Tuesday, March 3, 2015

WHAT AMADEUS GOT RIGHT

Vincent P. de Luise MD



"Amadeus" opened the door to a fantastic world of whose existence I had not been aware. The movie changed my life. "      (anonymous viewer of the film)

Amadeus remains one of the most beloved and decorated movies of all time. It  is a beautifully crafted film that provides us a kaleidoscopic glimpse of a grand society in a time gone by, a place of  aristocratic privilege, excess and insouciance, with artists whose works were not always recognized during their lifetimes, focusing on two composers, Wolfgang "Amadeus" Mozart and Antonio Salieri. The movie is a fantastical meditation, through the reminiscences of Salieri, on  the ways of genius, the value of contrition, and the arbitrariness of metaphysical justice.


Millions around the world have enjoyed Amadeus that was the 1984 movie, and hundreds of thousands have also experienced the compelling eponymous play that opened in London's West End in 1979 and then moved to Broadway. Amadeus has been both applauded as one of the greatest films of the twentieth century as well as criticized by some nitpicking types who can find only the historical "inaccuracies" within it. There are some who even bristle at the title, Amadeus, since Mozart himself,  in his copious writings and compositions, never used it as his middle name (N.B. : Mozart's often wrote his middle name  as "Amade' " or "Amadeo", but never as "Amadeus." Mozart's baptismal name was Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. The name Theophilus transliterates as Gottlieb in German and Amadeus in Latin).

But that's the whole point, and the point of this essay. Amadeus was a West End play, then  a Broadway play, and then a Hollywood movie. It was not a documentary ! Those nitpickers are totally off the mark. There is a lot that Amadeus got right ! 

Writer Peter Shaffer and Director Milos Forman  never intended to be perfectly historically accurate when they created Amadeus. Rather, in both the play and the movie, they crafted a fantasy world, loosely based on facts and channeling Pushkin's 1830 play, Mozart und Salieri, in which they opined deeply about the relationship between genius and talent, and the gulf between ineffable art and journeyman mediocrity. They stated from the outset that Amadeus would not be historically true, but rather, a dramatic fantasy, and in so doing, they crafted a work of art which has captivated us for over three decades.

In reality, Mozart and Salieri were cordial competitors in the musical scene of late eighteenth century Vienna. They collaborated on the pastiche, Der Stein der Wiesen (The Philosopher's Stone), Salieri attended several performances of Mozart's opera, Die Zauberflote ("The Magic Flute") and loved it. Salieri even gave piano lessons to Mozart's second son in the early 1800s. There is no evidence whatsoever that Salieri had anything to do with Mozart's last illness and death; Mozart died of the consequences of rheumatic fever and hypovolemic shock from the blood-letting ordered by his physicians.

Shaffer and Forman proved throughout both play and movie that they knew a tremendous amount about the historical Mozart, more than many who want to point out those moments where the movie and play deviated from reality and historicity.

Tom Hulce, as Wolfgang Mozart, in the movie Amadeus

I would venture a guess that through Amadeus, more than a few viewers got their first deep introduction to classical music, Mozart's music in particular, as well as the beauty of 18th century Vienna (with the lovely and well-preserved Staré Město (Old Town) section of Praha (Prague), Czech Republic as its historical proxy) The sets and costumes were praised for their fidelity to what is known of Viennese culture of that era. These offerings alone are to be cherished, let alone the music (see below).

Even when the movie deviates from "the truth" about Mozart, Forman and Shaffer's deep understanding and scholarship about Mozart's creative process delights us even as it enlightens us.

For example, recall the famous scene where Salieri, as a musical amanuensis, is taking dictation from the dying Mozart as he creates the Confutatis movement of the Requiem. This event never took place in history. (It was actually Franz Xaver Sussmayr who took those notes and finished the Requiem). 

Even though the scene never happened,  through the magic of cinema, Shaffer and Forman brilliantly conjure and reconstruct the creative process of composition. The results are closer to "the truth" than anything else I have seen. Here is that scene:

Tom Hulce, as Mozart, in the Confutatis scene in the 1984 film, Amadeus.
Although it was really F.X.  Sussmayr (and not Salieri) who "took notes",
this scene brilliantly deconstructs Mozart's creative process in particella writing


Some critics have commented on how "silly" and foolish" Mozart is made to appear in the movie, in the cackling laugh and puerile hijinks of Tom Hulce's characterization of the composer, while others don't accept that Mozart could have acted this way.
In fact, he did. Sexual and biological references were part of Mozart's dinner conversations with family in Salzburg and throughout his life. Scatalogical speech and coprolalia were a commonplace in the central European towns of the 18th century. Hulce's brilliant characterization of Mozart was actually sanitized from reality. Shaffer and Forman were spot-in caricaturization as well. Mozart's own letters to his parents, sister, and especially to his cousin, Anna Maria Thekla Mozart (nicknamed the "Basle") when they were both teenagers, are replete with bathroom humor and sexual innuendo. 

Shaffer and Forman took the viewer much farther, by letting them enter Mozart's sublime and serene sound world. The movie is replete with dozens of Mozart's  musical masterpieces, splendidly performed by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy-of-St-Martin-in-the Fields. This sonic Mozartean glory alone is priceless and uplifting.

Beyond honoring Mozart and his brilliant musical legacy, Shaffer and Forman actually did more to revive and resuscitate Salieri than anyone else in the music world had done to that point, by resurrecting and showcasing the finale of his greatest opera, Axur, Re di Ormo (Axur, King of Ormus), complete with over-the-top period costumes and set design. The scene is unforgettable.

Shaffer and Forman won eight well-deserved Academy Awards for Amadeus and have been lauded for having created a wondrous jewel that honors Mozart by having introduced his ineffable music to millions.

So, thank you, Peter Shaffer, Milos Forman, Saul Saenz, for opening the eyes and ears of the world to Mozart. Thank you, actors Tom Hulce (Mozart), F. Murray Abraham (Sallieri), Elizabeth Berridge (Constanze), Jeffrey Jones (Emperor Joseph II) and your colleagues, for informing your characters with depth and authenticity. You got Amadeus so right !

Ars longa !
Ars Mozartiae longior !

@ Vincent P. de Luise MD 2015

4 comments:

  1. I am always fascinated by this Amadeus

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  2. Amadeus is an excellent film and a great story that opens the door to classical music for many people.

    Some of the historical inaccuracies, however are not nitpicking. Among them:

    -- Salieri and Mozart were good friends, not mortal enemies.

    -- While "Le Nozze" and "Don Giovanni" received only a few performances in Vienna, they were repeatedly performed in Prague.

    -- Mozart was not a "pauper" when he died, but solidly middle class. Mourners filled St. Stephens Cathedral for his memorial service.

    -- His grave was unmarked due to the shortage of cemeteries in Vienna at the time. Everyone who died in Vienna around 1790 received a common burial.

    -- As a Mason, Mozart mingled with wealthy and aristocratic folk. Whatever he may have written in his private letters, in public life he conformed to the norms of "high" society.

    -- Rather than ignoring Mozart and consigning him to a life of poverty, the Emperor employed Mozart as his chamber music composer.

    Again, Amadeus is a great story in its own right. One should not confuse it, however, with the historical record.

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  3. Thank you very much, Mr Dinsmore, for corroborating the thesis underpinning my essay.
    Yes, indeed, as you have accurately elaborated, there are a number of facts in the historical record about which Shaffer and Forman knew a great deal, but purposely deviated for the purpose of creating a historical fiction play and movie.
    You might enjoy reading my essay in the International Journal of Medical Humanities on aspects of Mozart and the historical record ( "Euterpe Deconstructed: Reflections on the Health, Illnesses and Legacy of Wolfgang Mozart"), as well as Peter Brown's well-regarded essay in the Phi Beta Kappa quarterly journal, The American Scholar ( "Amadeus and Mozart: Setting the Record Straight").
    Here are the links:

    http://hekint.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1951

    http://www.jstor.org/stable/41211976?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    https://reelrundown.com/movies/Historical-Inaccuracies-in-Amadeus

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