by Karen Han
Amadeus opens with the first movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 25 in G Minor. The music accompanies the discovery of Antonio Salieri's attempted suicide. "Mozart!" we hear Salieri cry, moments before slitting his own throat. "Forgive your assassin! I confess, I killed you!" It's a declaration of guilt and apology, but also of love. The piece echoes those throes, with harsh syncopation transforming into lush, warm melodies as the key shifts from minor to major and back again.
Mozart composed it at seventeen.
The first movie I ever remember seeing is Amadeus. I couldn’t have been more than seven years old the first time I encountered it. I was too young, definitely, to fully appreciate it, but it was like being struck by lightning. As I’ve gotten older, music is usually the element that I’ll fixate on the most in any film, and the root of that infatuation goes back to Amadeus.
Music taught me how to love movies. It taught me to see movies as kaleidoscopic, a single image unfolding into two, into three; moving elements interlocking, adding up to more than the sum of their parts. Just as a single image can stay with you long after a film has ended, a song can invoke a feeling and get under your skin, whether it be the latest Top 40 hit or (of course) Mozart; people use music to shift their moods and lift their spirits. Music has great power on its own, but as part of a larger whole, it can push a film past celluloid and into sublimity.
Thinking of Amadeus, I remember the red of Salieri's blood and the color of his guilt, like Ilya Repin's painting of Ivan the Terrible; I remember Mozart conducting with a transcendent joy; but most of all, I remember each piece of music.
If Symphony No. 25 is a glimpse into Heaven, director Miloš Forman also immediately offers us a glimpse into Hell. While Symphony No. 25 is the first piece we hear truly flourish, the two chords we hear at the very beginning of the film belong, in fact, to the opera Don Giovanni. Specifically, they come from the scene in which the Commendatore, killed by Don Giovanni's hand, rises from the dead to demand his repentance. When he refuses, demons drag him down to Hell. Salieri repents, but he's not destined for Heaven, nor for Hell—he is forced to continue living to tell his tale.
Amadeus treads a middle ground between the divine and the damned. When Salieri tries to take his own life, it's his house servants who intervene, and they're a simple, comic presence, trying to coax Salieri into unlocking his door with the promise of sweets and company. They're only human—bystanders to the ongoing struggle between God and man, or, ultimately, man and himself.
There's another struggle in Amadeus, too: that between truth and fiction. One of the biggest criticisms that has been leveled against the movie (and the stage play on which it is based) is that it takes too many liberties in telling Mozart's story. Salieri's suicide attempt comes from what is, at best, a rumor, and the rivalry between Salieri and Mozart seems to come from a Russian play rather than any historical fact. Nevertheless, it's a fiction that's become so ingrained in the public consciousness that Salieri and Mozart's names are regularly invoked in discussions about natural talent versus hard work.
There are myriad other discrepancies on top of that: the Requiem Mass in D Minor was commissioned by Count Walsegg-Stuppach, not Salieri dressed as the ghost of Mozart's father; The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni were both tremendously successful, not flops. Amadeus plays so fast and loose with history that it’s generally considered a fictionalized account rather than a biopic. But for all the fiction in it, Amadeus ultimately gets at a single truth: art is ennobling, both for those who create it and those who experience it. Mozart's music breaks Salieri's heart not just because he knows he will never be able to replicate it, but because of its sheer beauty. Music has the power to sanctify, to save. It is its own argument for existing.
There isn't a single musical cue in the film's entire three-hour running time that is deployed carelessly. In fairness, "deployed" is the wrong word—it's too mechanical to describe the way the whole film seems to sing. When Salieri begins to recount his story to the priest who has come to hear his confession, it is by playing him music. As he plays, on the harpsichord, an excerpt from his opera Axur, re d'Ormus, he transforms. His posture, once wizened, straightens, and the harpsichord is joined by the sound of strings, of a soprano's song, until we are transported wholesale into a grand opera hall, fog billowing down the steps of a set in front of which the young Salieri conducts.
Amadeus reigns supreme at conveying the transporting nature of music; the characters all speak of it, describe it, recount and explain it, but it's all in the simplest terms because the film knows: the music speaks for itself.
It’s easy to understand Salieri's love of music. It's so great as to be incommunicable. He says of his father, who cared only for commerce, "How could I tell him what music meant to me?" It’s easy, too, to understand his resentment of Mozart. Mozart's childish, brash demeanor is directly contrary to Salieri’s reverence and devotion, but the bitterness and jealousy Salieri harbors all melts away when he is confronted with Mozart's music. It's obvious from the very first time he describes Mozart's compositions. "This was a music I had never heard," he tells the priest, and in one sense, it's the first real confession he makes. "[It was] filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing … It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God."
Longing suffuses his voice, too. The contempt he had expressed for Mozart's behavior just moments before is nowhere to be heard. He describes each part of Mozart's Serenade No. 10, the Gran Partita for winds, with nothing if not love. He smiles as he thinks of it, holding his hands with his palms up, his gestures those of worship and supplication.
"On the page, it looked—nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons, basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note hanging there, unwavering, until a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight."
Each voice comes together, singing separately and yet perfectly in balance and in concert. So too does the film coalesce.
The music—and the discussion of it—serves as a frame. It’s linear as the appearances of specific pieces mark milestones in Mozart’s career, but it’s cyclical, too, as certain musical cues reappear. Don Giovanni first summons Mozart's ghost to torment the aged Salieri, and the chords that we hear are enough to create a sense of terrible foreboding. When we hear them again, it is within the context of the opera. Hell opens up, and so does the music. The ghost this time is of Mozart's late father, the one person his music, it seemed, couldn't touch. The piece takes a visible toll on Mozart, who looks like a shade of himself, the vibrance in his demeanor replaced by a sickly pallor, his powder-pink wig discarded for one of a simple brown. The Commendatore's voice holds a single, inexorable note over the sound of whirling strings, a mad eddy of arpeggios that serves to set the madness in Salieri that ultimately drives him to spill his own blood.
But Salieri’s jealous madness is always counterpoised with the depth and earnestness of his admiration. He is the ultimate audience for Mozart’s compositions; he is “music appreciation” personified. Early on, Salieri finds divinity in unspooling the pieces that make up Serenade No. 10. Then, as the film comes to a close, he lends his hand to Mozart's final Requiem, taking dictation at the foot of his bed in the way he had once said Mozart took dictation from God. There's an irony there, too—while it all comes so effortlessly to Mozart, Salieri has trouble keeping up, though he ultimately sees the music's intent with Mozart's guidance. Yes, he confesses to the priest that he had intended to claim that he had written the piece himself and then to play it at Mozart's funeral, but there's no such duplicity in the way he works to bring this last masterpiece into the world. There can't be, in the face of such honest, earnest music.
In the end, each narrative thread in Amadeus comes together without dismissing or diminishing any of the others. There's the rivalry, the court intrigue, the domestic struggles, fact and fiction; all of it coalesces for the sake of the music. Both Mozart and Salieri are treated with intense tenderness—the former for what he was able to create, the latter for what he was able to hear. And despite the fact that the two men are in constant competition, the performances are not. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce’s performances as Salieri and Mozart, respectively, are breathtaking, and are inextricable, too; they serve as countermelodies. They are the bassoon and basset horn in the Gran Partita; the simple rivalry becomes something more as the oboe and clarinet fill out the bigger picture.
Though the pieces used throughout the film come from all over Mozart's oeuvre, they all speak to each other as if they were movements from the same symphony rather than disparate compositions. The music swells—in the percussive Symphony No. 25, in the proclamations of hellfire in the Requiem Mass—and it caresses, too. Take the absolution granted in The Marriage of Figaro's, "Ah, tutti contenti," a pure forgiveness that is mirrored later in Mozart's sincere apology (on his deathbed, no less) to Salieri for believing the worst of him. Then, there's the sweetness of the second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor, K 466, which closes out the film, scored over Salieri's reconciliation with his legacy as well as Mozart's music, and under a last, final, joyful laugh from Mozart himself.
Is there anything so pure as Mozart's delight in his music, and in Salieri's love of it? In our love of it?
"Sire," Mozart says, as he appeals to the Emperor, "Only opera can do this. In a play, if more than one person speaks at the same time, it's just noise, no one can understand a word. But with opera, with music—with music you can have twenty individuals all talking at the same time, and it's not noise. It's a perfect harmony!"
Karen Han is a writer based in NYC, via the midwest. She holds a B.A. in History of Art, and writes about film, music, TV, and Tintin.