“Forgive me, Majesty. I am a vulgar man! But I assure you, my music is not.”
Amadeus attempted nothing less than the depiction of musical genius—and it succeeded wildly. Milos Forman’s 1984 film, based on the Tony-winning play by Peter Shaffer, gobbled up the box office and the Academy Awards, and inspired a mini-renaissance for the music of Mozart: Its soundtrack album sold more than 6.5 million copies and broke into Billboard’s popular albums chart. The film cleverly painted a portrait of the classical composer icon in a way that irreverently humanized him—as a carousing, pink-wigged glam rocker of his day—while simultaneously letting his music exalt him as practically divine.
Shaffer, who previously won a Tony for Equus, based his stage play on an 1830 Russian play in which Antonio Salieri murders Mozart. Shaffer did his homework, drawing anecdotes of the composer’s juvenile side from letters to his cousin, but was forthright that Amadeus was never meant to be strict biography. He called it a “fantasia on the theme of Mozart and Salieri,” and as it permuted from the London stage to Broadway and then to the silver screen, it evolved further away from factual accuracy and toward an examination of a boorish man-child “touched by God” through the eyes of a fiendishly jealous rival. Forman (who had directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hair) deconstructed the play with Shaffer, and cast it with American faces: Tom Hulce as the giggling, hedonistic prodigy and F. Murray Abraham in an Oscar-winning performance as the enlightened, eloquent “mediocrity” Salieri. The film was shot in Forman’s native Czechoslovakia, which in 1984 could still pass for eighteenth century Vienna. The elaborate staging of Don Giovanni was shot in the Tyl Theatre in Prague, where Mozart premiered the opera in 1787.
Hulce undertook a month of intense piano lessons in order to perform naturally on screen—at one point even upside down—and the filmmakers took great pains to achieve detail in authentic costuming, production design, and choreography even as they cut corners on historical veracity. Perhaps the most painstaking authenticity was in the music itself, adapted for the film by Sir Neville Marriner (and originally performed by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, with additional contributions from the San Francisco Symphony Chorus). Mozart’s work was treated with the utmost care—scenes were cut to the music rather than the other way around—and thanks to the more transcendent nature of cinema, it took on a more powerful role. “In the theater,” Shaffer told the New York Times, “if you play music a lot, it turns into a concert. But film welcomes music, it eats it up. In this case, it's not background music; it’s not there to heighten atmosphere, to heighten grief or joy or any obvious emotion. In the film of Amadeus, music almost becomes a character, the most important character.”
The Amadeus soundtrack, with the exception of some Salieri and the stray folk tune, is entirely made up of Mozart. It acts variously as emotional underscore, diegetic music played within the world of the film, or as a portal inside the mind of the composer—often weaving between all three in the same scene. There are straightforward performances of The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni, but the thunderous chords that open the latter are also used as a recurring motif in the score, signifying the specter of Mozart’s displeased father, Leopold, and the composer’s own fate. Mozart plays or conducts music within the story in ways that both demonstrate his mischievous personality—embellishing on Salieri’s simplistic court music and turning it into Figaro’s march—and highlight the dichotomy between his immature demeanor and mature musical gift. After we’re introduced to “Wolfie” chasing his beloved Constanze on all fours, tricking her into making scatalogical statements, his elegant Serenade No. 10, Gran Partita commences next door. “That giggling, dirty-minded creature I had just seen. . . that was Mozart,” marvels Salieri, encapsulating the heart of the film’s drama.
Salieri recognizes the “miraculous” talent in this man he despises, and the film cleverly puts us inside his envious head. When Constanze sneaks over to the court composer’s house with a stack of her husband’s scores, Salieri leafs through them and the soundtrack translates what he hears—the pastoral Concerto for Flute and Harp, the balletic Symphony No. 29, the sprightly Concerto for Two Pianos, the bustling Symphonie concertante, and the dark but heavenly Kyrie from his Mass in C minor. Salieri is confounded that such brilliance could pour out in unedited first drafts “like dictation,” but he is in ecstasy as he listens to them with his imagination.
The film famously concludes with Mozart dictating his Requiem in D minor to Salieri, who hungrily snatches the melodies as they fly out of the weakening creator’s mouth. The soundtrack brings it all to life in isolated fragments as these two nerdy composers speak their secret language—basking in the euphoria of heavenly music that exists only inside their heads.
Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.