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Amadeus: playing with music

An edited version of a short talk I once gave to an audience of theatre and music patrons on the subject of Peter Shaffer’s (and Milos Forman’s) Amadeus.


A few years ago I was carrying on a long-standing argument with a playwright friend about which is better: Amadeus the film, or Amadeus the play. My friend always comes down the side of Amadeus the film. Which is fair enough: the film is a glorious thing, and from a musical point of view the film is completely satisfying. The one thing you can’t do in a play is run the risk of turning it into a concert, whereas in a movie you can include much more music and in a really direct way. But all that aside, the movie just doesn’t “do it” for me the way the play does.

There’s something about the play – about the way it’s structured, the way it’s so very stylised and “theatrical” – that mirrors the music. Or to put it another way, Amadeus the play has a lot in common with 18th-century opera and that’s very attractive.

The other thing I respond to in Amadeus is the way it brings the audience into the play. And Peter Shaffer achieves that with a couple of devices that work brilliantly on stage but would never have transferred to film.

The first of these comes right at the beginning, with two gentleman called the Venticelli, or “Little Winds”. I first saw this play when I was about eleven and the Venticelli won my heart.

They are “purveyors of information, gossip and rumour” and their job is to keep Salieri in the loop, to let him know what Vienna is thinking and doing. It’s a way of telling us about things that are happening off stage, and they do all this with a wonderful musical virtuosity – they spend the whole play speaking in concert and in unison, just as if they were singing in an opera. They are very stylised, very theatrical, which works in opera and in the theatre. But the Venticelli would just seem silly in the realism of a movie.

I guess one of the reasons I fell in love with the Venticelli is not simply that they’re very clever and very impressive, but that they invite us in – we get to share in the gossip, and who can resist that?

The other way that Peter Shaffer invites us in to this play is through the character of Salieri, who is forever talking to us, the audience. And that’s the main reason why my friend prefers the film. He’s always moaning about the way Shaffer has Salieri addressing the audience for minutes at a stretch. He sees it as endless exposition, and therefore bad, on the grounds that a good play will “show” rather than “tell”.

He’s right, but there is a point to it. When Salieri talks to us he’s not taking the usual approach to breaking the Fourth Wall. Normally a character doing that is asking us to step back and acknowledge that none of this is real; it’s all a fiction. But Salieri treats us as another character. He invites us to be his confessors. He even gives us a name: we’re the Ghosts of the Future. Which is absolutely right. We – all of us – represent Posterity. We’re complicit in the fame that the historical Mozart enjoys today, and in the infamy of the historical Salieri. And Shaffer’s Salieri knows this.

It’s all part of a rhetoric and a sense of music and ritual that’s typical of Peter Shaffer’s work, but which seems especially apt in this play. And when I started to think about the parallels between Amadeus and 18th-century opera I didn’t have to look particularly hard. Some of them jump off the page.

Salieri’s opening speech, for example. He summons us: Ghosts of the Future. It’s an invocation – and he calls it that. And for Salieri that’s what opera was all about: “the raising of Gods and Ghosts”. It wasn’t meant to be about the escapades of chambermaids and hairdressers. (Mozart thought the exact opposite.)

Then there’s the way Shaffer uses masks. He says he was inspired by Mozart’s operas, and the way they all seem so dependent on masks and disguises. So we have the mysterious masked visitor who commissions Mozart to write his Requiem mass. (Which also happens to be historical fact.) And Shaffer has Salieri dressing up as the masked visitor in order to scare Mozart – the “wickedest” thing he’d ever done. (Which happens to be historical fiction.)

Now at this point I’m meant to wade into the whole fact or fiction argument. Be a good musical scholar and point out all the historical flaws. But I won’t do it. We all know Shaffer took dramatic license in this play. To be honest, it would have been a rotten play if he hadn’t.

The things you really need to know are these:

First, Salieri was one of the most famous and respected musicians of his day, and his operas were smash hits.

Second, Mozart really did have an anal fixation and he wrote the most gloriously dirty letters to just about everyone except his father.

Third, Salieri didn’t poison Mozart; he had no part in Mozart’s early death.

Fourth, there were rumours in Salieri’s lifetime that linked him to Mozart’s death, and when he was in his seventies he suffered a breakdown and did accuse himself of murdering Mozart. But – and here’s the important thing – even then, no one believed him.

The big musical magazine of the day even published the following notice:

“Our worthy Salieri simply will not die…In his unbalanced imagination he apparently at times claims to have been responsible for Mozart’s early death, a delusion that no one except the poor bewildered old man really believes.”

And in any case, Salieri recovered his senses and denied everything on his deathbed. 

Ultimately, Amadeus isn’t about history at all. The historical characters and the historical rumours just give the foundation for a play that’s about the conflict of opposites.

There’s mediocrity versus genius – that’s the real driving force. At a theological level we have a God of bargains pitted against a God of grace. We have moderation and duty versus passion and creativity.
In mythological terms there’s the struggle between Apollo and Dionysus.

This is what makes Amadeus tick.

If you look at what makes classical music tick – at least the music of Mozart’s time – it’s the same thing: the conflict of opposites. If you listen to a symphony or a sonata it’s all about contrasts: contrasts of mood, contrasts of key, and the way these things are developed to some kind of resolution.

That’s what’s going on in Amadeus.

I don’t know whether Shaffer deliberately set out to give a musical quality to the structure and substance of Amadeus. It’s possible he’d simply immersed himself in so much the music of the period that these strategies appealed to his instincts – his sense of authenticity. Somehow he captures the rhetoric of 18th-century music, and that means artifice and theatre. (And yes, it’s big on exposition.) Which is where the play really comes into its own. The musical content of the film is sublime, but the play is more like a piece of music in itself.

(Originally published 19 November 2008)