I’ve been thinking alot about one of my favorite movies lately; Amadeus. It’s been a favorite of mine every since I first saw it back in ’84, when it first came out. And yesterday I received some news that brought it back to mind again.
I find myself thinking about a few scenes in particular that projected on the back of my mind in an endless loop for the better part of yesterday evening.
In fact, that movie was also the subject of one of the more animated, impassioned and ridiculous arguments I’ve had in my life.
It was my sophomore year in college. I didn’t know at the time about my ADD, but I did know that I needed music to help me study and — because anything with vocals would have me singing along instead of studying — it had to be instrumental. Or, at the very least, any vocals had to be in a language other than English. So, Mozart’s Requiem was my study music of choice at the time.
Anyway, Amadeus was showing at the movie theater in the student center, so I saw it with some friends and my roommate came along.
I don’t remember how it started, but somewhere along the walk back to the dorm, my roommate and I got into a huge debate over who what the more sympathetic character: Mozart or Salieri. And it was as if we’d just been watching entirely different movies. And, through the filters of our own “issue,” it turned out we actually had seen two different movies.
For him, the most sympathetic character was Mozart, hands down. I suspect he (my roommate) had “father issues,” and sympathized with Mozart because of the portrayal of the composers relationship with a distant and disapproving father. To him, that made Mozart the far more sympathetic character. That Mozart died tragically young, broke and bedridden, with his last great work unfinished, only made him more sympathetic.
For me, it was Salieri, the narrator whose story was wrapped around Mozart’s.
And, yes, I know that the Salieri of the movie wasn’t necessarily a historically accurate portrayal.
Though titled Amadeus, it is the character of Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) who remains at the center of Shaffer’s work. Salieri held high posts in the Viennese imperial musical establishment from 1774 until 1824. In his last years he suffered from senility. Among the rumors circulating in Vienna around 1824 was one saying that Salieri had said he poisoned Mozart. The tale reached Beethoven and many others. In 1825 Salieri’s two attendants attested that they had never heard such words from their charge, and a friend of Mozart’s physician reported that Wolfgang had died of a fever that was epidemic at that time in Vienna. From an unproved premise Shaffer developed this, the central character in Amadeus, as one obsessed by and murderously jealous of Mozart’s genius.
Constanze, Mozart’s widow, fanned the rumor’s flame by endorsing it; she also believed that Salieri had plotted against her husband. But it is more likely, if any hot hostility even existed, that Salieri was protecting his own turf within the imperial establishment. If a court cabal had been so powerful and Salieri so maniacal about preventing Mozart’s success, neither The Abduction from the Seraglio, nor The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte would have been composed for or performed in the court theaters. In addition, Salieri would certainly not have shared a double operatic bill at the Schönbrunn palace with Mozart in February 1786 if such bad blood existed between them. Furthermore, Mozart did receive a court appointment as Kammermusicus in December 1787 and at the time of his death was to be appointed Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Salieri even attended a performance of The Magic Flute on October 13, 1791, reportedly visited Mozart the day before he died, and, according to one account was a mourner at the funeral on December 6.
…Anselm Huttenbrenner reported that Salieri always spoke of Mozart “with exceptional respect,” and the two composers were on friendly enough terms so that Salieri would loan Mozart scores from the court library. Apart from Constanze’s remark, there exists no independent evidence to conclude that Salieri and Mozart were on bad terms. On the contrary, their relationship may have been a healthy professional one.
According to the film, the basis of Salieri’s jealousy was his desire, while still a boy in Italy, to become “a great composer like Mozart.” That Salieri in old age doubts his confessor’s aphorism that “all men are equal in God’s eyes,” by comparing himself again to Mozart is a stroke of dramatic brilliance. But the idea, postulated around 1760 by an Italian youth, of a “great composer” is a concept nearly a half-century ahead of its time and almost entirely a nineteenth-century Teutonic idea. In Amadeus, all that remains of the historical Salieri are his posts as court composer and imperial Kapellmeister and his appetite for Viennese bonbons.
Though Salieri never achieved historical greatness, he was rightfully a highly respected and successful composer whose ability to provide operas for the court and to administer its musical establishment cannot be questioned. In contrast, Salieri’s music performed in Amadeus is simpleminded and unworthy of his true abilities. There is no question that Mozart’s improvisational and performance skills were exceptional; Salieri’s remain unknown. However, by showing Salieri as a barely competent musician, the disparity of musical talent is deepened, thereby furthering Shaffer’s dramatic plan. Salieri’s music may never have achieved immortality, but it was always correct, skillful, and appropriate.
Would a historically accurate portrayal of Salieri have made for as good a movie as Amadeus turned out to be? Would it have spoken as deeply as it did to so many people? Or to me, even?
The movie may have been named for Mozart, but to me his was Salieri’s movie and Salieri’s story that was the more compelling. Here was a guy who had a deep desire to achieve something, worked hard at it, and ultimately achieved material success and a position of importance, but the artistic accomplishment he really longs for remains out his reach.
But only just out of his reach. Because, while it was bad enough that he’d been given the desire to achieve something but not the ability to do so, he had to watch someone else achieve what he’d wanted and worked to achieve — and watch them do so with incredible ease.
And where Mozart died young, Salieri lived long enough to see Mozart all-but-worshipped and himself all-but-forgotten.
Back then my identification with Salieri had to do with a whole set of issues. And it does now. Just the context and content have changed slightly.
But yesterday, something in my day reminded me of that movie and particularly the scene above.
It reminds me of another stage/movie performance that moved people — or at least move me — in much the same way.
Because it’s everybody’s story, whether you’re black, white, male, female, transgendered, gay, straight, or anything else. (’Cause all that falls under the category of “Human,” dontcha know.) It speaks to just about anyone who’s ever experienced loss or rejection (no coincidence that the original show was created by a gay man, Michael Bennett), and that’s pretty much everybody; whether you lost a relationship, a job, a friendship, your home, your dignity, your reputation, your money, your identity or anything that was such a part of who you thought you were that you thought you couldn’t live without it. (Remember? “I’m not livin’ without ya. Not livin’ without ya. I don’t wanna be free!”).
And who hasn’t? Whatever it was, there was probably a moment when, something inside of you welled up and said “No! I’m not nothing and I deserve more than nothing! I may be fat, fucked up, loud, late, and a pain in the ass. But dammit I’m not nothing!” The flip side of this moment, by the way, is Celie’s moment in The Color Purple, as the man and the relationship that held her captive fade in the distance and she declares, “I’m poor, black, I may even be ugly, but dear God I’m here, I’m here!” Somewhere in all of us is, as a reviewer put it in 1981, that “voice that won’t take no for an answer.”
But what if “no” is the answer, like it or not? What if you aren’t going to achieve the kind of success you’ve hoped for a worked for? What if, for all of your best efforts, you end up an “also-ran.”
Let’s face it. Were it not for Amadeus and and Oscar-winning performance by F.Murray Abraham, about as many people would know who Salieri was as can name any two Supremes besides Diana Ross. As many? Who am I kidding? Less.
There’s nothing wrong with being one of the “other Supremes.” But what if you’ve dreamed of being, well, more? What do you do when you reach a point where if it was going to happen if would have by now, and if you were going to do it you would have by now, but is hasn’t and you haven’t?
What do you do if your dreams are going to be permanently deferred, but the passion that ignited them is still there? Do you move on?
Is it enough to watch others reach the heights you couldn’t, or even to help them reach what was and remains beyond your own reach, and simply enjoy their achievements? Is that enough?
Do you just “get over it”?
Do you keep trying, even if you don’t, and probably won’t, get there?
Yeah. Salieri, if not the more sympathetic character is the more interesting one if you ask me.
Perhaps there’s another side of the story, and success isn’t always as wonderful as imagined by those on the other side of that experience. Perhaps there’s something to the pressure to meet ever increasing expectations, to top your last effort, and hold on to your position on top as long as possible. And, that’s all evident in Mozart storyline in Amadeus.
But at least he was successful, in his own time and for centuries after. At least he had the gifts and opportunity to get there. That ought to be some consolation, or least it would seem so from the other side of the glass.
Is there value in being an “also-ran” in a culture that only values “winners”? How about modest achievements in a culture that worships whomever has the most, the biggest, the fastest, etc.?
Anyway, that’s been on my mind since yesterday.
I think I pick up a copy of Amadeus tonight.