I know. It’s just a movie. It takes great license with the truth for the sake of telling a good story. Perhaps the truth is scandalously obscured by a brilliant fiction. Even so, Milos Forman’s and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus is perhaps my favorite movie (next to ‘A Man For All Seasons‘). And there is a particular scene which is extraordinary. Antonio Salieri is a proud, hard-working yet frustratingly average composer. Living in 18th century Vienna, Salieri finds himself calamitously outperformed, outloved, and outwitted by a jeering, profane musical prodigy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At every turn, his accolades, his achievements, and even his love interests are minimized or snatched by this brilliant and infuriating upstart. For Salieri, annoyance begets envy and envy begets despair. It is this despair that motivates the devious Salieri to plot against Mozart. Salieri befriends his enemy, gains access to his life and familiarizes himself with Mozart’s weaknesses. In so doing, Salieri coldly calculates his plan to exact revenge while Mozart begins to trust Salieri as a loyal friend. It is in one particular scene, let us call it “Confutatis” (after the portion of Mozart’s Requiem that is the subject of the scene), that Forman and Shaffer weave a rich tapestry of great paradox – envy and admiration, truth and deceit, vengeance and grace, love and hatred. All of these emerge brilliantly against the backdrop of paradoxical music – the 7th movement of the Requiem (Confutatis maledictis) – which features the unforgiving and stern bass voices juxtaposed against the sonorous and innocent alto voices. How does this scene unfold?
Mozart, sick on his deathbed, finds Salieri asking him if Salieri could be of assistance in taking dictation of his unfinished Requiem. A great sum of money from a mysterious benefactor, Salieri tells him, will be given for the rapid completion of the Requiem. This, in fact, it is part of Salieri’s secret plot to destroy Mozart by overworking him and driving him insane. The ill and dying Mozart sees this money as a lifeline out of financial stress, and gladly (and rather sheepishly) accepts Salieri’s offer. It is during the ensuing exchange, that director Milos Forman’s rich genius emerges.
Salieri, seated at the pale and fevered Mozart’s bedside, begins to take dictation. It is initially an exchange of two peers fluent in the majestic art of composing. Before long, however, Salieri realizes he is getting a first glimpse into the mind of a true virtuoso. The common language and assumptions, that initially bonded the two musicians, are quickly eclipsed by the unparalleled genius Salieri sees before him.
Mozart (dictating to Salieri): “Now the orchestra. Second bassoon and bass trombone with the basses. Identical notes and rhythm. (He hurriedly hums the opening notes of the bass vocal line). The first bassoon and tenor trombone – “
Salieri (laboring to keep up): “Please! Just one moment.”
Mozart glares at him, irritated. His hands move impatient. Salieri scribbles frantically.
Mozart: “It couldn’t be simpler.”
Salieri (finishing): “First bassoon and tenor trombone – what?”
Mozart: “With the tenors.”
Salieri: “Also identical?”
Mozart: “Exactly. The instruments to go with the voices. Trumpets and timpani, tonic and dominant.”
Salieri: “And that’s all?”
Mozart: “Oh no. Now for the Fire (he smiles).”
Salieri now sees. He is truly the lesser. Mozart is the greater. It is during this scene (although omitted from the script) that Salieri finds himself flustered by Mozart’s speed of composition, but also grapples, head in hands, with the concepts Mozart is creating. Like an embarrassed schoolboy being taken to task by an increasingly impatient schoolmaster, Salieri endures Mozart’s exasperated explanation of how and why he is proposing his most recent musical flourish:
Mozart (exasperated): “Of course. The instruments are doubling the voices. Now trumpets and timpani. Trumpets in D-“
Salieri (confused, shaking his head): “No, no-“
Mozart: “Listen to me -“
Salieri (befuddled, head in hands): “I don’t understand!”
Mozart: “Listen. Trumpets in D. Tonic and dominant. First and third beats-“
Salieri (resigned, lost)
Mozart: “It goes with the harmony!” (Mozart demonstrates musically with clenched fist and rhythmic cadence)
Salieri (alight): “Yes..Yes! Yes!”
Lest one be fooled, this scene may simply be interpreted as yet another example of the dominant petulant Mozart and the subordinate envious Salieri. Far from it. This scene, in its greatest depth, is about grace. The wearied, insecure Mozart who felt unworthy of his father and unconnected to his contemporaries, sees Salieri as a friend – someone he can trust in a world that wants him for what he can do for them, not for who he is. Salieri’s presence and assistance is an act of grace to Mozart (even if Salieri’s original intent was selfish).
Mozart: “You’re so good to me. Truly. Thank you.”
Salieri: “No, please.”
Mozart: “I mean to come to my opera. You are the only colleague who did.”
Salieri: “I would never miss anything that you had written. You must know that.”
Mozart: “This is only a vaudeville. (The Magic Flute)”
Salieri: “Oh no. It is a sublime piece. The grandest operone. I tell you, you are the greatest composer known to me.”
Simultaneously, Mozart’s confidence in Salieri for this task and his willingness to share his genius and affection is an act of grace to Salieri.
Mozart: “Would you stay with me while I sleep a little?”
Salieri: “I’m not leaving you.”
Mozart: “I am so ashamed.”
Salieri: “What for?”
Mozart: “I was foolish. I thought you did not care for my work – or me. Forgive me. Forgive me!”
And in receiving these acts of grace, one from the other, the two men are transformed, if only momentarily, into friends and admirers. The lines on their faces are lightened and their spirits are raised. The taint of arrogance in Mozart and treachery in Salieri remain, but are subordinated for a brief interlude. And as this scene of grace unfolds, so does the music – the haunting, yet glorious music of the Requiem – which itself is reciting a tale of grace. It is music magnanimously shared by Mozart and longingly received by Salieri.
flammis acribus addictis,
voca me cum benedictus.
When the accused are confounded,
and doomed to flames of woe,
call me among the blessed.
Mozart and Salieri, in spite of these moments of grace, would go on to unfortunate ends. And yet, they still had these moments – irreplaceable moments where God’s presence stirs the soul and changes it forever. I know. I know. It’s just a movie. But moments of grace narrated by music of grace should lead us to say one thing. “Voca me cum benedictus.” Call me among the blessed.