The Wicked Scene in Amadeus When Mozart Mocked the Talents of His Rival Antonio Salieri: How Much Does the Film Square with Reality?

Pity the ghost of Anto­nio Salieri, “one of history’s all-time losers — a bystander run over by a Mack truck of mali­cious gos­sip,” writes Alex Ross at The New York­er. The rumors began even before his death. “In 1825, a sto­ry that he had poi­soned Mozart went around Vien­na. In 1830, Alexan­der Pushkin used that rumor as the basis for his play ‘Mozart and Salieri,’ cast­ing the for­mer as the doltish genius and the lat­ter as a jeal­ous schemer.” The sto­ries became fur­ther embell­ished in an opera by Niko­lai Rim­sky-Kor­sakov, then again in 1979 by British play­wright Peter Shaf­fer, whose Amadeus, “a sophis­ti­cat­ed vari­a­tion on Pushkin’s con­cept, …became a main­stay of the mod­ern stage.”

In 1984, these fic­tions became the basis of Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, writ­ten by Shaf­fer for the screen. The film fur­ther solid­i­fies Salieri’s vil­lainy in F. Mur­ray Abraham’s Oscar-win­ning per­for­mance of his envy and despair. Like all great cin­e­mat­ic vil­lains, Salieri is shown to have good rea­son for his hatred of the hero, played as a man­ic tod­dler by Thomas Hulce, who was nom­i­nat­ed for the same best-actor award Abra­ham won. In their first meet­ing (above), Mozart humil­i­ates Salieri in the pres­ence of the Emper­or, insult­ing him sev­er­al times and show­ing that Salieri’s years of toil and devo­tion are worth lit­tle more than what the Ger­man prodi­gy mas­tered as a small child, and could improve upon immea­sur­ably with hard­ly any effort at all.

Is there truth to this scene? In gen­er­al, the his­to­ry of Amadeus is “laugh­ably wrong,” Alex von Tun­zel­mann writes at The Guardian, though maybe the joke’s on us if we believe it. As For­man’s film takes pains to show, what we see on screen is not an objec­tive point of view, but that of an aged, embit­tered, insane man remem­ber­ing his past with regret. Salieri is a most unre­li­able nar­ra­tor, and For­man an unre­li­able sto­ry­teller. The sup­posed “Wel­come March” com­posed for Mozart in the scene above is not a Salieri com­po­si­tion at all, but a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the aria from Mozart’s The Mar­riage of Figaro, which Hulce-as-Mozart then trans­forms into the actu­al tune of the aria.

Oth­er inac­cu­ra­cies abound. The Salieri of his­to­ry was not “a sex­u­al­ly frus­trat­ed, dried-up old bach­e­lor,” von Tun­zel­mann notes. “He had eight chil­dren by his wife, and is reput­ed have had at least one mis­tress.” He was also more col­league and friend­ly com­peti­tor than ene­my of the new­ly-arrived Mozart in Vien­na. The two even com­posed a piece togeth­er for singer Nan­cy Storace, who played the first Susan­na in The Mar­riage of Figaro. While Mozart wrote to his father of a shad­owy cabal arrayed against him at court, there is no evi­dence of a plot, and Mozart could be, by all accounts, just as puerile and obnox­ious as his por­tray­al in the film.

Mozart did die a pau­per from a mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness at 34. (He did not dic­tate the final pas­sages of his Requiem to Salieri). And Salieri did lat­er con­fess to poi­son­ing Mozart while he was aged and in a tem­po­rary state of men­tal ill­ness, then retract­ed the claim when he lat­er recov­ered. (“Let’s be hon­est,” writes von Tun­zel­mann, “nobody seri­ous­ly thinks Salieri mur­dered Mozart.”) These are the barest his­tor­i­cal facts upon which Amadeus’s infa­mous rival­ry rests. The Salieri of the film is a fic­tion­al con­struc­tion, cre­at­ed, as actor Simon Cal­low said of Shaf­fer­’s play, to serve “a vast med­i­ta­tion on the rela­tion­ship between genius and tal­ent.”

In For­man’s film, the theme becomes the rela­tion­ship between genius and medi­oc­rity. But to call Salieri a medi­oc­rity — or the “patron saint of medi­oc­ri­ties,” as Shaf­fer does in his play — “sets the bar for medi­oc­rity too high,” Ross argues. “His music is worth hear­ing. Mozart was a greater com­pos­er, but not immea­sur­ably greater.” Fur­ther­more, “amid the pro­ces­sion of mega­lo­ma­ni­acs, mis­an­thropes, and bas­ket cas­es who make up the clas­si­cal pan­theon, [Salieri] seems to have been one of the more lik­able fel­lows.”

Learn more about Salier­i’s life and work in Ross’s New York­er pro­file, and hear “4 Operas by Anto­nio Salieri You Should Lis­ten To” at Opera Wire.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Mozart’s Diary Where He Com­posed His Final Mas­ter­pieces Is Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

The Let­ters of Mozart’s Sis­ter Maria Anna Get Trans­formed into Music

Maria Anna Mozart Was a Musi­cal Prodi­gy Like Her Broth­er Wolf­gang, So Why Did She Get Erased from His­to­ry?

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Richard Westerdale says:

    In his book <>, pianist Arthur Loess­er sug­gests that W. A. Mozart and A. Salieri may have been friends, not com­peti­tors.

  • Joseph Jolton says:

    And Salieri was a teacher of Beethoven’s. If I remem­ber cor­rect­ly, he taught him choral and oper­at­ic com­po­si­tion. So the guy wasn’t a hack.

  • Tom Moore says:

    Mozart was 35 at the time of his death, not 34 as the arti­cle states. He also was­n’t a pau­per at the time of his death — the Mozarts’ finan­cial sit­u­a­tion seems to have been improv­ing in 1791. and Mozart was pay­ing off debts and liv­ing fair­ly com­fort­ably.

  • Vox Veritatis says:

    “Mozart was a greater com­pos­er, but not immea­sur­able greater (than Salieri)” This is the kind of stu­pidi­ties some mod­ern bas­ket cas­es write. By all means, Mozart’s music is over­whelm­ing­ly greater than Salier­i’s. Great Joseph Haydn wrote “I can tell you before God and as an hon­est man that your son (wolfie) is the great­est com­pos­er I’ve ever known in per­son or by Word. The world will have to wait anoth­er 100 years to see anoth­er prodi­gy like him” Well, Hayd­n’s words were clear­ly an under­state­ment. The world has nev­er seen any­one even close to Mozart again. And it will prob­a­bly nev­er do.

  • Jonathan L says:

    I was with this so-called arti­cle until I read “Mozart was a greater com­pos­er, but not immea­sur­ably greater.” Don’t know who the orig­i­nal quot­er of this line is, but it goes down in his­to­ry as one of the most stu­pid­ly unin­formed state­ments of all time. Musi­cal­ly, only Lud­wig Van Beethoven is in the same uni­verse as Mozart. Bare­ly.

  • Yody Dee says:

    Mozart was sort of OK… He churned out lots of ade­quate, lis­ten­able bub­blegum music and on rare occa­sion he came up with great pieces and even mas­ter­pieces. In no way can he be com­pared to com­posers of the ear­ly and high baroque (Pur­cell, Gluck, Vival­di, Han­del, of course Bach, etc. etc.).

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