Speaking of “Amadeus”, a memorable profanation

The most renowned work of fiction based on Mozart and his family is undoubtedly that written by Sir Peter Shaffer, initially for the theatre (1978) and later for the screen (1984): Amadeus.

AmadeusThe figure of Nannerl, the Maestro’s sister, is absent: not only is she not among the characters on scene (which include Mozart’s wife and his father), but she isn’t even mentioned. This, however, should not surprise us. The movie is about the last few years of Mozart’s life in Vienna and at that time Wolfgang and his sister were no longer in touch with each other; the two of them had been very close in childhood, but over time their relationship broke down. They lived in different cities and they knew nothing about each other’s lives. Neither of them ever saw the other’s house, or met each other’s children. Nannerl no longer had any place in Wolfgang’s life; she was no longer around, and maybe he tried to pretend she had never existed.

Those are objective facts. Then there are the subjective choices on the part of the filmmakers. The narrative thread of the screenplay has little to do with sibling relationships. It talks about Antonio Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart, and how upset he was to discover that such a mocking and ill-mannered young man was a genius. Why, then, should Shaffer talk about Nannerl? Just because she existed? I don’t think that’s a good enough reason for an author.

We should be grateful to the great English dramatist for managing to tell people about Mozart and his music in such an effective and resounding way. Effective because Sir Peter Shaffer wrote the play first and then the screenplay, and I can’t think of anyone else, anywhere, who has managed to tell the same story in two such different, yet equally powerful, ways. Resounding because, since the film came out, Mozart’s image has been inextricably linked to the way he was portrayed in it.

Are you saying that Mozart wasn’t really like that? Of course he wasn’t. For a start he didn’t look like Tom Hulce. Are you saying he didn’t have that silly laugh? Of course he didn’t. And who cares? Are you saying that the movie has popularized a mere legend: that Salieri was responsible for Mozart’s death? In reality, the movie tells of how Salieri perhaps desired Mozart’s fall, but he certainly didn’t poison him.

Above all, however, with his story Shaffer provided a very personal and important contribution to the problem of the relationship between Mozart-the accomplished musician and Mozart-the individual. And in portraying a seemingly inexplicable phenomenon such as musical genius, what could be more intelligent than the creation of a contrast between the height of the intellect and the baseness of man?