Saturday, September 19, 2009


Just the right amount of notes

“Your God who tortures men with longings they can never fulfill…”

“That was God laughing at me through that obscene giggle.”

By Ali Arikan
The tragedy of Antonio Salieri is the driving force behind Miloš Forman’s film version of Peter Shaffer’s seminal play. Here is a pious man, in complete devotion to what he believes to be a God of Grace and Mercy. Salieri has rejected almost all of life’s earthly pleasures, has offered God his undying love, “his industry, his deepest humility,” and, of course, his chastity. All he’s ever asked for in return is a soupçon of that divine Grace to manifest itself in the form of talent. God, however, has picked as a favourite not Salieri, but instead a vulgar ninny, who is not only anathema to all that Salieri believes in, but, through whom, his lack of talent is only made more explicit. God has given Salieri deranged ambition for, and an infinite love of, music, but withheld from him the elements required to realise it. This contumelious God has shared with the world a part of himself, all the while making a mockery of his faithful servant Salieri by rejecting his piety. Knowing his predilection for irony, there’s no wonder Peter Shaffer called his play not Mozart, not even Salieri, but Amadeus.

Released 25 years ago today, Amadeus has not only held up well in the past quarter century, but, like a fine wine, or in fact a grandiose piece of classical music, has grown even more glorious. As in the case of the play from which it was spawned (in fact, the two are at times so vastly different that Shaffer likes to refer to them as parallel pieces), the film was widely popular and a huge critical hit, and winner of 8 Oscars, including best film. Since it came out around the time the Academy Awards had started getting increasingly less relevant, I was pleasantly surprised to find it was still as effective today as when I had first watched it in that darkened theater in Ankara almost a lifetime ago.

A sequence struck me in particular, in which Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) recalls the first time he had ever glanced at Mozart’s (Tom “Pinto” Hulce) sheet music, and I could not help but make an Armond Whitesque comparison with another Oscar winner for best film:
“Extraordinary! On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse — bassoons and basset horns — like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly — high above it — an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing a voice of God.”

Abraham’s delivery is delicate, a wrong note, an incongruous cadence, and the whole speech would be ruined. Forman’s direction is equally subtle, cutting back and forth between the old Salieri recounting the event, and his young self reading the music, all the while the adagio from "Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments" plays blissfully in the background. It’s cinema at its best.

Now, remember, the floating plastic bag in American Beauty, and Wes Bentley’s rambling, ridiculous, monologue. Regardless of the differences in writing (I will not stoop to making tawdry comparisons between Peter Shaffer and Alan Ball), both sequences are similar, in that the characters recall their first encounter with what they perceive to be a divine force. Yet where one merely hints at the notes, the other approaches them with the subtlety of a steamroller driven by a drunk. 1984 was definitely not a vintage year, and film, in general, hasn’t grown worse in the past 25 years. But the Oscars have. And the contrasting duality of the sheer awesome power of Amadeus and the anemic mediocrity of American Beauty only served to remind me of one of the motifs of Amadeus itself.

In a film of such layered richness, a few key elements stand out. The first is, of course, Mozart’s transcendental, marvelous music, ably conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and performed by his Academy of St Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra. Naturally, it’s there from the start. After the company credits (Orion, alas), the screen is left in complete darkness. Suddenly, the opening bass of the Overture to Don Giovanni, and a scream, a cry in the dark: “Mozart!” We follow two men in night gowns (one of them Vincent Schiavelli, Fredrickson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) rush toward the guttural roar, as they stop in front of a bedroom in a stately home to urge their master, Antonio Salieri, the erstwhile court composer to “The Musical King” Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones, in the finest performance of his career), to open the door. When we eventually barge into the room with them, we are confronted with a ghastly view: Salieri has tried to kill himself by slitting his own throat, convinced as he is that it was he, who, more than 30 years previously, killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Hulce), the young musical upstart, an uproarious, quirky, vulgar former child prodigy, from Salzburg who took the Hapsburg Empire by storm. As Salieri collapses on his back, blood gushing from his neck, Mozart’s "Symphony No. 25 in G minor" burst into the soundtrack. While he is hurried to hospital on a wheelbarrow, it is his rival’s enduring music, still being played in Viennese ballrooms, that torments him.

Salieri is summarily committed to an insane asylum, a setting not unfamiliar to Forman, and a young priest comes to visit him to hear his confession. The old man is unreceptive at first, but eventually decides to play with this most unwelcome caller for a while. Discovering that the young priest had studied music in his youth, Salieri plays a little melody on the forte-piano in his hospital room. The priest doesn’t recognise it. Salieri is annoyed, says it was a very popular tune in its day, and then proceeds to play a few notes from the finale to his opera Axur, Re D'ormus (as the scene shifts abruptly to show Salieri’s recollection of the opera's opening night). Again, the priest is nescient, and Salieri is unhappy.

Finally, the old man starts to play a few notes from the first movement of Mozart’s "Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major," better known as "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." He doesn’t have to play too long before the priest recognizes the tune and starts singing it, and expresses his delight in being in the company of the very man who had composed such a famous piece. Having won his little game, Salieri corrects him, smugly, that the piece is not his — it was written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In the first ten or so minutes, Forman introduces his chief antagonist through nothing but that character’s first person narration. He is old, decrepit, and consumed with malice. Contrast that with the way Mozart is introduced. Although we never see him, his music is omnipresent, from the opening darkness to the way it mocks Salieri in the form of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."

Later, in probably the film’s most famous scene, Mozart humiliates Salieri in the presence of the Emperor by “improving” a march the court composer had written in Mozart’s honor. In his fingers, the constipated melody turns into a proto medley of "Non più andrai" from Le nozze di Figaro, and the secondary melody of "Rondo alla Turca." Watch as F. Murray Abraham tries to hide his contempt behind a façade of forced equanimity.

And it is F. Murray Abraham who is perhaps the second most crucial ingredient to the film’s ultimate success. Abraham brings a plethora of emotions to Salieri — he is consumed, at various times, by malice, contempt, or envy, but he is always in complete awe of Mozart and his music. Salieri’s repudiation of God as dismissive of his pious subjects can never overshadow his elemental admiration of God’s work. Salieri’s only desire is to be loved -- by god and by the public. There's an implication that Salieri never thought he was all that great to begin with. Definitely, his exasperation with his fellow courtiers or musicians hint at an underlying awareness — as if he had always known that he was never that good, but could live it down, perhaps subconsciously, as long as he was never upstaged. It is when the love he longs for the most is abruptly ripped away from him by this new cynosure of the Viennese music scene that his envy finally consumes him. Abraham creates in Salieri one of the true tragic antiheroes of the Western canon, and utters him in the same breath as Cain, whose piety was also refused by God, and of Iago, whose jealousy of Cassio in being promoted to lieutenant by Othello (like with Shakespeare’s villain, there is a hint of homoerotic undercurrent to Salieri, as well) was equally palpable (another parallel is, of course, Aglaya’s feelings towards Natasya in The Idiot). His true tragedy is that Salieri’s only role in this world is to be the proverbial second fiddle.

In contrast to Abraham, Hulce plays Mozart as a perennial child. Certainly, his neighing is unnerving and ever so slightly annoying (for some reason, I kept thinking of Nathan Lane in The Birdcage — then again, when am I not thinking of Nathan Lane in The Birdcage). But he conveys natural genius so easily that it’s easy to overlook the shrieking. As Roger Ebert wrote in his Great Films review of the film, “This is not a vulgarization of Mozart, but a way of dramatizing that true geniuses rarely take their own work seriously, because it comes so easily for them… Salieri could strain and moan and bring forth tinkling jingles; Mozart could compose so joyously that he seemed … to be "taking dictation from God.”

Despite the protean wigs and masks, Hulce’s childlike approach to the role remains constant in depicting unparalleled genius. While being dressed down by his shrill mother-in-law, Mozart hears not the woman’s berating, but instead the coloratura of the Queen of the Night’s aria from Die Zauberflöte. Juggling work on his Requiem and the aforementioned Die Zauberflöte, he hears a few notes from one, and suddenly an aria from the other. Even on his deathbed, as he dictates the final notes of the Requiem to Salieri, his mind is still so active that the latter is unable to keep up with Mozart’s celerity. Hulce’s childlike demeanor makes Mozart’s genius more understandable, and down to earth.

Not unlike Salieri, Mozart is also constantly tortured. He was raised to be a musician by his disciplinarian father Leopold (Roy Dotrice), and in adulthood, Mozart grapples with loyalty to him, and, well, having fun. His father’s gaze is constantly upon Mozart, even after he dies, a portrait hangs on the wall, Leopold’s vituperative gaze perpetually judging his prodigal son. But Mozart is relentless. Hulce's performance reminds me of the controversial Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley's famous words: "I have one aim — the grotesque. If I am not grotesque, I am nothing."

Of course, historically, this is all hogwash. Salieri was married, for one thing, and, he and Mozart were almost contemporaries, with merely a seven year age difference, though in the film it seems much wider, and is also played for that effect. In fact, Simon Callow, who plays the vaudeville impresario Emanuel Schikaneder (with a wholly unconvincing American accent), had played the titular role at the National Theatre, and I would be interested to see his chemistry with Paul Scofield who had assayed Salieri. Also, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of such huge animosity between the two characters, or that Salieri had indeed caused Mozart’s death. But one can hardly blame Shaffer. As early as 1830, apocrypha abounded that Salieri had murdered Mozart, then Pushkin wrote a play about it, Rimsky-Korsakov adapted it to an opera, and the greatest of all musical urban legends was born (well, until, at least, Scotland Yard raided Redlands in 1967).

Like Mozart in Salzburg, Forman also was a formidable talent at home, and in the composer’s desire to relocate to Vienna, to be at the hub of contemporary music, one senses something almost autobiographical in the way Forman moved to Hollywood. Of course, the way Forman had to relocate to the United States followed the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets, but his initial success by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was followed by, what many believed to be, lesser films (Hair kicks ass, by the way), and in the reaction to some of Mozart’s later works in the film by the Viennese musical establishment, there is a hint of pathos on the part of the director that seeps through. Most certainly, Forman has always felt like an outsider, and Mozart, like McMurphy, Andy Kaufman or Larry Flynt, is one of history’s most well-known outsiders.

Miloš Forman’s awareness of Eastern and Central Europe helps the film immensely. He is attuned to the sense of history, and makes wonderful use of the Czech locales. Miroslav Ondrícek’s photography lovingly captures the classical architecture, and the production design by Patrizia Von Brandenstein (such a gloriously Old Europe name), and art direction by Karel Cerný recreates the rococo period with a cheeky modern twist.

But back to the music. As previously stated, the film starts off with the Overture to Don Giovanni. In that opera’s final scene, Forman finds yet another parallel with Mozart’s life. (In fact, Salieri's plot to "murder" Mozart is straight out of an opera — or an episode of Scooby-Doo) As the Commandatore’s ghost rises from the dead, he asks Don Giovanni to repent, but he refuses and is forever consumed by hellfire. By making the Commandatore a substitute for Mozart’s father, and Don Giovanni for Mozart, the composer makes his final stand against his father, refusing his call to obey the laws of society, and vowing to go his own way, even if that might mean damnation. Certainly, when Mozart’s body is thrown into a communal grave and quick lime is thrown upon him, the final shot looks like smoke and ash rising from the grave.


As he is slowly wheeled away from his room, Salieri lifts his hand in benediction, and starts to absolve his fellow inmates. And as the screen goes dark once more, as we hear Mozart get the last laugh, it is then that we fully grasp what has happened. Salieri has tricked us. It wasn’t a confession that we had just witnessed, it was a sermon by the “patron saint of mediocrity.”

Salieri is us.

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I remember Amadeus as a lavish film which brings to life the music and era of Mozart. There are so many moments which are embedded--Mozarts's screaming mother in law transforming into opera, the scenes from the Zauberflotte(?) and not least the opening sequence of the attempted suicide. The movie plunges into drama with Beethoven's four note motif from the fifth symphony(?) which Beethoven says signifies "fate knocking at the door".

More than psychological aspects of Salieri's persona (study in failure?)I felt it was a vast movie about the grandeur of human life.

Thanks for reminding me of this wonderful film and sharing your feelings and study.
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