supposedly had a different vitality to their will. This difference in wills is one of the reasons why Mozart was so superior to Salieri; Salieri’s will was too bogged down in dogma and convention. The name “Amadeus” translated to English means “love of God”, but the film portrays Mozart not loving God as Salieri loves Him, rather it shows a much more modern, Dionysian interpretation of God with Mozart expressing his faith by living passionately and loving life. This is the film’s message: great art is never conventional, and the artists who create great works never play by the rules of society. The artist and their art always forces society to adapt to them, sometimes this is instantaneous and sometimes it happens after the artists’ death. In the film, Mozart straddles these two realities. The court adapts to some things, like allowing Figaro to be produced and also to allow ballet in the opera, yet is ardent in other things; it was only right before Mozart’s death that Salieri admits to Mozart, “You are the greatest composer known to me.”

So that is how the great artist lives – as a radical, as an iconoclast. Salieri spends more time praying than composing, which is a big contrast to Mozart’s figure leaned over the billiards table, composing all day. Salieri’s head is always in the clouds, looking upwards towards God for inspiration – not looking inside himself, in his own heart or his own life. Irving Singer writes in his book “Modes of Creativity: Philosophical Perspectives” that:

“Theories that give greatest importance to the unadorned experience of creativity, or to a glittering outlook that is either Platonistic or Romantic, can rightly claim one significant virtue. They captivate us with their sheer imaginative depiction of the sheer wonderment of human creativity. To this extent, the theories are creative in themselves, and that is fine. But a more precise conception would have to make insightful reference to the routine and pragmatic, frequently laborious, aspects of creativity. Whether or not Mozart took dictation from God, he put in many hours of work each day to support his family…Mozart’s lifelong concern about the money he would receive was not just as external motive. It was for him, as for many creative people, a part of the creative process…The earthy soil of everyday life matters, however crude it may be, and however little we like to think of its sustaining role in our existence.”

The idea that Mozart took dictation from God is inspiring, but really his creativity came from his passion, his drive, and his circumstances. He may have been an exceptional musical talent even as a young child, yet his genius came from the incredible dedication and hard work he put in day after day. Salieri did not understand this drive, to him he was waiting for a miracle, an illusion to strike and make him great. But just like water never boils if you watch it, waiting for it to happen, miracles never happen if you wait for them. It was Salieri’s chaste, uptight repression of his humanity  that led to his striking mediocrity. Like an Italian opera, he didn’t know what love was, he didn’t know what passion really was, and those two things: love and passion are the genesis of great art.

Cory Zydyk writes on music and film for Step On magazine. His recent features include Nothing Left to Be: A Reflective Look at Dinosaur Jr., a review of At Starlight by Dawn Gazers,  and a review of Pure American Gum by American Culture.

This feature on Amadeus is part of our ongoing film review series: Lust for Life: The Music of Film, where Step On magazine writers take a look at all the films about music and made of great music that are the soundtrack of our lives. 

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