Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626

Peter Shaffer has described Amadeus as “a fantasia on events in Mozart’s life,” but such a description, while accurate, obscures the fact that the play is only ostensibly biographical. Its significance derives not from its most sensational feature, its portrait of Mozart, but instead from its handling of complex and largely overlapping psychological, philosophical, and aesthetic matters. At the most accessible and perhaps most melodramatic level, Amadeus concerns the mystery of creative genius. Here Shaffer draws heavily on biographical legends in order to suggest that Mozart’s greatness was more than human and the man himself touched by God. Mozart’s genius, however, also raises a number of troubling questions. How, for example, is it to be reconciled with his immaturity and vulgarity? The relationship between genius and talent (Mozart and Salieri respectively) or, to put it somewhat differently, between the greatness of the few and the mediocrity of the many, is a more troubling question than it may at first appear, given the play’s political context: the weakening power of monarchy and corresponding rise in democratic aspirations.

The problem is compounded by Salieri’s depiction of Mozart as not only the greatest of composers but the most independent and innovative as well, and thus a double threat to the status quo. The play’s theological dimension is more apparent than the political, to which it is necessarily related; the divine right of monarchs parallels the divine inspiration of poets, artists, and composers. That equation leads, however, to the play’s central conflict between Salieri and the God to whom he first turns (for without God’s help, Salieri believes, he can never become a composer) and subsequently turns against (believing that Mozart’s apparently undeserved genius constitutes God’s way of mocking Salieri). Salieri destroys Mozart with the poison of hatred in an effort to make God declare himself—his purpose and his existence; without the assurance of the Absolute, Salieri’s life, his world, and his music have no meaning. Salieri’s quest for God has, however, a psychological dimension.

At the level of pathology, Salieri’s quest and cosmic defiance prove merely delusive. He becomes a man driven mad by his own jealousy, his failure to form an adequate self-image and similarly adequate relationships with authority figures (whether his middle-class Roman Catholic “God of bargains” or the emperor Joseph II, whom he so obligingly serves). Shaffer’s, or rather Salieri’s, Mozart suffers a similar fate, rebelling against the very authorities upon whom he most depends: the emperor, the archbishop of Salzburg, Count Orsini-Rosenberg (Director of the Royal Opera), Salieri (who is five years his senior), and above all his father, Leopold.

The play does not so much shift from one thematic level or plot to another as suggest that each overlaps all the others, that each may be a variation on the others. The complexity of Amadeus is troubling but aesthetically necessary, and to complain of its intricate texture is ultimately as beside the point as the comment that Mozart’s music has “too many notes.” Amadeus cannot be reduced to the level of psychology or exalted to the level of metaphysics without doing violence to its complex aesthetic integrity. Each level exists in uneasy tension with the others.

The psychological factors that motivate Salieri’s plan to destroy Mozart prove no more and no less important, interesting, and verifiably certain than, for example, the religious beliefs and doubts that Shaffer does not allow his modern audience to dismiss. Salieri must posit the existence of God, if not as Father then as enemy; his desire for immortality demands it. Mozart need not, for he will live through his music, although the wellspring...

(This entire section contains 626 words.)

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of that music remains obscure and therefore problematic.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746

Beauty Salieri finds absolute beauty in music and so asks God to grant him the gift of artistic inspiration m his compositions He came to appreciate the beauty of music at a young age, noting, "when I was ten a spray of sounded notes would make me dizzy almost to falling." Unfortunately, he finds this absolute beauty only in Mozart's compositions. When Mozart plays, he confesses that he hears the "voice of God," and he responds with such delight that it makes him tremble.

God and Religion Connected with Salieri's pursuit of absolute beauty is his search for spiritual meaning, for a supreme logic in the universe. Salieri makes an ironic Faustian bargain in the play. (Faust, a magician and alchemist in German legend, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power and knowledge.) Instead of constructing a bargain with the devil to attain an ideal, he forms one with God. He longs "to join all the composers who had celebrated His glory through the long Italian past" and so implores God, "let me be a composer . . . in return, I will live with virtue . . . and I will honor You with much music all the days of my life.'' When he decides that God has accepted his bargain, Salieri promises to be His servant for life. Salieri explains, "I was born a pair of ears and nothing else. It is only through hearing music that I know God exists. Only through writing music that I could worship."

Creativity and Imagination Salieri searches for a supreme logic in the granting of the gifts of creativity and imagination. He is sure that artistic inspiration and talent are gifts given by God only to those who are worthy of them.

Duty and Responsibility Salieri tries to prove his worthiness through a devotion to duty and responsibility. Although he has been tempted to commit adultery, especially with his pupil Katherina Cavalieri, he restrains himself and redoubles his commitment to the celebration of God through music. Salieri also shows his devotion through his philanthropic activities, as in his support of young, impoverished composers.

However, he turns his back on his noble commitments when he feels that God has favored Mozart over him. In response, he determines that no longer will he deny himself his desires and so takes Katherina as his mistress. Seeing no tangible reward, he also drops his philanthropic activities. Finally, he determines to take revenge by destroying Mozart.

Betrayal When Salieri decides that God has granted the gift of inspiration to Mozart, whom he deems unworthy, he feels betrayed, claiming that God has been actively toying with Salieri's devotion and desires. He concludes that God has been taunting him by giving him the desire to serve and to praise God, and the ability to recognize true art, only after ensuring his own mediocrity. Salieri's God cruelly flaunts the "spiteful, sniggering, conceited, infantine" Mozart in front of Salieri as one of His chosen to point out Salieri's inferiority and thus humiliate him. Salieri is convinced that Mozart has become God's incarnation. The final irony, one that Salieri uses to help him destroy Mozart, is that Salieri is the only person at that time who can recognize Mozart's greatness.

Justice and Injustice As a result of what he considers to be God's injustice, Salieri decides to exact his own form of justice regarding Mozart, even though he risks damnation. A bitter Salieri warns God that he now considers Him an enemy, and so with his "last breath'' he will try to block God's plan for Mozart's "worldly advancement." After reading Mozart's manuscripts and appreciating the exquisite beauty of his work, Salieri confesses that his life then acquired this "terrible and thrilling purpose " He hints at his plan to destroy Mozart when he insists that he will now engage in "a battle to the end'' with God and that Mozart will be "the battleground."

Ironically though, according to Salieri, God exacted his own justice, perhaps in response to Salieri's treatment of Mozart. Salieri concludes that God constructed an intricate and cruel plan to punish him: first, He (God) ensured that Salieri would enjoy the recognition and appreciation of a public who was not capable of recognizing true art. Then, that recognition would be taken away from him and replaced with the public's growing appreciation for Mozart's music. Gradually, as "Mozart's music sounded louder and louder through the world," his would "fade completely, till no one played it at all."