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...
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Shaffer has described Amadeus as “a fantasia on Mozartian themes.” The play is not a documentary biography, but Shaffer asserts that many of the elements of the play are true and that in no way has the specific nature of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart the man or the composer been violated. On the other hand, one might protest that the Italian composer Antonio Salieri has been slandered by the drama.
The play is set in the imperial Austrian court in Vienna, musically dominated by Italians, foremost of whom is the court composer Salieri, who has pledged his soul to God in hopes of becoming the greatest composer of his age. Salieri has the ear of his emperor, but he is ironically forced by his own understanding of music to recognize a far greater talent in the foul-mouthed, vulgar libertine, Mozart, who is capable of creating music of sublime beauty.
The action is framed by the demented recollections of Salieri at the end of his life, in 1823. He is no longer a famous composer but a forgotten man made bitter and crazy by envy and cynicism. Salieri’s story begins in 1781, when Mozart performs for the archbishop of Salzburg. From that point on Salieri does everything in his power to conspire against Mozart and block his advancement at court. He hires a maid who spies on Mozart and reveals family secrets. After Mozart’s estranged father, Leopold, dies, Salieri, after seeing a production of the opera Don Giovanni, understands the...
(The entire section is 561 words.)