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"The Real Mystery of Salieri," Music Magazine

by Michael Colgrass

I recently watched the video of Peter Shaffer's 1980's film, Amadeus, about Mozart and his conflict with Antonio Salieri. For those who never saw the movie or the play, here's the premise of the story: Salieri prays to God to make him a great composer, in return for which Salieri promises to lead a life of chastity and self sacrifice. Salieri believes God has answered his prayer when he is appointed Court Composer to Emperor Joseph 11, Austria's most prestigious position for a composer.

Salieri becomes famous, he is admired, his opinion is sought, his works are played everywhere. When Salieri one day hears the music of a young man named Mozart, he is overwhelmed. This music is of a quality he'd never heard before - exquisite, perfect and new. In one very dramatic scene, Salieri sees Mozart's scores for the first time and is awed by the beauty of the music. He notes that there are no scratch-outs on the pages and says with disbelief, "It's as if he were taking dictation." He asks God how He could give him, Salieri, the ability to recognize excellence but withhold from him the ability to create excellence. He feels God has betrayed him and, in revenge, sets out to destroy Mozart.

The question most people seem to ask after seeing the play or movie is, "Did Salieri really poison Mozart?" And this question has been argued back and forth in the press and by scholars ever since the play first appeared. But to me the more interesting question is, could Salieri's life have been different? Could he have been a better composer? And also, is it possible that Mozart, under different circumstances, might have been a lesser composer? We still don't know all the answers about genetic gifts, but we do know that no genius, so called, ever got that way without very hard work and the development of an enormous amount of skill.

Consider for a moment the idea, implied in Salieri's remark, that Mozart might have been taking dictation from God. If you were to ask Mozart that question I think he might well answer, "Of course, I was taking dictation, but not from God - from Haydn!" And that answer would make a lot of sense. Music is made up of patterns that are handed down from composer to composer. When Mozart was born, the patterns of classical music were firmly set - major and minor chords and scales, rhythmic symmetry, certain harmonic sequences and phrasing, etc. - and Haydn was already refining these stylistic elements into what we know now as the classical style with the sonata, the concerto and the symphony, of which Haydn is called the father.

Mozart had these patterns drilled into his head in early childhood by his father, Leopold, and by the time he was seven or eight years old he was already improvising in public in the current styles, using these established "rules" of harmony and rhythm. At the risk of sounding clinical, one could say Mozart was programmed, that his fingers learned to respond by conditioned reflex. In fact, someone in the film directs a barb at Mozart by calling child prodigies "performing seals."

Mozart later developed his own style, of course, but always retained an unmistakable element of Haydn's musical character. In this sense, Mozart was not a style-setting composer as was Haydn or Beethoven, each of whom actually altered the course of music. But never mind - I'm not arguing the merits of breaking new musical ground. What I'm saying is, skill is like a lightning rod - it attracts inspiration and stimulates creativity. Mozart's musical skill, his knowledge, acquired over many years of very hard work and experience, played as big a part in making him a sublime composer as any God-given gifts he might have had. We tend to forget that point when we talk about "genius." In fact, we often slough off genius with the remark, "Either you have it or you don't." l would amend that remark to read, "Either you do it or you don't"

In concrete terms, skill gives more choices. Whatever Salieri's innate musical gifts, we will never know them because he simply did not have the number of choices at his fingertips that Mozart did when seeking a musical solution. He never worked to acquire it.

In one scene in Amadeus, Salieri writes a little march in honor of Mozart's visit to the court. On one hearing, Mozart rewrites the march on the spot, and Salieri hears his own creation take on life before his very ears. We conclude from this scene that Mozart was a much better composer than Salieri. But what struck me was, why did Salieri present Mozart with a first draft? Why didn't he think it through thoroughly - delete. change, rewrite - and then present Mozart with a polished version?

Mozart always thought his music through, although he did it in his mind so we never see the rewrites. He was able to do this mental rewriting because he had developed an enormous command of musical language. One way or the other, every creator rewrites, whether we see it or not. Beethoven made his revisions on paper, and painstakingly. We have the originals as evidence. Even on a simple tune like his "Ode to joy' from his Ninth Symphony he made over 200 versions before settling on one he considered strong - and that was an already existing folk melody. But Salieri settled for much less, and I think it was because he was lazy.

After seeing the film, I had an imaginary conversation with Salieri: "Antonio, it's not enough just to admire the music of someone like Haydn - you should spend time with him, improvise with him, act as if you were him and write music just like his to feel what it's like to have genius coming from your fingertips. Become him. Then gradually you can drop those gestures of Haydn and your own voice will come through, if you've got one."

Mozart had a great gift, and maybe even a direct line to supernatural powers, but he also worked prodigiously and absorbed the knowledge and practices of the great composers who preceded him. If he hadn't, he could never have become what we know to be Mozart. I'm suggesting that, regardless of our biological gifts, we have a choice - to squander what we're given or develop it into excellence. And Salieri made a terrible choice, so we'll never know what he might have been.

I think the poet e e cummings (1894-1962) expressed it best: "If poetry is your goal, you've got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera adinfinitum and remember one thing only: that it's you - nobody else - who determine your destiny and decide your fate. Nobody can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you. There's the artist's responsibility; and the most awful responsibility on earth."

I wonder what might have become of Salieri if he could have taken cummings' advice to heart.

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