Classical Music Breaks Bad: Mozart’s Downfall in Amadeus
In today’s society, mental illnesses are slowly being recognized as serious health problems that require some sort of treatment, whether the treatment is therapy, medication, or both. In the 1700s, however, mental illnesses were not acknowledged as a problem and were simply brushed off. Such is the case of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a (real life) character in Peter Shaffer’s heavily fictionalized play Amadeus. Mozart is a child prodigy, a man who is destined for great things. As a result of his upbringing at the hands of a strict and inflexible father, Mozart’s mental health is rather delicate. Antonio Salieri, one of Emperor Joseph’s court composers, views Mozart as extremely dangerous competition. In order to “win” fame and fortune, things Salieri believes that God has destined him for, Salieri uses Mozart’s mental problems to slowly and systematically destroy Mozart’s life. Salieri uses Mozart’s mental issues to methodically alienate Mozart from his companions and to destroy his career.
Salieri destroys Mozart’s career by emphasizing Mozart’s character flaws to his employers and by increasing Mozart’s mental instability. Mozart was a child when he began to play tours of Europe with his father, a fact noted by Emperor Joseph’s exclamation, “You will not recall it, but the last time we met, you were also on this floor!…This young man-all of 6 years old…” (Shaffer 31). Mozart’s father toured with him, parading Mozart around like a show pony and teaching Mozart to be overconfident and showy. When Mozart does not get what he wants, he responds like a spoiled child and burns bridges with those around him. These traits do not help Mozart in his chosen career path, initially leading him to act rudely towards the emperor and eventually to his downfall at Salieri’s hands. When Mozart first meets the emperor, he revises Salieri’s Welcome March, adding in a “third above”, completely changing the piece (Shaffer 35), offending Salieri, who begins to plot Mozart’s murder. When plotting Mozart’s murder, Salieri believes that “by killing Mozart, he is not only solving his own Jobean dilemma” (Bidney), a scenario in which Salieri is tested by God. Mozart’s constant immaturity grates on Salieri’s nerves; after all, Mozart insulted Salieri’s music and isolated Mozart from a true friendship with Salieri. Murdering thoughts aside, within the first few minutes of meeting the emperor and his court, Mozart manages to insult the Italian opera system, caustically remarking that real operas do not have “…male sopranos screeching. Or stupid couples rolling their eyes. All of that Italian rubbish” (Shaffer 33). Mozart’s ways lead him to offend several prominent figures in the Italian court, including the so-called “Lord Fugue”. While the audience sees that Mozart initially offends the court during his first meeting with them, Salieri manipulates Mozart into burning bridges beyond repair, as “self-serving calculation is Salieri’s absolute, not music” (Bidney) When Mozart is in need of a teaching position within the court, Salieri subtly points out Mozart’s lothario ways in an attempt to stop Mozart’s tutoring sessions from happening, remarking that “one hears too many stories…Not pleasant, Majesty, but true” (Shaffer 64). Had Mozart not been confident and showy with his adulterous ways, Salieri would not have been able to further discredit Mozart.
Even Mozart’s opera, one of his greatest creations, was initially ruined by his overconfidence. Mozart wrote a fantastic opera but, because he irritated Salieri, his opera was ruined by Salieri’s meddling. Mozart did not think about the content of his opera, as he was overconfident in his operatic abilities. An integral scene was cut out of the opera because Mozart thought that he was above all of the Italian opera rules. The rules do not allow for any ballet and Mozart’s ballroom scene cut corners. Salieri noticed the oversight on Mozart’s part and was able to report this to the courtier in charge of the opera. When the scene was cut, Mozart threw a temper tantrum because he could not believe that he did not get his way, screaming “I’ll hold a rehearsal! You’ll see! The Emperor will come! You’ll see!” (Shaffer 74). Mozart’s temper burned the rest of the bridges between himself and the Italian court. Another way that Salieri subtly manipulates Mozart into further mental insanity is by getting Mozart kicked out of the Masons. Towards the end of his life, Mozart, destitute and practically a beggar, has to resort to relying on his Masonic brothers handouts in order to survive. Salieri puts the idea of a vaudeville show centered around the Masons in Mozart’s head. Salieri knew that the Masons would not take kindly to their customs being paraded in front of common folk for all to see. After Mozart puts on the opera, the Masons decide to relinquish Mozart’s membership in the face of the recent events, declaring that they will “ensure that no Freemason or person of distinction in Vienna” will ever trust Mozart again (Shaffer 100). Mozart, quite simply, is ruined. Salieri “does not poison Mozart, he starves him to death by insuring that Mozart receives no money from patronage” (Bidney). Mozart finally has no money coming into his house, whether from teaching or from Masonic handouts. Salieri uses Mozart’s overconfidence and flamboyance to cut short Mozart’s professional musical career.
Salieri manipulates Mozart into alienating himself from his family and friends by furthering Mozart’s mental illness. When Salieri first hears of Mozart’s great talent, Salieri is wary of Mozart. After Mozart rewrites Salieri’s Welcome March, Salieri is no longer just wary of Mozart, he hates Mozart for stealing his glory and fame. Salieri is “weak, dependent, primarily a receiver instead of a creator” (Bidley), so Salieri decides to exact his revenge on Mozart for Amadeus’ musical inclinations. All of the pain in Mozart’s life, his mental insanity, his eventual death, could have been avoided if Mozart had reined in his less than desirable personality traits. Salieri had to have known that Mozart would try to improvise on Salieri’s score, but Salieri played the march anyway. Before he even met Mozart, Salieri had started manipulating him. For most of his life, Mozart had obeyed his father’s every word. When Mozart began to court Constanze, he was hesitant to propose to her as his father did not approve of the match. Salieri talks to Mozart and slyly suggests that Mozart defy his father for once in his life. After Mozart marries Constanze, Salieri goes to great lengths to try to destroy Mozart’s life, even trying to seduce Constanze, telling Constanze “Princess Elizabeth needs a pupil” and that Constanze should come “and see [him] alone tomorrow” (Shaffer 51). Salieri, a “strict disciplinarian and self-renouncer” (Bidley), decided that breaking a few of his rules would be for the greater good, as he could kill two problematic birds with one stone. Towards the end of Mozart’s life, he is living with his son and pregnant wife in a pauper’s apartment. Constanze and Mozart have several fights over money and their fights culminate in Costanze leaving Mozart temporarily, “just for a while, she says. She’s taken the baby and gone to Baden” (Shaffer 96).. She was frustrated by his refusal to write any music other than the Requiem and his lack of breadwinning for the family. Salieri visits Mozart and sees all of the ruin that he has caused to happen to Amadeus. At that moment, Salieri was “ready to commit murder for the sake of justice or morality” (Bidley). Even while suffering a mental breakdown and being destitute, Mozart is still composing beautiful music, a fact that Salieri considers unjust. Drawn by some unknown phenomena, Salieri feels the need to apologize for all of the hardships that Mozart has suffered at Salieri’s hands. Salieri fails in this attempt, however, as he reminds Mozart of his continual failures in his family’s eyes. Mozart had a complete mental breakdown when Salieri tries to apologize. By alienating Mozart’s friends, Salieri is able to further Mozart’s mental breakdown.
Throughout Amadeus, Salieri makes able use of Mozart’s mental issues in order to instigate Mozart’s breakdown. Mozart’s overconfidence and flamboyance play into Salieri’s hands, allowing him to subtly manipulate others into ruining Mozart’s professional career. Mozart’s personal life was ruined as well; Salieri systematically destroyed Mozart’s relationships with his family members. Mozart’s mental issues would have been considered taboo in polite society in his lifetime, but Salieri has no problem manipulating Mozart into his eventual demise.
Bidney, Martin. “Thinking About God and Mozart: The Salieris of Puškin and Peter Shaffer”. The Slavic and East European Journal 30.2 (1986): 183–195. Web. Dec. 6, 2015.
Shaffer, Peter. Amadeus. New York: Perennial, 2001. Print.
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