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Saturday, March 29, 2014


Last night, we went out to watch the spring revival of ’Amadeus’ at the City Lights Theater in San Jose. The play by Peter Shaffer won a Tony Award and received eight Oscars as a motion picture, including Best Picture. This post is not a critical essay on the production, but the emotional journey I had with the characters during the play.

The first scene opens at the salon of Antonio Salieri with his appeal:

Mozart! Mozart! Forgive me!
Forgive your assassin!

While ominous whispers accuse in repetition, ’Salieri, Salieri’.  We doubt that the man is paranoiac and imagining voices. His feverish pitch mellows to a confessional tone when he confides to the audience:

I was the most successful musician in Vienna.
And the happiest. Till he came. Mozart.

And we realize immediately, this is not going to be a hymn of joy, but a tragic symphony of dark emotions that we fear in ourselves.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born to Leopold Mozart and Anna Maria, in Salzburg in the 18th century when Austria was still under the Holy Roman Empire. He performed as a child prodigy in the presence of royalties, while Salieri was born to a merchant who wanted him to be interested in commerce.  He admits to be jealous of the fact that Mozart’s father encouraged his prodigious talent.

 You can’t blame old Salieri when he gets nostalgic about his last days in Lombardy, Italy before he had set out for Vienna, Austria to study music and reminisces the proud prayer he had offered in the church:

Lord, make me a great composer! Let me celebrate your glory through music –
And be celebrated myself! Make me famous through the world.
Make me immortal! After I die let people speak my name forever
With love for what I wrote! In return I vow I will give you my chastity –
My industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life.
And I will help my fellow man all I can. Amen and amen!

For some time, at least, God was with him. Within a few years of reaching Vienna, he became the Court Composer to Emperor Joseph II. In those days, musicians had to rely on sponsors and patronage. This also allowed a certain amount of censorship because most of them would be then obliged to cater to the fancies of the nobles. Who would want to write about the common man? The heroes would be Gods and their stories would be epics. Who would bother about the banalities of daily lives?

Consider meeting the man who had written his first concerto at the age of four, his first symphony at seven and a full-scale opera at twelve. What had Salieri imagined him to be like? Measured? Poised? Controlled? Mozart was polarly opposite to his expectations. While he sat unnoticed in the buffet room of the palace, savoring his favorite- Crema al Mascarpone (‘We all have patriotic feelings of some kind’, he justified), Salieri heard giggles and then saw Mozart chase Constanze, his fiancée. He dropped to all fours and crawled across the floor, meowing and hissing like a cat:
Meow! Meow!
Puss-wuss, fangs-wangs. Paws-claws.

Maybe Salieri wasn’t supposed to witness this secret of their conjugal bliss- the occasional teasing and nonsensical laughter. To Salieri it was infantile, crude, and antithetical to his assumptions about a genius. With consecutive meetings, his rage surged with Mozart’s slighting of the Italian opera. He also inadvertently eavesdropped on a conversation between Mozart and Constanze where she accused him of fooling around with Katherina Cavielri, a young soprano and one of Salieri’s students, in fact, his favorite. Salieri had admitted that his wife was cold, lacking in passion,’ La statua’, yet he had chosen a life of virtue because he had promised to. But Mozart said to Constanze that the only reason Katherina was virtuous under the tutelage of Salieri was because he couldn’t ‘get it up’. Insulted, blinded with rage and jealousy, Salieri declared to God:

From now on, we are enemies, You and I!
Because You will not enter me, with all my need for you;
Because You scorn my attempts at virtue;
Because You choose for Your instrument a
Boastful, lustful, smutty infantile boy and give me for reward only the
Ability to recognize the Incarnation;
Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You! I swear it!
I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able. I will ruin Your Incarnation.

Thus began Salieri’s elaborate schemes to curb the genius of Mozart. Mozart’s expenditures were more than his earnings, and he desperately needed an official post at the court. The niece of the emperor, Princess Elizabeth needed a tutor, and Salieri promised Mozart that he would recommend him for it. In reality, he put forth a less talented musician for the job, who Mozart feared would do more musical harm to the princess.  

The most confounding thing of all was that Mozart did not, for a second, doubt Salieri’s true intentions. In fact, he considered him a friend. He confided in him that he was broke, his concerts didn’t pay much and the only way to earn was if he could have pupils.  Salieri offered false promises of help, and when Mozart resorted to begging from his Mason brothers, Salieri made sure it was stopped when he advised Mozart to write about the secret order, as a mark of gratitude. But when the opera ‘The Magic Flute’ disclosed a Masonic initiation and other rites, the order was offended and it resulted in Mozart’s suspension from the brotherhood.

Mozart, now destitute and nearing his end of days, had lost much of his mental faculties. Salieri hoped to see him reduced to nothing, and one a night when his curiosity got the better of him, he chose to walk in the direction of Mozart’s home. But Mozart’s circumstances had not begrimed his genius. He was composing ‘Requiem’ at what he alleged was to serve the request of a hooded figure that beckoned him grimly in his dreams.  The figure was actually a  disguised servant of a certain gentleman who wanted to pass ‘Requiem’ as his own composition to  Count Franz, who had lost his wife and wanted to commission a piece in her commemoration.

When Salieri witnessed the filth and decay in Mozart’s life and realized that much of it was his own doing, he made a last attempt to redeem himself and confessed. Mozart was not able to comprehend fully and Salieri was too late with his explanation. At that moment, you couldn’t decide which was more pitiful- Salieri’s jealousy gnawing into his heart all those years or his need for absolution from Mozart.

You might be interested to know that though Mozart died in poverty and was buried in a common grave, the elite of Vienna provided for his wife and children. She also sold his original manuscripts, charging ‘by the ink’, and married diplomat Georg Nikolaus (who later wrote a biography on Mozart).

In the final act, we are brought back to old Salieri’s salon. Nearing dawn, he announces:

From now on no one will be able to speak of Mozart
Without thinking of me. Whenever they say Mozart with love,
They’ll have to say Salieri with loathing.
And that's my immortality - at last! Our names will be tied together for eternity -
His in fame and mine in infamy. At least it's better than the total oblivion he'd planned for me, your merciful God!

Facing the audience now, he chants:

Mediocrities everywhere,
Now and to come: I absolve you all!
Amen! Amen! Amen!


I did not view the play as a lesson in history, nor do I want to judge the veracity of Salieri’s moral dilemma or Mozart’s puerility.  But as a pure creative piece, it has its brilliance in the eternality of characters within their temporal span of existence. At moments, you find yourself identifying with Salieri, a hard-working artist who feels cheated by his creator when he witnesses the easy genius of another man, whom he considers the conduit of God Himself. His music so divine, so perfect! There was no murder except of the young Salieri who had promised his virtue to God. And we find ourselves weeping for that loss.

1 comment:

amitabha said...

Sometimes, a genius may not be a pragmatic person.