Some months ago on the White House lawn, Ronald Reagan accepted Austria’s gift (whether or not looking it in the mouth) of a Lippizaner called “Amadeus.” The United States soon reciprocated with a film of the same name in which the impersonator in the title role presents himself to an Austrian head of state. At this point the symmetries break down, the Emperor Joseph II, unlike the Gipper, having been a patron and protector of the arts. Yet one parallel remains: the excruciating resemblance of the compulsive giggles of the human Amadeus to the neighs and snorts of a horse.

This is not the only holdover from Equus, Peter Shaffer’s previous play, for the dramatic formula of two adversaries locked in a rhetorical bout also appears there, between the psychiatrist and the psychotic boy, and is familiar before that in the confrontation of Pizarro and the Inca king (The Royal Hunt of the Sun). In all three plays, an apparent hatred unsuccessfully masks a deep homoerotic fervor. Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart ill conceals a desire to possess him, and in scene after scene the well-groomed, satanically dark and intense Italian reveals himself as the would-be seducer of the tousled, frivolous, fair-innocent: gentlemen prefer blonde fright-wigs. Observing Mozart’s intimate manner in conversation with a prima donna, Salieri concludes that “he’s had her” but is really saying, enviously, that “she’s had him.” In the death scene, when finally the two men are alone together and Mozart is securely in Salieri’s web, Mrs. Mozart returns suddenly and orders the villain to leave. He refuses to go; only Mozart can rule him now.

Part of what is wrong with the film is exposed in the first encounter between Amadeus and Joseph II. Whereas the Emperor’s clothes have been faithfully copied from Pompeo Batoni’s portrait, the man wearing them bears little relation to the real-life monarch who, for one thing, could play difficult concertos at sight and not have to struggle over each note of a simple piece, as he is made to do on the screen. In Mozart’s case, even the clothing is wrong. He “dressed elegantly,” Clementi tells us, which would hardly mean glittering like Liberace or a punk rock star. So, too, Tieck’s description of a “small, quick,” but “unimpressive figure,” with “weak eyes” (not crossed ones, as in the newly discovered Hagenauer-Barducci portrait) is contradicted by the cavortings of the film’s hero. Mozart’s playfulness was life-long, in and out of music where its manifestations are unpredictable, as in the composition of A Musical Joke soon after his father’s death. The most recent Mozart manuscript to surface (at Sotheby’s in November 1984) provides another example in that this sketch for the C minor Mass (Mozart’s wedding mass in Amadeus, despite the minor key and the inconvenient date) also contains notations inscribed: “Von Pimberl [Mozart’s father’s dog] and von Stanzerl [his wife].” But to focus, as the film does, on one or two extrovert aspects of a personality of Mozart’s dimensions is to reduce it to absurdity.

Yet any attempt to make a “factually accurate” film about “the real Mozart” could only result in an even worse movie than this one. The main obstacle is that the face of the man who wrote The Magic Flute cannot be “portrayed” by an actor. (Michael Kelly, though writing long after he sang in the first Figaro, said that Mozart’s “little animated countenance…is as impossible to describe as it would be to paint sunbeams.”) To give Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer every benefit of the doubt, we might assume that the presentation of Mozart as a fool is an intended irony, and congratulate the director for having chosen the best way to fail with an insoluble problem. Another obstacle is that to give Mozart’s father anything like his due, differentiating his practical, pedagogical, scientifically progressive mind from his son’s creatively transforming one would require several reels and considerable skill. Moreover, to have the Requiem dictated to Süssmayr, instead of to Salieri, would be to introduce a new character at the very end, and one whose perhaps adulterous relationship with Mozart’s wife could hardly be ignored. Finally, the unsubstantiated Mozart-Salieri theme would disappear altogether unless significance can be extracted from Salieri’s opera, Scuola di’ Gelosia, or read into his reference to himself as “picciolissima creatura.”

Shaffer’s decisions to identify Mozart’s father with the Commendatore, and to have Salieri commission (and take down bits of) the Requiem are the playwright’s prerogatives and reasonable dramatic solutions, hardly contestable by people who read psychohistory and novelized biography. Amadeus grossly misleads not here but in the inference that Mozart’s music effortlessly sprang from him, a notion that does not need to be contradicted by reference to the evidence of human trial and error, the rewriting, the composition of new arias to improve his operas, the many abandoned fugues (including the much corrected K.401), and Mozart’s own description of his quartets for Haydn as “the fruit of [two years of] labor.” Innumerable constructions in Mozart’s music in “clean” manuscripts testify to efforts sustained at a scarcely imaginable level.


Since Mozart cannot be shown composing, the film tries to make the most of him as a performer. But this is also doomed, since no one is able to execute rhythms and embellishments, let alone improvise, as he would have done. Forman’s worst mistake, however, is not in letting us hear “Mozart” at the keyboard but in letting us see “him” conduct, which in his time would have meant supervising the performance, setting tempos, beating time, but with none of the histrionics of today’s TV concert-exhibitions. Poor Tom Hulce (Amadeus) must have spent hours gesticulating with the help of mirrors and video cassettes, but he only succeeds in looking like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.

That the camera trains so much of the time on Amadeus in the pit is the more regrettable in that Twyla Tharp’s stagings are not without interest. To judge from exiguous snatches of Seraglio, Magic Flute, and a parody Don Giovanni featuring experiments—very amusing to Mozart—with the extremes of the digestive tract of a mock horse, Ms. Tharp should be encouraged to stage opera. Unfortunately, the question of whether or not to ban the ballet in Figaro, a major episode in the film, involves so much discussion that the dance itself is passed over.

But the unkindest cuts of all are inflicted on the music. It bleeds at every splice, welling up, fading out, left suspended in mid-phrase. Even the tonic-dominant Don Giovanni chords at the beginning of the film are unresolved, and from somewhere in the Adagio of the Serenade K.361, the listener is brutally lurched to somewhere in the Allegro finale, as if an infant had lifted the needle arm from the third band and dropped it in the seventh further along. Mozart’s variety cannot be adequately represented, of course, yet the insensitive and even cacophonous juxtapositions of passages from symphony and concerto movements might have been “sacrificed” for one complete piece, the Figaro overture, for instance.

Would the language of the British soaps on Channel 13 have been preferable to American slang? “What was God up to?” Salieri asks, and, of the not-yet-written Magic Flute, Mozart says, “It’s all right here in my noodle.” Perhaps the comic-strip domestic dialogue of “Wolfie” and “Stanzie” is no cruder than some Viennese dialects in the 1780s. Yet some of the anachronisms, and effronteries, should have been excised, as when Mozart blurts to the Emperor: “I hate politics,” as if this activity, in the American sense in which the word is used, was particularly rife in Joseph’s absolute monarchy.

To turn to the premise of the film, would a man of considerable intelligence but insignificant talents envy, to the extent of committing murder, the “sacred gift” of “immortal genius…sent to the head of…an idle rake”? This is the conceit that Pushkin sustains in his brief play. But the thesis that Mr. Shaffer derives from it becomes less and less convincing as the film develops. First of all, the audience never believes Salieri’s argument that he is the victim of an injustice. And second, since his perception of Mozart’s powers continues to grow with each new manifestation of them, to imagine Salieri willfully extinguishing their source becomes increasingly difficult. A mediocre student might envy the head of his class, especially if he or she seems not to work very hard. But can one be jealous of, rather than marvel at, a mind that is light-years beyond one’s own?

It remains to be said that a great deal of comment has appeared on the significance of the film vis-à-vis Mozart as the highest cultural peak. The Haydn authority, H.C. Robbins Landon, recently observed that

Mozart is on the way to becoming the Shakespeare of music—the one whom no one can do without….

For all the overwhelming greatness of the Matthew Passion, perhaps the forgiveness scene at the end of Figaro touches us in a way that Bach’s abstract humanity and greatness do not….

It’s not perhaps a time for the Heroic Man, such as Beethoven’s art represents….

I believe…Mozart’s genius will in the long run eradicate Haydn almost entirely from the consciousness of the average music lover….

(The Sunday Times [London] January 20, 1985)

Robbins Landon, gentleman-scholar, knows as well as anyone that to compare masterpieces is an impertinence, and that talk about continental drift can be foolish. But these remarks indicate the radically different understanding of Mozart since mid-century.


The present writer saw Amadeus in a small college town, resisting more than one impulse to bolt. In the last twenty minutes or so, the cinema audience seemed to be feeling that music itself was the film’s protagonist, which could at least explain why no one left at the end, sitting as if spellbound during the long “credits” and leaving only after the house lights had been raised, and then in complete silence.

This Issue

April 11, 1985