Amadeus by Peter Shaffer

Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus, a fictional account of the rivalry between two composers, opens amid darkness and savage whispers of ‘assassin’ and ‘forgive me, Mozart’.

Antonio Salieri, court composer for the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II of Austria, is pitted against Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, considered one of the greatest composers of Western classical music who was famously scribbling a concerto at age five. Mozart’s biographers didn’t pay too much attention to the tension between the two, instead arguing that their relationship was that of mutual respect. But British dramatist Shaffer, inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s 1830 play Mozart and Salieri, built on an assumed animosity between the two creating a tale of ambition, love, loss and betrayal. The play is set in Vienna in the 17th and 18th century, with Salieri an old, embittered man ridden by guilt that he had led Mozart to his death when he was only 35 years old.

Genius, mediocrity

Salieri speaks directly to the audience trying to explain his actions even as Mozart’s hugely successful pieces The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute are used in key scenes. Salieri tells us of his adoration of Mozart’s music long before he had met him; and the disappointment on actually seeing the ‘voice of God’. When Salieri first meets Mozart, he is busy wooing his future wife Constanze Weber, crawling on his knees, the boorish behaviour shocking the serious court composer.

Salieri cannot come to terms with this irony — that God overlooked a devout Catholic like him to bestow the gift of genius to a libertine. This, despite, Salieri’s fervent prayers: “Let your voice enter me. Let me conduct you.” The seeming snub from God prompts Salieri to do everything in his means to destroy Mozart.

Shaffer harps on these two “opposing drives” in Salieri. As he writes in the Penguin Modern Classics edition of the play: “To me there is something pure about Salieri’s pursuit of an eternal Absolute through music, just as there is something irredeemably impure about his simultaneous pursuit of eternal fame.”

Salieri is good to Mozart to his face — “lean upon me...” — but tries to ruin his reputation, leading up to an explosive scene: Mozart writing a score of the unfinished Requiem Mass in D major and giving it to a masked ‘friend’, Salieri. The play was well received despite Shaffer’s leap of artistic licence, earning him huge dividends, with director Milos Forman adapting it to the screen in 1984, and winning eight Oscars, including one for best screenplay. Shaffer had co-written it with Forman in a Connecticut farmhouse, coming up with a climax totally different from the play.

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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Printable version | Oct 12, 2021 11:10:50 AM |

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