When dramatic licence morphs into slander

Last night we went to a performance of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus at the school where my wife teaches. It was an impressive adaptation, especially so given that all the parts were played by teenagers. The production also mixed some recordings of Mozart’s music, with live performances by a quartet on the stage. It adhered as much as possible — given the limitations of a school theatre and the casting — to Shaffer’s storyline, but on the way home I fell to thinking how unfair and misleading that line was. Its dramatic engine is the idea that Salieri, the Court Composer in the Austrian Imperial Court, was so jealous of Mozart’s transcendent talent that sabotaged his career in Vienna, leaving him destitute — and then, many years later, was so overcome with remorse that he tried to slit his throat and was thereafter confined to a lunatic asylum where a priest persuaded him to confess.

This makes for great theatre, of course, but historically speaking, it skates on rather thin ice. In the Oscar-winning film, Amadeus that Milos Forman made in 1984 (with screenplay by Shaffer), F. Murray Abraham (who won the Oscar for Best Actor that year) portrays Salieri as “a Machiavellian, Iago-esque character, who uses his connections to keep Mozart as the underdog and slowly destroy Mozart’s career”.

The play does not portray Salieri as a murderer but rather has him hastening Mozart’s demise through a series of plots, leaving him destitute. Salieri is characterized as both in awe of and insanely envious of Mozart, going so far as to renounce God for blessing his adversary; “Amadeus” means love of God, or God’s love, and the play can be said to be about God-given talent, or the lack thereof: Salieri is hospitalized in a mental institution, where he announces himself as “the patron saint of mediocrity”.

The hugely-informative Wikipedia page on Salieri suggests that while there was definite rivalry between Salieri and Mozart (as there would have been in the poisonous back-biting milieu of any Imperial court of the time), broadly speaking they got on fairly well. “Even with Mozart and Salieri’s rivalry for certain jobs”, it says,

there is virtually no evidence that the relationship between the two composers was at all acrimonious beyond this, especially after around 1785, when Mozart had become established in Vienna. Rather, they appeared to usually see each other as friends and colleagues, and supported each other’s work. For example, when Salieri was appointed Kapellmeister in 1788, he chose to revive Figaro instead of introducing a new opera of his own, and when he attended the coronation festivities for Leopold II in 1790, Salieri had no fewer than three Mozart masses in his luggage. Salieri and Mozart even jointly composed a cantata for voice and piano, called Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia, which celebrated the return to stage of the singer Nancy Storace. […] Mozart’s Davide penitente (1785), his Piano Concerto KV 482 (1785), the Clarinet Quintet (1789) and the 40th Symphony (1788) had been premiered on the suggestion of Salieri, who supposedly conducted a performance of it in 1791. In his last surviving letter from 14 October 1791, Mozart tells his wife that he picked up Salieri and Caterina Cavalieri in his carriage and drove them both to the opera; about Salieri’s attendance at his opera The Magic Flute, speaking enthusiastically: “He heard and saw with all his attention, and from the overture to the last choir there was not a piece that didn’t elicit a ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Bello!’ out of him […].”

Also interesting is the fact that Salieri, along with Mozart’s protégé Hummel, educated Mozart’s younger son Franz Xaver Mozart, who was born about four months before his father’s death.

So the historical truth about the relationship between the two composers could probably be summarised as “the usual professional rivalry accompanied by a degree of mutual respect” but where’s the dramatic interest in that?

Ironically, Salieri’s music was neglected for centuries, and it was only the world-wide popularity of Forman’s film in 1984 (and the travesty of its portrayal of him) that reawakened interest in it.