Amadeus author dies

Amadeus author dies


norman lebrecht

June 06, 2016

The brilliant English playwright Peter Shaffer, author of Equus and Amadeus, has died in Ireland, aged 90.

His alternative life of Mozart, seen through the eyes of his bitter rival Antonio Salieri, completely overturned the public image of Mozart as a heaven-sent angel.



  • Salieri says:

    I was just thinking about this yesterday… RIP to the man who RUINED (for a very bad reason) the reputation of Salieri, portraying him as a loser and a jealous miser. I’m sorry for your loved ones that you are no longer with us.

    ”He taught me EVERYTHING I know” – Ludwig van Beethoven on Salieri.

  • Adam Stern says:

    …and who did a number on Mozart, too, convincing innocent, unknowing audiences that that admittedly flawed but fine human being was a clown and a boor and virtually an idiot-savant. The specious argument, “But ‘Amadeus’ got so many people interested in Mozart’s music” has never flown with me; I’d rather have an uninformed public than a misinformed one. (Oh, and an extra jab for having reduced Constanze to the level of Valley Girl.)

  • David Osborne says:

    A very great playwright, no-one believed Amadeus was an historical account, and I can tell you, as someone who was working in a classical record store at the time, that Salieri’s music also had a huge surge in interest after the movie, though it was probably a bit late for him by then. The above quote (posted by Salieri himself apparently) from Beethoven is a great demonstration of why you should never listen to anything composers say. The difference between Salieri and Beethoven or Mozart is of course something that cannot be taught. In that, at least the play and the movie speak the truth. A very honest account of how artists interact with each other. More relevant than every these days. Oh, and avoid the director’s cut of the movie. He stuffed it right up!

    • Salieri says:

      Definitely… it’s so much about process. About personality… btw, I’m a big admirer of your writings, Mr Osborne.

    • Adam Stern says:

      I respectfully disagree with your assertion that “no-one believed ‘Amadeus’ was an historical account”, as I have lectured on Mozart on several occasions, and have asked the audiences, “How many of you thought that ‘Amadeus’ was a factual and responsible depiction of Mozart’s life?” In every case, virtually every hand went up. If these laypersons represented the bulk of movie-goers who took in, and were taken in by, “Amadeus”, then there is a pretty substantial crowd out there who accepted Shaffer’s misrepresentation as gospel.

      • Albert Silver says:

        Then they have a lot to learn. Movies and plays are not documentaries.

      • Marilyn Quinn says:

        I think that maybe films about composers have rarely been accurate. Can you think of one?

        Anyway, I am a music professional who loved Amadeus for what it was. Even I, however, when it first came out, wasn’t sure about what was wrong and what was right. The film, script, costuming, acting, etc. were very well done. It encouraged me to learn more about Mozart and listen to more of his music, as it did others.

        There are many historical subjects, which when filmed or played on stage, play loosely with the facts, but they are still life-changing, entertaining, beautifully wrought, and/or spectacular in only one or two aspects (acting, film score, etc.). Amadeus was a good story, well told, even if made up.

    • Sue says:

      In my opinion, “Amadeus” contained the finest writing ABOUT music ever to appear in either a play, film or novel. For me, that is where its interest resides. I became enamored of Mozart after the film (and I was already a serious music lover) but that interest has seriously waned over the decades in favour of more angular and muscular composers (Beethoven, just as one example). And reading the letters of Mozart certainly does reveal a somewhat infantile personality. Some people have a problem with that.

      • Adam Stern says:

        Right. This letter to his father is infantile and imbecilic, for sure.

        “I have this moment heard tidings which distress me exceedingly, and the more so that your last letter led me to suppose you were so well; but I now hear you are really ill. I need not say how anxiously I shall long for a better report of you to comfort me, and I do hope to receive it, though I am always prone to anticipate the worst. As death (when closely considered) is the true goal of our life, I have made myself so thoroughly acquainted with this good and faithful friend of man, that not only has its image no longer anything alarming to me, but rather something most peaceful and consolatory; and I thank my heavenly Father that He has vouchsafed to grant me the happiness, and has given me the opportunity, (you understand me,) to learn that it is the key to our true felicity. I never lie down at night without thinking that (young as I am) I may be no more before the next morning dawns. And yet not one of all those who know me can say that I ever was morose or melancholy in my intercourse with them. I daily thank my Creator for such a happy frame of mind, and wish from my heart that every one of my fellow-creatures may enjoy the same.” — The Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, translated, from the collection of Ludwig Nohl, by Lady Wallace, Boston, 1864, pp. 221-2

        • Sue says:

          Then there are the hundreds of others you’ve conveniently omitted. The classic ones to his cousin show a vapid, skittish personality. Let’s be kind and say he had multiple personality disorder.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        I cannot refrain from reacting to your assertion that “’Amadeus’ contained the finest writing ABOUT music ever to appear in either a play, film or novel”. As I remember “Amadeus” there is hardly anything in this movie that is genuine about music making from the beginning to the end, with Mozart’s improvisation on the keyboard during a wild party, and the way he “composed” the Requiem in his death bed as the most sordid episodes, and it was not better on the stage. And by the way I know lots of reasonably well-educated people (doctors and lawyers) whose only “knowledge” about Mozart and Salieri comes from that movie.

        • Sue says:

          You obviously didn’t see the same film I did, where Salieri talks with considerable authority about how ingenious is the music of Mozart. On quite a few occasions.

          “Staring through the cage at an absolute beauty” is a metaphor I’m never likely to forget. And this is just one remarkable piece of writing in a magnificent screenplay.

    • William Safford says:

      I disagree. I have had many laypeople describe Mozart in ways clearly derived from the Amadeus play and/or movie.

      It is an example of what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness.” The facts don’t matter; perception is everything.

      Alas, that is the gift that Amadeus gave us re Mozart.

      But the movie did feature some beautiful music, especially the Gran Partita.

  • V.Lind says:

    Amadeus is my least favourite of the Shaffer plays I know, which is quite a few. I consider him one of the greats of the later twentieth century.

  • Halldor says:

    Everyone who’s getting upset about Shaffer ‘ruining’ the reputation of Mozart and/or Salieri *is* aware that Shaffer was merely adapting and expanding a play written by Pushkin in 1830 (and adapted by Rimsky-Korsakov as an opera in 1897), right? Worried about their reputations? That’s where to point the finger.

    Shaffer merely explored the subject more richly and (rightly IMHO) made more of an impact in our own time, that’s all. I also get the impression that some of the commenters have seen the Milos Forman film adaptation but never actually read or seen Shaffer’s original play.

  • mario lutz says:

    Shaffer’s Amadeus was premiered here in Buenos Aires a bit late, 1983, one year before the motion picture directed by Milos Forman was released, November 1984. Both works which I could enjoy almost simultaneously, strongly remained at that time a book, rather a masterpiece named MOZART, by the German author Wolfgang Hildesheimer (1916-1991) describing the life of the composer not quite like a biography, offering the reader none of the landmarks, the orientation, or the chapter divisions normally provided. Perhaps it is an essay, some kind of biography, psychobiography, and musical exegesis. Its first edition came from Suhrkamp Verlag 1977 but the Spanish translation should wait until 1982 (Javier Vergara Editors). In fact in a short period of two years a got the chance to catch Mozart’s life in a very different way I was learned before. Hildesheimer did not ruined the reputation of Salieri neither reduced Mozart’s character to a childish figure we find in Shaffer & Forman. I found a Mozart conscious of the superiority of his talent, ironic and distant to the popularity, indifferent to honors and vanity, never flattered the authority (except in La Clemenza di Tito?) neither seems to want peerages which for him meant nothing. Perhaps it’s time now to tell how much Shaffer owes to Hildesheimer.

  • Marilyn Quinn says:

    I totally agree with those who admired this film. This film and the script were not meant to be history or biography. But the script, the cinematography, the acting were all wonderful. Film is art, and art is not always to be taken literally.It did nothing to my love for Mozart… and it introduced me to Salieri, which I read about after the film. It also introduced me to some music I had never studied.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    As a practical matter, does it really matter what people think?

    Has anyone cancelled their symphony subscriptions because of “Amadeus”? Burned their Mozart LPs? Given up the piano?

    It seems unlikely.

    • Adam Stern says:

      Would you be sanguine knowing that, ca. 200 years after your death, a film would be made about you that gave a largely inaccurate view of you, your life, times, character, friendships, etc.? No, none of the damaging things you’ve listed have happened. But Mozart, a really lovely human being, has been trashed for the age, all to make an oh-so-heavy statement about genius vs. mediocrity. I find it disturbing and irresponsible.

      • Adam Stern says:

        age = ages

      • Sue says:

        You obviously want the porcelain Mozart, atop pianos and colourless, lacking vitality and depth. I’d much prefer the flawed one any day of the week. All that remains of Mozart is his music and that’s where we need to make our final judgments – what it says to us is always going to be deeply personal. The rest is speculation, fuelled by letters which reveal a complex, sometimes infantile, occasionally wanton man who was for too many years deprived of making a grown up decision for himself. In his 36 years on this planet more than half of his life found him not having to make a responsible, adult decision on behalf of himself. His father did it all for him. Much like today’s under 30’s – stuck at home for one third of their lives. But Mozart had two massive advantages – talent and a work ethic.

        • Adam Stern says:

          Don’t make assumptions about what I want from Mozart. I have no problem with his flaws, especially given that wonderful passage in Volkmar Braunbehrens’ “Mozart in Vienna” (which I think I quoted in anotherSD thread) that sums up Mozart’s take on humanity: “Mozart had no social prejudices whatsoever.” What I DO have a problem with is a work of fiction that not only stresses but inflates and distorts these flaws, and further, does so knowing that a potentially wide audience, ignorant of the details of great composers” lives and who probably think “Mr. Holland’s Opus” is a moving and realistic peek into the life of a musician, will swallow it whole and think they’ve been taught a great history lesson. It’s oh-so-Hollywood — “Rain Man” made people think they suddenly had great insights into autism, “Dances with Wolves”, a clearer view of whites’ relations with Native Americans. Trivialize it, but shoot it pretty with great sets and costumes, and Presto! An instant horde of experts.

          • Robert Holmén says:

            Well… I have a feeling you’re not going to like the movie I’m working on, “Anton Bruckner Conquers the Moon”

          • Sue says:

            Presumably, then, you would have hated the film “Shakespeare in Love”.

  • Magnus the Bear says:

    As someone who knew Mozart personally back in 1786 I can confirm that he was the most polite man in Vienna and never said a bad word about anyone or laughed loudly in public. Or worked at night after a glass of wine.

  • Adam Stern says:

    (to Sue’s last)

    Damn straight. (I’m a “Vertigo”/”The Red Shoes”/”Bicycle Thieves”/”Manhattan”/”2001″/”The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”/”Unfaithfully Yours” [orig. version]) kind of guy.) And I pretty much have it in for updated, “relevant” stagings of operas and plays, too.

    • Sue says:

      Presumably you think “The Red Shoes” is an accurate reflection of a ballet company and that Boris Lermentov is a typical impressario in the fashion of Diaghilev. Well, bad news….these are few and far between. He is a brilliant concoction of Powell and Pressburger and Moira Shearer’s character was straight out of fairy tale.

      You can’t have it both ways in your argument.

      • Adam Stern says:

        (1) Re your beloved metaphor: à chacun son goût.
        (2) I’m not arguing, merely enjoying an airing of points of view, not all of them necessarily in sync.
        (3) From at least two of your replies, you seem to jump to (incorrect, in both cases) conclusions about what I think of or desire from films. A little more restraint, I think, might be in order. By all means ask about my views, if you care to, but don’t assume quite so impulsively.

        • Sue says:

          You unequivocally opposed “Amadeus” because it wasn’t telling the absolute – in your opinion – truth, but misrepresenting. I point out that truth and accuracy are not the prerogatives of narrative cinema. The art is in the TELLING – the whole experience – and I submit once again that the words used in the telling represented the very best we’ve heard in cinema and are likely to hear into the future. You should watch documentaries if you are after truth and even then it’s unlikely to be the full story.

          Mozart left us two records; his manuscripts and his letters. Both of these things show contradictory characteristics and I felt the film captured that extremely well. The Salieri ‘conspiracy’ was based upon the hints from other writers over the centuries but primarily it was used as a plot hook upon which to hang the drama and form the denouement. I thought it worked spectacularly well.

  • Marilyn Quinn says:

    Please keep in mind that this was not meant to be a documentary. Many historical and biographical films play around with the truth because of time limitation and a desire to make a point. Film, the kind that is not a documentary, is an art, more than a history lesson. I always come out of such films ready to read more about the personage or the event. FIlms with an acceptable truthiness include The Diary of Ann Frank, Lawrence of Arabia, Glory, Schindler’s List, Munich, The Enigma of Caspar Hauser, Rescue Dawn…. there are so many films that touch us and inspire us without making it a history less.

  • M2N2K says:

    If filmmakers keep worrying about what those idiots who can’t tell the difference between fiction and documentaries might think, that will be the end of great moviemaking. By the way, in Pushkin’s “little tragedy”, although Salieri’s motivations are similar, his actions are much less subtle: he pre-meditatively and deliberately murders Mozart the old-fashioned way by putting actual poison into the younger man’s drink, which is a significantly different situation when compared to Shaffer’s version.

    • Sue says:

      And I think F. Murray Abraham’s performance as Salieri is one of the greatest ever to appear on the screen. I won’t ever forget the creaking of that chair and the elegant pauses and absolutely musical use of his voice in those ‘flashback’ sequences. It was a monument to self-pity and the destructive power of jealousy.

      A great film with timeless themes (as it were).

      • Adam Stern says:

        We agree utterly on Mr. Abraham: I too found his performance superb. His recent work in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” showed that his gifts of timing, nuance and poetry are 100% intact.