In my experience, the moment you get good at something, you realise you’re no good at it. Once you seize a whiff of ability, a bouquet of disillusionment arrives at your door. Understanding usually dwarfs aptitude. As a result, your appreciation of technique grows exponentially as you slowly begin to develop your own. For the jealous and possessive, to simply observe a developed talent in others can become a form of self-flagellation.
The masterstroke of Amadeus (1984) is to depict greatness from the subjective perspective of competence which, re-contextualised, becomes mediocrity. It’s based on a myth concerning the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Alexander Pushkin, that most brilliant and untranslatable of Russian authors, composed it as ‘Mozart and Salieri’ in 1830. Inspired by Pushkin’s play, English dramatist Peter Shaffer wrote a theatrical monologue in 1979, which he turned into a screenplay for the film. Directed by Milos Forman, Amadeus is one of the most powerful works of cinema about music, talent, jealousy, and faith.
After a failed suicide attempt, elderly ex-court-composer Antonio Salieri ends up in an asylum. A priest comes to offer him God’s forgiveness in exchange for a confession. From therein, the film uses a familiar flashback structure to tell the story. Born into a poor family with no musical roots, Salieri rises to the courts of Vienna where he meets Mozart, whose music is divine but whose behaviour is far from exemplary. He becomes Mozart’s biggest fan and greatest enemy, a duplicitous snake who cannot help but admire Mozart’s work, even as he plots his murder.
Salieri’s evolving idea of God frames the narrative. As a child, he prays to become a great composer. As an adult, he hears the voice of God in Mozart’s music and questions the Lord’s decision to choose ‘an obscene child to be His instrument’. As an old man, Salieri reacts with smug sarcasm to the priest’s rehearsed biblical platitudes. He’s learnt that not all men are equal in God’s eyes. In Pushkin’s play Salieri says, ‘There is no justice on the earth / But there is none above it’. What kind of God, after all, implants the desire for greatness in a man not destined for it? And what kind of God bestows greatness on a man so unworthy?
The film portrays Mozart as a graceless, flatulent buffoon who, incidentally, giggles like an absolute nutter. Salieri deems him ‘boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile’. Members of the court’s inner circle are startled by his arrogance. Genius and humility rarely go hand in hand, and why should they. Mozart’s immaturity is depicted here as the product of a childhood consumed by an intense musical education. His father was a strict disciplinarian and played a big role in developing the boy’s natural gifts. Ain’t it always the way.
Since his death, Mozart has become perhaps the most popular of all classical composers. His music arrives at perfection via the simplest of means. He wrote predominantly in major keys and his compositions most often delight in playful, joyful motifs. He’s not immensely polyphonic, but his talent for melody is beyond superlatives. Like many great artists, Mozart was impractical. Money slipped through his fingers, he acquired debts and died in poverty, his body dumped into a common grave the site of which was never found.
The real Salieri was rather accomplished (he taught Beethoven), but few could survive comparisons to Mozart. The film shows him struggling between his love for music and his pride. What offends him most is how easily Mozart finds heavenly inspiration. In his original review, Roger Ebert wrote, ‘few of us can identify with divine genius, but many of us probably have had dark moments of urgent self-contempt in the face of those whose effortless existence illustrates our own inadequacies’. For me, reading Ebert can inspire similar emotions.
I come from a family of Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra players. My grandfather used to say, ‘To be a great musician, you need to be a limited human being’. I think what he meant was that greatness in a technical area cannot be achieved without great sacrifice. Life is a substitution game: to fill your cup with a single ingredient means disposing of variety. It’s not always a conscious process. All great classical musicians have had to give up a large chunk of their childhoods to get where they are. Some have had to abandon interests, hobbies, relationships. It’s the same with any profession that requires discipline and dedication. As far as I’m concerned, a virtuoso performance in the arts is the highest achievement imaginable, but for now, I’d like to think that the ability to appreciate greatness is in itself a gift.