Heard whispers open the play, repeating the words “Salieri” and “Assassin.” A seated man’s silhouette is seen with its back toward the audience. The man is Salieri, retired court composer to the Habsburg emperor Joseph II; he is sitting in his apartment in Vienna. Turning around in his wheelchair, he narrates a confession to the audience, asking it to be his confessor.
Salieri recollects his first meeting with the adult Mozart, even though he had been familiar with the wunderkind Mozart’s music when Mozart toured Europe as a child prodigy, accompanied by his father Leopold. As Salieri muses on Mozart’s music, he reminisces about how Mozart epitomized what Salieri wanted to be: divinely gifted. Instead, Salieri was a mediocre composer, just as history has judged him. Salieri knows too well that the emperor has a tin ear and that Salieri’s politicking rather than musical talent gained him his court appointment.
Mozart arrived in Vienna seeking commissions from the court, where Salieri jealously guarded Vienna’s music scene as if it were his own personal fiefdom. As much as he at first worshiped Mozart’s music as a connoisseur from a distance, Salieri was stunned when he met Mozart as an adult and realized Mozart was as irreverent as Salieri was reverent.
Mozart himself interrupts Salieri’s confession, crudely chasing a girl into the room, at times on all fours, throwing her onto the floor and cavorting with her under the table. His excited speech is filled with playful gutter language, and he acts almost as if he is about to remove the girl’s clothes and make a conquest of her on the spot, although she also appears fairly willing. It is only when his music is heard offstage that Mozart runs off to conduct a performance that the court musicians have started without him. Salieri finds Mozart’s music as beautiful as he finds Mozart himself repulsive and childish. The girl is Constanze, whom Mozart marries against his authoritarian father’s will.
In court, Mozart also makes impromptu variations on one of Salieri’s vapid march themes, greatly enlivening the music, to Salieri’s frustration. Salieri’s anger at Mozart can only grow after the gifted young man seduces Salieri’s young mistress, Katerina Cavalieri, and even she finds Mozart far more interesting than the ageing Salieri. However, Mozart’s marriage to Constanze is mostly a disaster in Salieri’s eyes, as Salieri mocks that he understands her husband’s music far better than does Constanze herself.
Count Orsini-Rosenberg, a Viennese courtier, soon intervenes on Salieri’s behalf in intrigues to keep the emperor’s attention away from Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro: Ossia, La folle giornata (1786; The Marriage of Figaro: Or, The Day of Madness). Mozart has to deal with a court for which he is ill prepared, especially since Mozart is clearly childish in his business and political pursuits, all too often withdrawn from society to compose when he could be performing, and living far more extravagantly than his means.
Salieri pretends to help Mozart, while all the time he is conspiring to hinder Mozart in every possible way, often successfully. Constanze Mozart comes to Salieri for help with a bundle of Mozart’s manuscripts, trying to stave off their financial ruin because Mozart is busy composing profoundly colorful operas such as Die Zauberflöte (1791; The Magic Flute ) for Emanuel Schickaneder, an opera librettist and popular Viennese impresario. Salieri reads the musical scores Constanze brings and cannot help but grudgingly admire the beauty of Mozart’s music as he hums or picks out the unsurpassed melodies history remembers well. His admiration turns to astonishment, however, when his examination of the musical scores reveals that they were hastily written without any changes or errors, as if they arrived perfectly complete from Mozart’s head dictated to his pen. Such a compositional process is incomprehensible to Salieri, who repeatedly...
(The entire section is 1,431 words.)