SEPT / OCT 2012: BY RACHEL McMILLAN
Growing up, I always wanted to impress my Aunt Annette. I thought she was so cool. Her CD collection was a veritable cornucopia of the musical elite. I was 11 or 12 when she first pulled down her VHS copy of Amadeus and I was catapulted into its opulent world of jealousy, spiritual conflict, and greed. Oh, certainly, I was amused by Mozart’s high-pitched and silly laugh, the gorgeously buckled-shoes and high powdered-wigs, the elaborate choreography of the Magic Flute restaged for the film production, the high voices, shrilling violins and ornamented music. I listened closely to the harmonies to try and emulate the appreciation I knew she must have been experiencing. I wanted to share it. Mostly, I wanted her to notice how hard I was trying to step into her world.
My mind resolutely fixated on the story of two composers: one a genius, one self-proclaimed mediocrity, amidst the backdrop of Vienna in its prime, a sure-fire confectionery of sugared brilliance, the deconstruction of a timeless musical mosaic, the unraveling of a genius resulting in a crude death. It’s an exposition of genius, a mythologized imagining of one of the greatest cultural figures of all time and, with this, it’s an intense study in our meek human perception of the unfairness of God.
As much as we hear of Mozart, few who have not seen the film recognize the name Antonio Salieri yet, during his time, he was favored to Mozart as Court Composer to Emperor Josef and a renowned musician in his own right. Only Mozart’s legacy has shadowed his musical contribution. The film Amadeus (based closely on the play of the same name by Peter Shaffer) imagines the jealousy Salieri feels while staged in pale comparison to Mozart’s prodigious genius. While the film takes great liberties on historical accuracy to paint a vivid fictional canvas, one can only assume that the emotional center may well be true to life.
Salieri is intent as a young boy on impressing God. He, as a devout Catholic, recognizes the intertwining of music and worship. From a young age, he is filled with divine aspiration to use his gift and passion for music to praise God. A boyish prayer finds him pledging his industry, chastity and humility to the Lord if he will be granted the gift of great composition and notoriety. When he is a young man, he’s appointed Court Composer and believes sincerely God is honoring his devotion and that great earthly reward awaits him. When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, genius and prodigy, arrives in Vienna, Salieri deems him a crass, uncouth, bumbling and faltering vessel who shames the righteous music he creates. Amadeus literally means “God’s beloved” and Salieri feels strongly the envy arising from the blessings bestowed on his rival. If God has chosen Mozart to be His voice and instrument for glory on earth, then the world is unbalanced and Salieri must exact revenge, not only on Mozart but also his Creator.
With this thirst for vengeance, Salieri capitalizes on Mozart’s financial troubles, disguises himself as an ally, and preys on Mozart’s grief over his father’s death to drive him slowly into insanity. Near the end of Mozart’s life, as he pens a commissioned Requiem, Salieri finds a moment where he may indeed be bestowed genius by proximity. While Mozart, ill in bed, composes the first movement of the Requiem in D-, Salieri transcribes his thought process on parchment: all antagonistic thoughts aside, they are both melded by rapturous music. Soon after, Mozart’s wife Constanze returns to the flat and locks the rest of the mass away, unfinished. Salieri, so consumed by his belief that God has failed him, is determined to view this as yet another instance in which genius is kept from him purposely by God.
Many of us love to play this spiritual game. Our conviction and assured faithfulness lead us to measure what blessings, happiness, and talent should be rightfully bestowed upon us and, likewise, what others are deserving of. We step into God’s role for a moment, casting judgment and feeling slighted and hurt when our good works, devotion, and belief have not wrought the same gifts, talent, or happiness given another. We seem to forget that God uses broken vessels, that His ways are mysterious and His grace is limitless.
While visiting the story of Amadeus I am most reminded of my own judgment and my own propensity to assume Salieri’s disappointment at what he supposes to be a slight of God’s hand. I can think of numerous times that I have enviously glared at another’s success or happiness with disbelief. Shouldn’t I, as a seeking Christian, be given the same earthly treasure? Certainly, Amadeus is a wonderful introduction into the world of one of the great composers of all time (I challenge anyone not to be moved to tears as Mozart is lowered into a pauper’s grave, the Lachromosa movement of the fated Requiem in D- swelling in the background), but is also a telescope into the darker side of humanity. With great faith, it seems, comes great human expectation. ■