Monday, January 28, 2008

Amadeus: Fact and Fiction

Episode Number: 015
Title: Amadeus: Fact and Fiction
Introduction Music: The Marsh of Rhuddlan - Traditional; Performed by Cheryl Ann Fulton, Triple Harp
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale - January 28, 2008

Amadeus is a motion picture loosely based on the lives of Viennese composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It was released in 1984 and grossed over 50 million dollars and one 8 Oscars. Amadeus was based on a stage play with the same name, which came out in 1979. Due to the movie’s huge success around the world it’s contributed to a lot of misconceptions about Mozart, Salieri, and even some of the other characters involved as well. I personally think this movie is excellent; it is very entertaining and the soundtrack is great. However, before I researched the subject even I thought many of the liberties taken by the author and director to be biographical and historical facts. The author of the play, Peter Schaffer and movie director Milos Forman did not intend to create a fact-filled biography but an exciting drama that would entertain the general public.

Salieri did not kill Mozart, not even inadvertently. This rumor actually began circulating around 1825, over 30 years after Mozart’s death, and may have come from none other than Salieri himself! Salieri suffered from senility in the last years of his life and may have babbled it, but there is no evidence that Mozart died from poisoning. Mozart’s physician claimed that he died from a fever that was circulating around Vienna at the time.[1] In 2000 at the 6th annual Clinical Pathological Conference held at Cornell University, a panel of Mozart scholars concluded[2]:

On Nov. 20, 1791, Mozart is stricken with a high fever, headaches, a rash, and pain and swelling in his arms and legs. He remains alert and lucid, but is increasingly agitated and asks to have his favorite pet canary removed from his room because its singing agitates him -- irritation is a classic symptom of rheumatic fever. Week two: Mozart suffers repeated bouts of vomiting and diarrhea; his body swells so his clothes no longer fit and he cannot not sit up in bed without help. Aware he is dying, he gives instructions on how to complete the Requiem he is composing. As the illness progresses, it weakens Mozart's heart causing fluid retention and extreme swelling. Fitzgerald points out that Mozart's heart may have been compromised by bouts of rheumatic fever he suffered earlier in his life. After a fit of delirium followed by a coma, Mozart finally dies on Dec. 5, 1791, just 15 days after falling ill and seven weeks before his 36th birthday.

Salieri was not obsessed with Mozart. Antonio Salieri was born in Legnago, which is in the modern-day province of Verona, Italy in 1750. Around 1765 moved to Venice after his parents died, and around one year later his musical talents were recognized by visiting Viennese composer F.L. Gassmann. In Vienna he quickly made friends with Christoph Willibald Gluck and more importantly, Emperor Joseph II. In 1774, at age 24 Salieri was made director of Italian opera in Vienna by Joseph II, after Gassmann passed away.[3] If anything, Salieri may have felt his post being threatened as Joseph would commission works from composers all over Europe – including Mozart. However, this competition appears to have inspired Salieri. With Salieri’s appointment as Hofkapellmeister, the loss of patronage of Joseph II in 1790 (Joseph died), Mozart’s death in 1791 and being cut off from France due to their revolution Salieri’s compositional output slowed significantly. Salieri died in 1825 at the age of seventy-five. Joseph II offered much support to Salieri by promoting him in France and Italy. Joseph’s brothers were the Duke of Tuscany and Governor of Lombardy, and his sister was none other than Marie Antoinette. Salieri saw much success in Paris, Rome, Milan and Venice. He returned to Vienna in 1787 from Paris and in 1788 Joseph granted Salieri the position of Hofkapellmeister (basically THE director of music for the Emperor.) He remained in this post until 1824, the longest of any Kapellmeister.[4] At this point he began focusing a little more on teaching; Beethoven and Schubert both studied under Salieri in the setting of Italian texts to music. Salieri enjoyed much success around Europe and was a very accomplished musician – Amadeus portrays him as a composer who struggled to compose even for the simplest of occasions. There is no evidence of any animosity between the two composers. According to one of Salieri’s pupils, Anselm Huttenbrenner, the two composers were on friendly terms and Salieri would even loan Mozart scores from the court library.[5] Mozart and Salieri even shared a double operatic bill in 1786 at the Schönbrunn palace.[6]

Mozart was a very prolific composer and yet also had a very unique personality. Some people believe he was afflicted with a type of Tourrette’s syndrome while some believe that he was afflicted with a mild form of manic depression. The latter seems the more likely of the two. There is evidence that suggests Mozart fell into manic states that lasted for short periods of time as well as depressed states that lasted about the same amount of time. In the manic periods we see “elevated or expansive mood, associated with decreased need for sleep, excessive energy, inflated self-esteem, increased productivity, sharpened and unusually creative thinking, extreme gregariousness, physical hyperactivity, inappropriate joking and punning, and indulgence in frivolous behavior without appreciation of its painful consequences”[7]. Some of the evidence is found in letters that he wrote to friends and family that contained much nonsense as well as scatological humor. Here is an example, a letter written to his father from Mannheim dated November 26, 1777:

If I could find some more room, I would send 100,000 compliments from us 2, I mean, from us two, to all our good friends: particularly to the A's: - the Adlgassers, Andretters and Arco (Count); B's: - Herren Bullinger, Barisani and Berantzky; C's:- Czernin (Count), Cusetti and the three organ blowers (Calcanten) . . . I can't write anything sensible today, as I am rails off the quite. Papa be annoyed not must. I that just like today feel. I help it cannot. Marefell. I gish you noodwight. Sound sleeply. Next time I'll sensible more writely.

Here is another letter written to his Basle in February of 1778:
So if you want to send a reply to me from that town of Augsburg yonder, you see, then write at once, the sooner the better, so that I may be sure to receive your letter, or else if I'm gone I'll have the bad luck, instead of a letter to get some muck. Muck! - Muck! - Ah, muck! Sweet word! Muck! Chuck! That too is fine. Muck, chuck! - muck! - suck - 0 charmante! muck, suck! that's what I like! Muck, chuck and suck! Chuck muck and suck muck!

These are some of the cleaner ones, the dirtier ones (involving bodily functions) I’d rather not read as some might find it in bad taste. However, there are multiple compilations of Mozart’s letters available in book form. See this episode’s listing on the site (which for those of you that are listening to this show for the first time is for a listing of these books. There appears to be a trend in when these manic states lasted, usually around exciting times in his life (i.e. concert premiers, etc.) Depressed states also occurred, and most notably when his father died. Mozart had a very close relationship with his father, Leopold, for his entire life. Mozart was always in a constant state of trying to fill his father’s expectations for him while at the same time rebelling as much as he could. Even though Wolfgang had a misshapen left ear and smallpox scars he was still rather narcissistic.[8] Striving to meet his father’s ambitions for him fueled his own self-esteem; when his both his parents passed away and his sister left home he turned to his wife to feed his narcissistic dependency. This dependency was also fed by a deep devotion to God and the brotherhood of the Freemasons.[9] Other periods of depression followed after a period of debt and while his wife was ill with a varicose ulcer[10] we find evidence of depression also in his numerous letters. Here is an example from a July 1791 letter that he wrote shortly before he died:

My one wish now is that my affairs should be settled, so that I can be with you again. You cannot imagine how I have been aching for you all this long while. I can't describe what I have been feeling - a kind of emptiness, which hurts me dreadfully - a kind of longing, which is never satisfied, which never ceases, and which persists, nay rather increases daily. When I think how merry we were together at Baden - like children - and what sad, weary hours I am spending here! Even my work gives me no pleasure, because I am accustomed to stop working now and then and exchange a few words with you. Alas! This pleasure is no longer possible. If I go to the piano and sing something out of my opera, I have to stop at once, for this stirs my emotions too deeply.

The movie actually does portray much of Mozart’s personality pretty well. In fact, movie Mozart was probably reached less emotional extremes than the actual Mozart. Another point worth mentioning before we wrap is that Emperor Joseph II was not quite the musical simpleton as the movie made him out to be. Joseph was actually a “musical sophisticate and a practitioner of a high order.”[11] His statement made at the end of Abduction from the Seraglio where he complains there were “too many notes” was not so uncommon back then – at least when regarding Mozart’s music. When his six string quintets dedicated to Joseph Haydn were published many believed there to be too many notes and deemed it “unplayable”. Many sent back their scores to the publisher.[12] Also, the movie implies that Mozart’s coffin was dumped into a pauper’s grave as a result of his lack of financial resources. While he was never good at managing his money, and had to borrow money from his freemason brothers to pay back gambling debts, his burial wasn’t necessarily related to his finances. In the late 18th century real estate in Vienna was starting to disappear as the city grew. Emperor Joseph gave strict guidelines for burial sites, so that land was not consumed by graveyards. In 1791 85% of Vienna’s population was buried in communal graves (as portrayed in the movie).[13] This was normal and was not because his family could not afford a proper burial.


[1] Brown, Peter A. "’Amadeus’ and Mozart: Setting the Record Straight”The American Scholar, Vol 61, No. 1, (Winter 1992). Reprinted online at
[4] Grove.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Davies, Peter J. “Mozart’s Manic Depressive Tendencies” The Musical Times, Vol 128, No. 1730. (Apr 1987) 191+193-6.
[8] Davies 194-95.
[9]Ibid 195.
[10] Ibid 195.
[11] Brown.
[12] Brown.

[13] Ibid.


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