Friday, September 19, 2014

The Myth About Mozart and Salieri

"All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn't want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?"

Salieri (F. Murray Abraham)

All that Antonio Salieri, an 18th–century Italian composer, wanted to do was make music praising God.

But he wasn't a great composer. He was enough of a music lover to know how far off the mark he really was — and how close to that same mark his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was. And Salieri resented Mozart for that.

At least, it was that way in Peter Shaffer's 1979 play. Whether it was that way in reality is anyone's guess two centuries after the fact.

Personally, I don't have to guess — at least when it comes to Mozart's talent. I am convinced that Mozart is the greatest composer who ever lived. He's been a favorite of mine since I was a boy, frankly. I guess it goes back to when I was taking piano lessons in elementary school. To encourage me, my grandmother gave me a music box in the shape of a bust of Beethoven. When you wound it up, it played Beethoven's Minuet — a nice enough piece, but it just has that marble–bust sound to it. Stiff, virtually lifeless, by the book.

When I was taking piano lessons, I was assigned to learn a couple of the easier pieces written by Mozart, and, for me, there was really no comparison. I liked Beethoven well enough, but Mozart became my favorite when I was about 7 or 8. My musical tastes have expanded a great deal since that time, but I still love Mozart's work, and I am constantly meeting people who feel the same way.

It has long been rumored that Salieri was responsible for Mozart's death at the age of 35. Mozart himself may have been the origin of these rumors via letters he wrote to his father complaining about obstacles being thrown in his path, obstructing his access to prestigious posts or commendations, and speculating that the Italians were to blame.

For centuries, there has been a rivalry between the music communities of Italy and Germany. Germans like Mozart and his father resented what they believed was special treatment that Italians received from European nobility; when Mozart struggled in Vienna, the Italians were the most appropriate scapegoats.

"You know those Italian gentlemen; they are very nice to your face!" Mozart wrote once to his father.

One of Mozart's biographers contended that the rivalry between the two (if there was one) could have begun when the two were candidates for a position teaching music to a princess, and Salieri was selected, apparently because he was known to teach singing as well as music.

That episode was re–created in Miloš Forman's "Amadeus," which premiered on this day in 1984.

Apparently, Mozart did not take that setback well, and it added fuel to the stories of a rivalry between Mozart and Salieri.

There is no other evidence that I have found, though, that indicates Salieri was a threat to Mozart. In fact, there seems to have been little, if any, acrimony between them. They appear to have regarded each other as friends and colleagues and supported each other's professional efforts.

But, after Salieri died about 30 years after Mozart, some fictionalized accounts of their relationship that promoted the myth of rivalry were published. Then Shaffer revived the rumors with his play, which was the basis of the movie.

Now, as I say, I have always loved Mozart's music. I thoroughly enjoyed "Amadeus," and, after I saw it, I did something I rarely do. I bought the soundtrack — in cassette so I could listen to it in my car — then I replaced it with the CD version about 10 years later.

But what I found particularly amazing was that, although very few adult Americans listened to classical music, that soundtrack was, for a time, one of the best–selling albums in the country. It reached #56 on Billboard's charts, making it one of the most successful classical recordings of all time.

I gave a copy to my mother for Christmas that year. Of all the Christmas gifts I gave Mom in her life, that may have been the one she liked the best.

The movie itself wasn't quite a blockbuster. It made nearly $52 million, but it cost $18 million to produce.

"Amadeus" was intriguing in that it gave a different twist to the rivalry idea. In "Amadeus," Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) was the victim of the charmed Mozart (Tom Hulce), who, when he composed, seemed to be doing little more than "taking dictation" from God.

That may have been the key to it. Instead of presenting Mozart as some kind of stuffy, marble–bust figure from the recesses of the past, he was portrayed in the movie as more of a contemporary sort, a freewheeling 18th–century flower child, you might say, to whom things just seemed to come too easily.

His wife (Elizabeth Berridge) was more practical about some things, but she was, in essence, a flower child, too.

When I saw Berridge on the big screen, I had one of those moments when I was convinced I had seen her somewhere before. I just didn't know where; consequently, it turned into an extended moment of brain wracking that made me miss a few things on the screen.

She was a new face to a lot of folks in those days. I've looked her up online, and it seems she was in two other movies and a soap opera before she was in "Amadeus." I don't think I ever saw the movies, and I have never been a fan of soap operas so I probably mistook her for someone else.

Berridge wasn't the first pick to play Constanze. The first choice was Meg Tilly, but she got hurt and had to pull out. Berridge and Diane Franklin were flown to Czechoslovakia, where filming was under way, to audition for the part. I have heard that Berridge was chosen because Franklin was considered too pretty to be an innkeeper's daughter. Well, that's what Berridge says on the Director's Cut DVD of "Amadeus."

Frankly, I liked Berridge in the part. I don't know if Franklin was prettier, but Berridge just seemed right for it.

A word of advice: If you haven't seen "Amadeus" but would like to — and I certainly encourage you to do so — I recommend watching that Director's Cut. There were several things about the movie that I never understood until I saw the Director's Cut.

"In a film of grand gestures," wrote Roger Ebert, "some of the finest moments are very subtle."

Ebert was right about that, especially in the way he chose to illustrate his point — by observing shifts, some of them barely perceptible, in facial expressions.

Ebert focused primarily on Jeffrey Jones, who played the emperor, and I have to admit his moments really were superb.

Emperor Joseph is one of my favorite supporting characters of all time — even if Jones did not receive recognition in the form of an Oscar nomination.

But Ebert had some things to say about Abraham, too.

"[W]atch Abraham's face as he internalizes envy, resentment and rage," Ebert wrote. "What a smile he puts on the face of his misery! Then watch his face again at Mozart's deathbed as he takes the final dictation."

At the time of the Oscars, Hulce and Abraham were both nominated for Best Actor. Abraham won, which at the time I didn't think was right. The movie was about Mozart. Shouldn't the actor who played Mozart win?

I must confess that, at the time, I still hadn't seen the movie. I saw it after the Academy Awards. I don't recall now whether it had finished its run and was brought back to theaters after it won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, or if it was still showing in (or just getting around to) the Little Rock market. Either one certainly is possible.

Whichever it was, I went to see it some time after Abraham received the Best Actor Oscar.

When I had seen the movie, I had to admit that Abraham deserved it.

"Amadeus" won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Shaffer won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

And "Amadeus" picked up Oscars for costumes, makeup, art direction and sound mixing. In fact, Dick Smith, who died recently at the age of 92, won the Oscar for makeup.

It was recognition that was long overdue. A brilliant makeup artist, Smith did the makeup for such classics as "Little Big Man," "The Exorcist" and "Taxi Driver" as well the Oscar–winning makeup for "Amadeus."