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Nashville Scene Rock Me, Amadeus

Was Mozart Salieri's greatest hit?

By Lisa A. DuBois

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  Nearly twenty years ago, the play Amadeus opened in London to what can best be described as split reviews. Some regarded it as a theatrical masterpiece. Others considered the production an irresponsible distortion and deliberate trashing of historical facts. Many theater seasons later, after the novelty has worn off and the controversy subsided, Amadeus is now viewed as one of the Western world's most powerful and popular contemporary dramas.

After a triumphant London run, the show premiered on Broadway in 1980 and ran for over 1100 performances, ultimately nabbing five Tony Awards, including Best Play. A film version followed three years later, starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce.

Written by British playwright Peter Shaffer, who also scored hits with Equus and Lettice and Lovage, Amadeus explores the precarious relationship between mediocrity and genius, between an adequate musician and the brilliant proteg who usurps him. The show's central character is Antonio Salieri, an Italian-born musician, composer and teacher who served as the kappellmeister, or chapel-master, in the Viennese court during the late eighteenth century. As the curtain rises, Salieri is an old man, reflecting on the circumstances that led to his middle-aged downfall, when, he claims, he embarked on an excruciating battle with God. It was God, after all, who made him hear the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the brash young composer blessed with the heavenly talents that Salieri so desired. In fact, the very name Amadeus means "beloved by God."

"Salieri is a tormented person. He'd made a pact with God that he would be kind and chaste and charitable in exchange for success," says Lon Gary, who portrays the vengeful composer in Circle's production. "At the beginning Salieri is amused and a little put off by Mozart. Then he becomes annoyed with him because he's a pest. But when he hears Mozart's music, he realizes that this gift is not ordinary, but is coming from God." Salieri is distraught over the Almighty's little joke. He, Salieri, has lived a virtuous life, and yet Mozart, a snooty little foul-mouthed brat, has been blessed with natural genius. Obsessed by the Lord's betrayal, Salieri sets out to manipulate and destroy his rival. While Salieri is stately and dignified, Mozart, at age 25, is the consummate child prodigy who never grew up. Petulant, cocky, and a relentless gossip, the musician brays about his magnificent talents and makes scatological remarks in an attempt at humor. Playwright Shaffer construes the young Mozart as a man from whose fingers flowed magic, but from whose mouth flowed asininity. This characterization has engendered heated debate. Twentieth-century audiences are used to accepting unpleasant research discoveries about our historical icons, so we could forgive someone like Mozart if he were found to be a scoundrel. What's much harder to accept is that he might have been a dweeb.

"Mozart was so totally into his music that he didn't have any [internal] social stops. When we have to, we can turn on our social graces, but Mozart didn't do that," says Matt Thomas, a pianist and teacher at Belmont Academy who makes his debut in the role of the famed musician. "Anyone that's gifted has quirks--issues. I've known many pianists who were socially retarded because they practiced so much and were always in the practice room." Himself a pianist and composer, Thomas says he can relate to the duality of feelings that define an artist--one minute feeling cocky and arrogant about his skills and the next loaded with self-doubt and insecurities. In spite of its title, Amadeus is less about Mozart than Salieri, less about an undeserving genius than about one man's conflict with his Maker. Mozart just happens to provide an ample war zone for this discussion. In truth, the play was never intended to be historically precise. "Either you're going to teach History 101 or you're going to present a theater piece," Thomas says. "The manipulation of history is forgivable because [Shaffer] used these characters to prove a point--to explain the dichotomy of the artist."

For all his keening about being underappreciated, Antonio Salieri actually became one of the most important figures in classical music. Never a spectacular composer, he was a truly gifted teacher-mentor not only to Mozart, but to Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Czerny, and Hummel. The greatest tragedy is that he was too self-absorbed to recognize where his own genius lay. He was too angry to realize that his pact with God was indeed honored.

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