By Daniel Frezza
Historical drama is drama first and history second. Playwrights know they have license to invent and to choose how much history to use. Besides facts, the historical record contains opinions, misconceptions, rumors, and lies—all useful to the dramatist. Useful to audiences is some historical context to enhance understanding of the writer’s intentions and inventiveness.
Alexander Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri (1830) and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979) explore composer Antonio Salieri’s reputed envy of Mozart. This has some factual basis. In a letter, Mozart mentioned Salieri’s (unspecified) intrigues against him; in another he described how Salieri prevented an aria of his from being included in a concert (Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, Ed. Robert Spaethling [W.W. Norton, New York, 2000] 357, 416). Other documents suggest that their relationship was sometimes friendly and sometimes strained, that Salieri both hindered and helped Mozart at different times (The Mozart Myths, William Stafford [Stanford University Press, 1991] 45-6, 55, 246). That’s not an uncommon situation, given two artists, close in age, working in the same competitive environment. But what happens when one of them is uncommonly talented while the other is uncommonly successful?
Antonio Salieri (1750–1825) was born near Verona, Italy. Orphaned at fifteen, he was taken by a family friend to Venice to continue his musical studies. There he met Austrian Court Composer Florian Gassmann. Impressed with Salieri’s talent, Gassmann took him to Vienna, financed his education, and introduced him to Emperor Joseph II, under whose patronage Salieri began a successful career as an opera composer. Upon Gassmann’s death, Salieri succeeded him as court composer and director of Italian opera—at age 24! In 1788 he was appointed Hofkapellmeister, the most influential musical position in Austria. By 1804 Salieri’s operas were no longer popular and he devoted the rest of his career to overseeing and composing music for the court chapel, conducting, and teaching. His pupils included Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt (New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Ed. Stanley Sadie [Grove, New York, 2001]). After his death Salieri was largely forgotten—until Amadeus.
The general outline of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life (1756–1791) is well enough known, and Shaffer follows it fairly closely. His main inventions are Mozart’s recurring dream of a menacing figure, rejection by his fellow Masons, and the climactic emotional confrontation between the two antagonists (Amadeus, Peter Shaffer [Harper Perennial, New York. 2001], xxiii, xxix, xvi). (Though Salieri did visit Mozart shortly before he died.) The other major events are historical, as are details like Mozart’s skill at billiards and his scatological language. During his last four, troubled years, Mozart composed his greatest works including two that are prominently featured in Shaffer’s play: The Magic Flute and the work he didn’t live to finish, the Requiem. Weary and sick, Mozart came to feel he was writing it for his own funeral. In late November 1791 he took to his bed but continued work on the Requiem. It was completed by his pupils (New Grove Dictionary).
Pushkin and Shaffer both make Salieri’s psychological and emotional conflict the center of their plays; Mozart is the catalyst. Pushkin’s brief, concentrated play opens with Salieri declaring that there is no justice on earth or in heaven. He has devoted his life to music, laboring to master his art. He never envied Gluck or Haydn, but he envies Mozart. He considers the man unworthy of the sublime talent bestowed on him because he doesn’t take it seriously enough. He tells Mozart “You . . . are a god, and you yourself don’t know it. I know it” (The Little Tragedies, Alexander Pushkin, Trans. Nancy K. Anderson [Yale University Press. New Haven, 2000] 59). For years Salieri has contemplated suicide and keeps poison for that purpose. Now he feels his destiny is to kill Mozart—“or else we all will perish.” Pushkin doesn’t make the point explicit, but this reasoning hints at madness: killing Mozart only frees Salieri from envying new masterpieces, plenty remain as evidence of Mozart’s superior talent.
Shaffer deepens and connects Pushkin’s themes. Peter Hall, who directed the original 1979 Amadeus and the revised 1999 version, calls the play a “celebration of Mozart and his music” (Amadeus, viii). It is gloriously that; Shaffer skillfully incorporates the music to heighten emotion. While Amadeus depicts the descending arc of Mozart’s life, it is primarily about Salieri’s moral and psychological disintegration. Heaven’s injustice, only briefly stated by Pushkin, becomes a principal theme in Amadeus. Music is Salieri’s passion and his means to serve God. As a young man, he vowed to lead a virtuous life devoted to music if God would make him a good composer. That happened. Then Mozart arrived. When Salieri describes Mozart’s music he sounds like someone gripped by love’s fever. Thunderstruck by Mozart’s genius, Salieri devalues his own work and blames God for not helping him to create better music while He lavishes supreme talent on one who is infantile, foul-mouthed, and (Salieri believes) a libertine. He cannot hate Mozart’s music so he hates the man—and God. Salieri had been “God’s beloved”; feeling spurned, he responds like a jilted lover. His address to God near the end of act one is shockingly vehement. By thwarting Mozart, Salieri feels he is defying God (Amadeus, 110). Throughout the play, Shaffer releases tension after big emotional moments with an undercut. Following this particular outburst, Salieri leads into the intermission by announcing that he needs to relieve himself.
In act two, Salieri pretends friendship while devoting himself to crushing Mozart, all the while marveling at the power of his music. The internal conflict unmoors him. To fully appreciate Shaffer’s intention to portray Salieri as “unbalanced” (Amadeus, xxi, xxvi) one must know that he was no mediocre holder of a court sinecure. Salieri was a fine composer; many of his operas were immensely successful in a highly competitive field. He was a sought-after teacher and respected administrator. Mozart, though more talented, posed no threat to Salieri’s position but in the play Salieri keenly feels Mozart’s threat to his posthumous reputation. Mozart’s phenomenal genius annihilates Salieri’s sense of worth; the accolades he receives mean nothing to him. Shaffer intensifies the historical Salieri’s self-criticism to a level suggesting neurosis.
Perhaps what Salieri envies most is Mozart’s supreme self-confidence. During their final meeting Mozart uncharacteristically doubts the quality of his Requiem. That doubt and the music’s overwhelming power awaken Salieri’s remorse. Realizing he has destroyed himself in destroying Mozart, he confesses and begs forgiveness. “We are both poisoned,” he says. “With each other” (Amadeus, 107). Mozart, uncomprehending and bewildered, recoils into himself. Following that climax Shaffer builds a dénouement from selected historical facts capped with his own satisfying invention, giving Salieri a plausibly pathetic motive for a false confession. Shaffer intends audiences to recognize themselves in his protagonist (Amadeus, xxxi). Fundamentally, Salieri is someone who has been given much yet wants more. That’s very human.
A brief summary of the poisoning rumor may be helpful. It first appeared in print (without naming a culprit) about a month after Mozart died. It lay dormant for many years, then late in Salieri’s life it resurfaced, naming him as the poisoner. When Rossini visited Salieri in 1822, he felt comfortable making a joke about the rumor, an indication he didn’t take it seriously (Antonio Salieri: a Documentary Biography, Edward Elmgren Swenson [University Microfilms International: Ann Arbor, Mich., 1979] 353). Others did, though. In spring 1823 Salieri fell and injured his head; his physical and mental condition deteriorated and he was hospitalized that October. In November, the composer/pianist Ignaz Moscheles, Salieri’s former pupil, visited him in hospital. Salieri asked him to tell the world that the rumor he killed Mozart was untrue. Moscheles believed him but wrote that Salieri’s intrigues had no doubt “poisoned many an hour of Mozart’s existence” (Life of Moscheles vol. 1, Charlotte Moscheles, Trans. A.D. Coleridge [Hurst & Blackett: London, 1873.Google book] 88–89). During his hospitalization it was reported that Salieri confessed to poisoning Mozart. The source of that report remains unknown. Salieri’s two hospital attendants attested that they never heard him say it (The Mozart Myths. 31, 44). Xenophobia may have played a part in the report: after living in Vienna for nearly fifty years, Salieri was still considered a foreigner.
Postscript: Though fond of undercuts and historical detail, Shaffer doesn’t include history’s ironic twist to Salieri’s story: a year after Mozart died, young Beethoven came to town!