Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus is a reimagining of the lives of Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play, brought to life with the music of Mozart, is a tale of jealousy and betrayal…and perhaps even murder.
Our story opens in 1825 on the eve of the elderly Salieri’s death. A rumor has begun to circulate in Vienna that 34 years ago Salieri had poisoned his rival Mozart. No one knows whether to believe it, or why Salieri might have wanted to murder Mozart. Salieri, in the “last hour of [his] life” calls to the audience:
“And now! Gracious ladies! Obliging gentlemen! I present to you – for one performance only – my last composition, entitled The Death of Mozart – or, Did I Do It?”
He begins his story forty-four years earlier. A young Salieri is living a respectable life as Court Composer for the Austria Emperor. Having promised God in his youth that he would live a virtuous life in exchange for success as a composer, Salieri remains faithful to his tepid wife, Teresa, despite his intense lust for his prized pupil, the beautiful soprano Katherina Cavalieri,
His greatest vice, outside of a ravenous sweet tooth, is his “unquenchable” ambition and desire to achieve fame. He longs to become First Royal Kapellmeister, director of music to the royal court of Emperor Joseph II of Austria, and to achieve immortality through the creation of music that will live long past his death. He tells us:
“I wanted Fame. Not to deceive you. I wanted to blaze, like a comet, across the firmament of Europe. Yet only in one especial way. Music! Absolute music!…A note of music is either right or wrong absolutely! Not even time can alter that: music is God’s art.”
Salieri has achieved some fame as a court musician in Vienna, and to help maintain this stature, he relies on his paid gossips the Venticelli, or “Little Winds,” to keep him apprised of the happenings in the city. Now he hears that a rival has arrived from Salzburg – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a child prodigy who had once been paraded about Europe by his father, had now come to find work in Vienna:
“1: They say he wrote his first symphony at 5.
2: I hear his first concerto at four.
1: A full opera at fourteen.
Salieri: How old is he now?
Salieri: And how long is he remaining?
1: He is not departing.
2: He is here to stay.”
Worried about the praise he has heard for Mozart’s work, Salieri decides to investigate this new arrival further. He hears that Mozart will perform at the home of a Baroness and plans to attend the concert. His Venticelli also inform him that Mozart has become engaged, against his father’s wishes, to Constanze Weber.
While enjoying some pre concert sweets, Salieri is mortified to witness Mozart and Constanze playing a children’s game of cat and mouse.
“Constanze: Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!
But after witnessing this decidedly juvenile display Salieri is amazed by the perfection of the music presented at the concert. Of the music and its composer he tells us:
“It seemed to me that I had heard the voice of God – and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard – and it was the voice of an obscene child!”
The next time Salieri sees his rival, Mozart has arrived at the court of Emperor Joseph who has commissioned him to write an opera. As Court Composer, Salieri plays a “March of Welcome” for Mozart’s entry. Members of the royal court are shocked to learn that the opera Mozart is composing for the court is set in a harem. He convinces the Emperor to approve this choice while clumsily insulting the Italian Salieri. The Emperor, not exceedingly bright, doesn’t seem to notice. Joseph leaves them with his customary answer to all things:
“Well…There it is.”
After the Emperor departs, Mozart and Salieri discuss the opera further and Salieri learns that his pupil Katherina Cavalieri will play the lead. He distrusts Mozart’s motives in casting the beautiful Katherina. To further the insult, Mozart, oblivious, sits at the piano and transforms Salieri’s pedestrian “March of Welcome” (which he plays from memory) into a masterpiece as Salieri watches. Salieri, embarrassed and enraged, finds inspiration for his own next opera:
“ I would set the legend of Danaius, who, for a monstrous crime, was chained to a rock for eternity, his head repeatedly struck by lightning! Wickedly in my head I saw Mozart in that position…In reality, of course, the man was in no danger from me at all…Not yet.”
The time for Salieri to take more drastic action arrives at opening night of Mozart’s opera. Hearing the ornate aria sung by Katherina, Salieri is thrown into a jealous rage:
“Ten minutes of scales and ornaments, amounting in sum to a vast emptiness. So ridiculous was the piece in fact – so much what might be demanded by a foolish young soprano – that I knew precisely what Mozart must have demanded in return for it. Although engaged to be married, he’d had her!…The creature had had my darling girl!”
After the performance Mozart, once again, manages to insult Salieri, as well as the Emperor, who respond to the insult as always with:
“Ah…Well, there it is.”
Salieri is also is introduced to Mozart’s fiancée, Constanze, and advises them to marry despite Mozart’s father’s objection. Salieri, abandoning virtue in the face of these insults from his rival, vows to use Constanze to get his revenge:
“As I watched her walk away on the arm of the Creature, I felt the lightning thought strike: ‘Have her! Her for Katherina!’ …Abomination! …Never in my life had I entertained a notion so sinful!”
Soon after, the Venticelli inform Salieri that Mozart has taken his advice and married Constanze. He also learns that the newlyweds are suffering in poverty as Mozart’s behavior has mad it difficult for him to find students and patrons. At an event at the home of the Austrian Kapellmeister, a drunk Mozart insults both his greatest supporter in Emperor Joseph’s court, Chamberlain von Strack, and Salieri:
“Did you see his last opera?…Pom-pom, pom-pom, pom-pom, pom-pom! Tonic and dominant, tonic and dominant, from here to resurrection! Not one interesting modulation all night. Salieri is a musical idiot!”
Again not recognizing the damage his behavior has caused, Mozart follows his insults with a request, asking the court Director of Opera, Count Orsini-Rosenberg, to recommend him to Princess Elizabeth, who is seeking a music instructor. Orsini-Rosenberg informs Mozart that it is Court Composer Salieri who is responsible for making such recommendations.
One month later, Salieri finds himself again at the home of a patron witnessing another embarrassingly juvenile display from Mozart and Constanze. The two argue until Constanze begins to cry, but she is won over again by Mozart’s joking:
“Beat me. Beat me…I am your slave. Stanzi marini. Stanzi marini bini gini. I’ll just stand here like a little lamb and bear your strokes.”
Salieri, embarrassed at having overheard, pretends to have been asleep. In a bid to have some time alone with Constanze, he sends Mozart to fetch them dessert. Her husband out of earshot, Constanze reveals to Salieri that they are becoming desperate for money. She asks if Salieri might recommend Mozart to Princess Elizabeth. Salieri, seizing the opportunity to exact his revenge, tells her that he can only help if she comes, alone, to his home the next afternoon.
To his surprise, Constanze does come the next day, carrying some of Mozart’s manuscripts. Salieri has not called her to his home for a discussion of her husband’s work, however. Instead, he tries clumsily to woo her. When this fails, he takes a more direct approach, suggesting that he will only recommend Mozart to the Princess if Constanze will give herself to him. Appalled by this suggestion Constanze lashes out:
“You’re acting a pretty obvious role aren’t you dear? A small town boy, and all the time as clever as cutlets!”
Undeterred, Salieri answers:
“I would like to look at the pieces you’ve brought, and decide if [Mozart] is mature enough. I will study them overnight – and you will study my proposal. Not to be vague: that is the price.”
When Constanze is gone, Salieri is disgusted with himself and rails:
“What had he done to me – this Mozart! Before he came, did I behave like this? Toy with adultery? Blackmail women? It was all going – slipping – growing rotten – because of him!”
Reading over the manuscripts that Constanze had left, Salieri becomes even more furious that Mozart’s talent vastly surpasses his own. He curses God for choosing Mozart to be, through his music, God’s voice on the earth saying:
“Him. You have chosen to be your sole conduit! And my only reward – my sublime privilege – is to be the sole man alive in this time who shall clearly recognize Your Incarnation.”
Salieri vows that he will now make it his mission to destroy God’s power on Earth by destroying Mozart, whose name, Amadeus, means “loved by god.” To God he promises:
“From this time we are enemies, You and I…And this I swear: To my last breath I shall block You on earth, as far as I am able! What use, after all, is Man, if not to teach God His lessons?”
Having told us now the first half of the story of his youth, the aged Salieri takes leave of his audience for an intermission to answer the call of his bladder.
When the old Salieri returns, he takes a moment to contemplate the choice he made and challenges his audience to consider the reason for his choice to curse God:
“One thing I knew of God. He was a cunning Enemy. Witness the fact that in blocking Him in the world I was also given the satisfaction of obstructing a disliked human rival. I wonder which of you would refuse the chance if it were offered.”
Having provided this justification he continues the story of his younger self, who is surprised the next evening when Constanze returns to take him up on his offer. She offers herself to Salieri but he turns her away, no longer interested in such small forms of revenge. Having now abandoned his promise to be virtuous, Salieri instead begins an affair with his young pupil Katherina, who is easily wooed. He then does not recommend Mozart to the position of music instructor for Princess Elizabeth.
Though Salieri expects to experience the wrath of God, he never does. Instead his works are recognized throughout Europe as superior while Mozart struggles to support his wife and new son with few students, little audience for his music, and public outrage over his insolence and insults.
Mozart hopes that his new opera, The Marriage of Figaro, will change his fortunes. Gossip in the Court of Vienna suggests that it will not. At a time when most operas are legends of heroes and gods, Mozart argues that opera is best suited to stories about “real people.” He tells Salieri:
“That’s our job! That’s our job, we composers: to combine the inner minds of him and him and him, and her and her – the thoughts of chambermaids and court composers – and turn the audience into God.”
Salieri is not swayed by Mozart’s plea and continues his quest to block Mozart’s music from reaching the world. This task is made more difficult when Mozart completes The Marriage of Figaro in only six weeks. Determined, Salieri schemes with Count Orsini-Rosenberg to prevent the opera from reaching the ears of the Emperor.
Following a suggestion from Salieri, Orsini-Rosenberg approaches Mozart and asks for a copy of the Figaro score. He proceeds to tear out much of the third act, telling Mozart that the Emperor has forbidden ballet in his opera and that the marriage dance in the third act of Figaro is in violation of this edict. Mozart protests that the dance is not a ballet, but the Count stands firm. Salieri, slyly, feigns friendship with Mozart and offers to go to the Emperor himself and ask him to attend a rehearsal of the opera.
Though Salieri does nothing of the sort, the Emperor, to everyone’s surprise, arrives at the final rehearsal anyway. He arrives just in time to see the third act, now with no music, being mimed in silence on the stage. This prompts the always befuddled Joseph to ask,
“Is it Modern?”
Mozart assures him that it is not, but that Orsini-Rosenberg had disallowed the wedding dance due to the Emperor’s prohibition of ballet in opera. The Emperor orders the opera restored, to the chagrin of the count and the delight of Mozart. He then departs with his customary,
“Well. There it is!”
So Figaro is produced and is, by Salieri’s judgment, transcendent. He tells us:
“Whatever else shall pass away, this must remain.”
It seems, however, that the Emperor does not share Salieri’s great regard for Figaro. The opera provokes only a yawn from the Emperor. The public too, it seems, is not enamored of Mozart, and the opera is a box office failure.
Mozart’s fortunes do not improve, as he is next struck by the death of his father. Mozart is filled with guilt having disobeyed his father’s wishes and then left him to die alone. In response to the tragedy, Mozart composes another great opera, Don Giovanni. Salieri again is awed saying:
“I looked on astounded as from his ordinary life he made his art. We were both ordinary men, he and I. Yet he from the ordinary created legends – and I from legends created only the ordinary.”
Salieri does not respond with pity but continues his quest to ruin Mozart while pretending to befriend him. When Mozart is offered a post as Chamber Composer, Salieri convinces the Emperor to lower the position’s salary. Mozart is destitute and rumor begins to spread that he is very ill. He tells Salieri that his sleep has been disrupted by an unsettling dream. In this dream, a grey-robed, faceless figure beckons Mozart to come. Salieri, meanwhile, achieves his dream of being promoted to Kapellmeister of the Austrian Court.
Salieri learns that Mozart, who has been initiated into the brotherhood of Masons, has been surviving on the charity that the lodge is giving to him. Salieri, determined to ruin Mozart completely, devises a plan to end this last source of income.
Mozart has been commissioned to write a vaudeville opera to be performed, not for the court as was customary, but for ordinary Germans. Salieri suggests, by way of a joke, that Mozart incorporate the Masons into this composition. Having planted the seed of this idea, Salieri is certain that Mozart will reveal the secrets of the Masons and permanently earn disfavor with the lodge. Salieri is pleased with his own cunning and says of Mozart’s new opera:
“[Mozart] told me. He told me everything! … Initiation ceremonies. Ceremonies with blindfolds. All rituals copied from the Masons! … He sat at home preparing his own destruction. A home where life grew daily more grim.”
As Mozart’s professional life crumbles, his family is also falling apart. They have been living in poverty, without even enough money for firewood. Constanze, blaming Mozart’s childish ways for their destitution, leaves him after the birth of their second son. Mozart’s illness seems to be progressing. Mozart tells Salieri that he saw the hooded figure from his dream again, but this time he was awake. This faceless figure spoke to him saying:
“Wolfgang Mozart: you are required now by my master to write a Requiem Mass. It must be finished completely when you see me next. And you will tell no one.”
Salieri, feigning compassion, offers to help cheer Mozart up by attending the opening performance of his new Vaudeville. Salieri is moved by the music, which is, as always, brilliant. Baron van Swieten, head of the brotherhood of Masons, who was invited by Salieri, is not so moved:
“You were ever a crude vulgarian we hoped to mend. Stupid, hopeless task! Now you are a betrayer as well. I shall never forgive you! And depend upon it, I shall ensure that no Freemason or person of distinction will do so in Vienna so long as I have life.”
Mozart, now without even the support of the Masons, is ruined. Rumor begins to circulate in Vienna that he has descended into madness. Hearing this, Salieri decides he must see the destruction he has caused. He goes to Mozart’s apartment to spy on him and is shocked at seeing his rival:
“A drawn face distorted by fear, staring straight down at my motionless figure, standing deep-cloaked against the cold.”
Mozart sees Salieri in the moonlight and, thinking his friend has come to check in on him, invites Salieri in. Manuscripts are scattered on the floor, and Salieri discovers that Mozart has been composing the Requiem that the hooded messenger demanded. Mozart is convinced that he is composing the Requiem will mourn his own death, telling Salieri
“I’ve been poisoned.”
Mozart asks Salieri to look over the manuscript and when he does, Salieri is again struck by the brilliance of Mozart’s saying:
“It will help the ages to mourn.”
Suddenly, Salieri is overwhelmed with guilt and realizes:
“In ten years of unrelenting spite – I had destroyed myself!”
Salieri feels compelled to confess that he has been working to destroy Mozart. He tries to explain that his cruel actions have destroyed both Mozart and Salieri himself. He tells Mozart:
“We are both poisoned. Both—together. Both. Both. With each other.”
And then begs:
“Grant me forgiveness, Wolfgang, for pity’s sake. … You have to! You must!”
Mozart is confused, and thinks that Salieri has been drinking. Salieri continues to beg Mozart for forgiveness but Mozart, frightened now by Salieri’s ravings, breaks down completely and is left, finally, totally defeated, rocking and singing a child’s rhyme. He has not understood Salieri’s confession. Salieri sees that his mission is complete:
“Reduce the man – reduce the God. Behold my vow fulfilled. The profoundest voice in the world reduced to a nursery tune. And so finally I left. Refused. Unheard! And never –never after—could I confess to anyone.”
Mozart’s decline continues and he dies shortly after, though he lives long enough for Constanze to return to him. He tells her that Salieri has poisoned him, but she thinks he is delirious and does not believe him. After his death, Constanze works to promote her husband’s works and prevent the public from learning of his less respectable behavior.
Salieri is celebrated and praised throughout Europe for more than thirty-years but, as he reaches the end of his life, audiences have turned away from his music and toward that of his old rival:
“Mozart’s music would sound everywhere – and mine in no place on earth. I must survive to see myself become…extinct…”
Having told his story, the elder Salieri reveals his new scheme to secure his place in history. He will send his gossips to spread a rumor that he did poison Mozart:
“After today, whenever men speak of Mozart’s name with love, the will speak mine with loathing! As his name grows in the world so will mine – if not in fame, then in infamy.”
But the gossip in Vienna reveals that in the quest to assure that his name will live on long past his death Salieri is again a failure. The tale of murder is too far-fetched for the citizens of Vienna:
“1: I don’t believe it.
2: I don’t believe it.
Both: No one believes it in the world!”