Is “Amadeus” a True Picture of Mozart?

by Stephen Cera, Published in the Globe and Mail on October 9, 2003.

Mediocrity defiles genius in “Amadeus,” Peter Shaffer’s dramatic depiction of the struggle between a powerful establishment figure and a miraculous child of nature.  While the central character in the play – an Italian kapellmeister named Antonio Salieri (1750 – 1825), a musical lion of the Eighteenth Century Viennese court – plots against the life and reputation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), Shaffer reduces the supreme composer to a foul-mouthed, infantile jackass.

So effective is “Amadeus” as theater (the CanStage production opens October 9 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts) that spectators may even be convinced by its portrayal of Mozart as a simpering, scatological, ill-mannered oaf who speaks only in negative terms of other composers.  Shaffer goes far beyond demystifying him in order to pay homage to his music, so far that the malcontent Salieri unintentionally emerges as a portrait of the author as an envious man.  The theatrically vivid tale of poisoned brilliance and thwarted ambition embodies not only Salieri’s revenge on Mozart, but also Shaffer’s revenge on first-rate creators.

In slandering Mozart by portraying his supposedly venial failings, and exploiting the mystery surrounding the death of the 35-year-old composer and his subsequent burial in an unmarked pauper’s grave, “Amadeus” accomplishes for Salieri – almost two centuries after his death – what he could not achieve in his lifetime.

Shaffer seizes the fact that some of Mozart’s surviving letters are laced with naughty erotica to titillate his beloved wife, Constanze, and we are made to assume that Mozart always talked and acted this way.  But why should we assume this, any more than that Mozart’s music was the embodiment of an ineffably angelic spirit?

Of course, Shaffer is not just a “patron saint of mediocrity” – the self-definition he gives to Salieri.  He is too shrewd a writer for that. But like his central character, he has been praised for slick, effective but superficial work, for impersonating greatness rather than achieving it.

The author never shrinks from sacrificing historical fact for a good melodramatic climax.  He constructs in “Amadeus” a maze of intrigue, making Salieri responsible for the near-cancellation of “The Marriage of Figaro,” by means of a trumped-up objection about a supposedly superfluous “ballet.”  Actually, it was the emperor of Austria who worried about the opera because he felt threatened by the democratic sentiments of the Beaumarchais work on which it was based.

Shaffer has Salieri persuade Mozart to include Masonic secrets in “The Magic Flute” so his order of Masons would repudiate him.  In another flight of fancy he has Salieri appear to Mozart on his deathbed, in a black cloak and mask, disguised as the mysterious stranger who had commissioned the Requiem.  The real-life apparition who haunted Mozart was actually the emissary of a Count Walsegg.

Salieri even scares Mozart by pretending to be the Stone Statue from “Don Giovanni,” inviting the composer to supper.  He later admits to having poisoned Mozart because he hopes to achieve immortality with a false confession.  Finally, having unsuccessfully attempted suicide, he implicates everyone in his hatred of genius and his inescapable mediocrity.

We know that Salieri plotted against Mozart and blocked his advancement with the Emperor Joseph II.  Mozart died believing Salieri may have poisoned him; the rumor was current enough to inspire Pushkin’s drama, “Mozart and Salieri.” But musicologists have rejected the notion, citing the affection of Beethoven and Schubert for the aging Salieri, and the fact that Salieri actually denied the poisoning on his deathbed.  Shaffer himself rejects the idea of a literal poisoning, suggesting instead that Salieri poisoned Mozart with hatred.

Rife with factual liberties, Shaffer’s depiction of Mozart does not match accounts by contemporaries, including those of Mozart’s first biographer, Franz Xaver Niemetschek, whose pioneering study was published in 1798, seven years after the composer’s death.

If he did read Niemetschek, Shaffer was apparently unaffected, preferring the inspiration of a few of Mozart’s racy letters sent to his cousin.  Nor did Shaffer heed those letters of Mozart in which the composer pays tribute to Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian Bach, or take note of Mozart’s dedication of six of his greatest string quartets to Haydn.

Shaffer’s Mozart is a colossal musical creator whose personality bears no relation to his creativity.  (Constanze tells us “Wolferl would rather play at billiards than anything.  He’s very good at it”).  Salieri blasphemes the genius as “Spiteful, sniggering, conceited, infantine…s–t-talking Mozart, with his botty-smacking wife.”

Contrast this with Niemetschek’s first-hand depiction: “Mozart was an upright man and had a friendly disposition.  Natural benevolence and rare feelings of good-will and friendship were his characteristics.  He succumbed to these generous inclinations, and was often deceived because of his instinctive trust of others.  In fact, he often gave comfort and hospitality to his greatest enemies and slanderers.”

Mozart, through Shaffer, deprecates Gluck (1714 – 1787), the composer of “Orfeo et Euridice” (“He’s talked all his life about modernizing opera, but creates people so lofty they sound as though they s–t marble.”)

Contrast this with Niemetschek’s observation that “High esteem for true merit, and regard for the individual, influenced his judgment of works of art.  He was always very touched when he spoke of the two Haydns or other great masters.”

Another Niemetschek vignette: “At a private party a new work of Joseph Haydn was being performed.  Besides Mozart there were a number of other musicians present, among them a certain man who was never known to praise anyone but himself.  He was standing next to Mozart and found fault with one thing after another.  For a while Mozart listened patiently; when he could bear it no longer and the fault-finder once more conceitedly declared: ‘I would not have done that,’ Mozart retorted, ‘Neither would I, but do you know why?  Because neither of us could have thought of anything so appropriate.’

“…With encouraging interest he listened to the efforts of young artists and, by expressing praise, awakened dormant self-confidence.  There were numerous examples of this during his stay in Prague, and many a reader will confirm this report from his own experience.”

It is Salieri whom Shaffer endows with intelligence, complexity, emotional range, real angst and his own affection, while Mozart is portrayed as an asinine nitwit with a braying laugh and a vocabulary saturated with obscenities and baby-talk.  Mozart stalks Constanze Weber, his future wife, as a cat chases a mouse, calling her “pussy-wussy,” “squeaky-weeky,” and “poopy-peepee.”  He tells her, “I’m going to bite you in half with my fang wangs.”

Mozart is permitted few sensible or intelligent remarks.  Salieri trembles with awe whenever he examines one of Mozart’s manuscripts, but the sensibility that produced such music has been buried in an avalanche of contempt.

The glorious moments in “Amadeus” occur when the sound system sends forth Mozart’s music to supplement theatrical climaxes – including portions of the Serenade for 13 Winds in B-flat, K. 361; the Piano Concerto in A, K. 488; “The Magic Flute”; “The Marriage of Figaro,” and “Don Giovanni.”

At other times, Shaffer allows the audience to feel superior to genius, while he feels superior to the audience, implicitly flattering it for its supposed musical erudition.  Near the end, Salieri turns to the spectators he has been flirting with and says, “Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you all.  Amen.”  The voice of Peter Shaffer has sounded through that of Antonio Salieri.


Stephen Cera programmed the concert season at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto from 1991 to 2000.  Recently, he was music supervisor for the film, “The Gospel of John,” which premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.