Composition of a Villain: Amadeus (1984)

Salieri Balcony

“Mozart! Mozart, forgive your assassin! I confess, I killed you!”

On a snowy winter night in Vienna in 1823, over three decades after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s death at age thirty-five, these shouts ring out through an elderly man’s (F. Murray Abraham) house. From outside the locked door of his room, his servants initially try to calm him down by tempting him with pastries, but when his ranting is succeeded by a chilling scream and the sound of something falling on a piano, they grow increasingly concerned. At last, they force their way in. Their master is on the floor, covered in blood; he’s just cut his own throat.

So begins the 1984 film Amadeus, directed by Milos Forman and adapted by Peter Shaffer from his play of the same name. The elderly man is Antonio Salieri — villain and victim.

Although Salieri survives his suicide attempt, it lands him in an insane asylum, where he receives a visit from a priest (Richard Frank) who wishes to hear his confession. Salieri asks whether the priest, Father Vogler, knows who he is. “That makes no difference. All men are equal in God’s eyes,” Father Vogler replies. “Are they?” Salieri asks with a sardonic half-smile. He starts to talk about music and plays a few bars of one of his own compositions on the piano; the priest doesn’t recognize it. “It was a very popular tune in its day!” Salieri insists. He plays another; same result. “I was the most famous composer in Europe. I wrote forty operas alone,” he says. Then he tries Eine kleine Nachtmusik; almost instantly, Father Vogler begins singing along. “Yes, I know that!” says the priest. “Oh, that’s charming. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you wrote that.” “I didn’t,” Salieri responds, his expression growing grim. “That was Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”

From here, Salieri proceeds to tell Father Vogler all about his relationship with Mozart (Tom Hulce), a relationship that began quite differently from the way it ended. “He was my idol,” Salieri says of the child prodigy who composed his first concerto at age four and performed for kings and emperors throughout Europe, and even for the Pope. Young Salieri, already a music lover, longed to be just like him, and he made a pact with God:

Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life. Amen.

When his father, who opposed his dreams of a career in music, died suddenly, it seemed to Salieri that his prayer had been answered, and his subsequent success — to the point of becoming court composer to Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) — only strengthened this belief.

Then he met Mozart.

Mozart Laugh

Much to Salieri’s shock and horror, the now-grown Mozart was not the lofty, dignified artist that his music would suggest, but a “giggling, dirty-minded creature,” arrogant, frivolous, fond of crude jokes and prone to tantrums. What made this discovery all the more unsettling was the fact that Mozart’s incredible talent was genuine, apparently effortless — a divine gift, as far as Salieri was and still is concerned. “This was no composition by a performing monkey,” he says of one of Mozart’s works. “This was a music I had never heard, filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.” But that gave rise to another question: “Why would God choose an obscene child to be his instrument?”

This question troubled and then tormented Salieri as he started to encounter Mozart more frequently once the latter settled in Vienna. Up until then, the world had made sense to him, had followed a certain logical order: He had kept up his end of his deal with God, and God seemed to have rewarded him for it. Yet here was Mozart, this “obscene child,” constantly misbehaving but blessed with the sort of brilliance that Salieri could only long for, the sort of brilliance that might come along once in a century, if that. It didn’t help that Salieri faced humiliation after humiliation at his rival’s hands: Mozart instantaneously composing an improved version of one of Salieri’s marches; Mozart mimicking Salieri’s style at a rowdy masquerade, complete with flatulence.

Salieri Prayer

His true grudge, however, was not really with Mozart. Mozart, to his mind, was little more than a pawn. “That was not Mozart laughing, Father,” he says of the masquerade incident. “That was God. That was God laughing at me through that — through that obscene giggle!” Unable to bear this constant mockery any longer (so much for his vow of humility), he made a decidedly villainous declaration, a counterpoint to his youthful prayer:

From now on, we are enemies, you and I — because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because you are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block you. I swear it. I will hinder and harm your creature on earth as far as I am able.

His attempts to sabotage Mozart’s career, thereby avenging himself against God, escalated over time, until at last he devised a masterstroke: a plan that would allow him to kill Mozart and take credit for his rival’s final work, a magnificent requiem mass commissioned by a disguised Salieri himself.

Salieri Mask

In the end, while Mozart did wind up dead (which, considering his self-destructive behavior, was bound to happen before long, with or without Salieri’s help), Salieri found himself thwarted once again. Thirty-two years later, Mozart’s music lives on while Salieri languishes in obscurity and bitterness. (Ironically, this highly fictionalized tale did bring about renewed interest in the real Antonio Salieri, much as it maligned him.) Another composer in the same situation might have reconciled himself to his own comparative mediocrity and made the best of the not-inconsiderable talent he did have; not Salieri. Though he freely admits his villainy to Father Vogler and is even proud of his schemes, he still views himself primarily as a victim — the butt of a great cosmic joke.

Villains 2017

This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon 2017, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.

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19 thoughts on “Composition of a Villain: Amadeus (1984)

  1. This is one of my favourite films – in my top 5 for sure. I have been playing classical violin for a while, so this move is near and dear to my heart (albeit I am a Bach girl lol). Salieri’s disdain yet admiration for Mozart rings true throughout the film. His anger was, as you mentioned, very spiritually focused towards God, adding another layer of complexity to this masterpiece of cinema. Thank you for covering this film for the blogathon!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. F. Murray Abraham is riveting in this film. As flamboyant and crazy as Hulce-as-Mozart is in any given scene, it’s to Abraham-as-Salieri I look for a reaction. Even if the script were not as compelling, I think Abraham would still give one of the all-time great cinematic performances.

    This is a fabulous choice for the blogathon. Thank you for joining us, and for reminding me I need to see this remarkable film – and performance – again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s so true — even though Salieri is generally the much more restrained character, Abraham conveys all of his feelings so well, whether he’s hurt by an offhand comment or seething with rage or going into raptures over Mozart’s music. And thanks for hosting the blogathon! I’m looking forward to catching up on the other entries.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! Yes, he definitely saw his actions as justified and saw himself as the real victim in all of this. That’s great that you got to see it on the big screen! I’ll have to do that if I ever get the chance, because I’m sure it’s an incredible experience.

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  3. Pingback: The Great Villain Blogathon – Day 4 Recap – Silver Screenings

    1. Thank you! Yes, I think we can all relate to Salieri to some extent at one point or another in our lives — even if we (hopefully!) don’t take things as far as he does.

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  4. I love F. Murrray Abraham in this, one of his best performances for sure. I feel so sorry for Salieri in this, he puts so much effort into his work and he wants a masterpiece more than anything. Along comes young Mozart who effortlessly composes masterpiece, after masterpiece; but doesn’t value and appreciate what he does. This is a perfect example of a sympathetic villain, we may hate the things he does, but we can sympathise why he does it and pity him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s easy to understand how he feels, and it’s clear that he genuinely loves music — he’s not just after fame and praise. It’s really a tragic story all around, despite the fact that there are a lot of humorous moments too.

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  5. Wonderful write-up. AMADEUS is one of my favourite films and F. Murray Abraham is just pitiable perfection as Salieri. He fully deserved his Oscar win, and it’s a nice irony that that was the first time Salieri has bested Mozart at anything.

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