In the German folktale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the evil queen can’t abide the thought that anyone in her kingdom may be more beautiful than she. So she tries to murder her perceived rival, the innocent and lovely Snow White. She fails, but in any case, murder wouldn’t have solved the queen’s problem: as you and I and Sigmund Freud understand, when it comes to good looks, what really matters is inner beauty.
Ironically, the raw materials for a similar lesson played out in real life at the very time the brothers Grimm cobbled together this particular folk tale. In his 1830 short play Mozart and Salieri, Alexander Pushkin presented a highly fictionalized rivalry between two composers — one (Mozart, 1756-1791) touched by God, the other (Antonio Salieri, 1750-1825) blessed only with modest competence as both a composer and a court politician. Consequently, Salieri was consumed by jealousy toward his rival and anger toward God. Pushkin’s script subsequently evolved in 1897 into a Rimsky-Korsakov opera of the same name, which Peter Shaffer in turn seized upon for his 1979 stage play Amadeus, which in turn was adapted for the screen in 1984 by the gifted director Milos Forman, starring the equally gifted F. Murray Abraham as the tormented Salieri. All these iterations of the rivalry revolve around a single conundrum that the playwright Shaffer, speaking through Salieri, raises about Mozart:
“Why would God choose such an obscene child to be His instrument?”
God’s good sense
As portrayed in the film by Tom Hulce, Mozart is no Snow White. He’s a boor, devoid of manners, feelings, or any sensitivity toward those he encounters, whether it’s his father, his wife, or the Hapsburg Emperor, Joseph II. Yet how could a man capable of touching our deepest feelings through such sublime music be devoid of feeling? What sort of game was God playing here?
In fact, God’s behavior makes eminent good sense: each of us lacks some dimension. Martin Luther perceived as much nearly three centuries earlier, when he observed, “Riches are the least worthy gifts which God can give men. Therefore, God commonly gives riches to foolish people, to whom he gives nothing else.” If God had endowed Mozart with both musical and social sensitivity, would that be fair?
Shaffer’s Salieri, for his part, is more complicated than Snow White’s evil queen. He readily recognizes Mozart’s ethereal gifts. As a decent composer himself, he simultaneously envies Mozart’s talents and relishes the chance to work with him. Murder alone won’t satisfy Salieri’s hunger for immortality; instead, he schemes to poison Mozart and claim Mozart’s last work as his own.
Nothing of the sort happened in real life, where Mozart and Salieri were said to be mutually respectful peers. In effect, Shaffer’s script sees Mozart through the eyes of his bitter rival, much as Hilary Mantel, in her historical novel Wolf Hall, tells the saga of Henry VIII, Thomas More, and Anne Boleyn through the eyes of the supposed manipulating villain of the piece: Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell.
The latest version of the Mozart/Salieri tale occurred at Verizon Hall last week, when the Philadelphia Orchestra — a far larger ensemble than any Mozart ever conducted — and the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia performed the soundtrack to Forman’s film while the movie was projected overhead. It’s a marketing gimmick, of course, but assembling all this live talent to support a motion picture turned out to be a very satisfying evening — more so than the orchestra’s previous live accompaniments of E.T. and Harry Potter because, in this case, the movie actually had something to do with music.
How satisfying this experience may be for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s musicians — forced to spend nearly three hours playing mere snippets of great music determined not by a composer but by the action onscreen — is another question. But as Beethoven said when a violinist complained his work was too difficult to play, “What do I care about your damned fiddle, when the Spirit seizes me?”
Competing for a Pew grant?
Since the Spirit seems to have seized the orchestra’s managers, let me suggest a half-dozen other films that might benefit from similar treatment while drawing audiences who haven’t ventured near the Kimmel Center in a while:
- The Music Lovers (1970; about Tchaikovsky; Ken Russell directed).
- Lisztomania (1975; Ken Russell directed).
- Tony Palmer's Film about Puccini (1984; Tony Palmer directed).
- Tous les Matins du Monde (1991; about the baroque French composer Marin Marais; Alain Corneau directed).
- Impromptu (1991, about Liszt; James Lapine directed).
- Immortal Beloved (1994; about Beethoven; Bernard Rose directed).
Still, I doubt that any of these films will match the eternal conflict personified by Mozart and Salieri: ethereal genius versus earthly efficiency. (As some local wit — not me, unfortunately — observed not long ago, if Mozart and Salieri were competing for a Pew Arts Fellowship, Salieri would win, by virtue of his superior ability to write the proposal and butter up the grantors.)
Mozart died at 35, but his music will live forever; Salieri lived to 74, but his work was soon forgotten — except, of course, by Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shaffer, Forman, and now the Philadelphia Orchestra. You could argue that Salieri did indeed achieve immortality — just not the sort he had in mind.