Beyond Fact and Fiction, Scholarly and Popular: Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman's Amadeus at 25

By Keefe, Simon P. | Musical Times, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Beyond Fact and Fiction, Scholarly and Popular: Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman's Amadeus at 25


Keefe, Simon P., Musical Times


My thanks go to Cliff Eisen for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.

IN A YEAR of major composer anniversaries - Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Martinû - the 25dl birthday of a film about a composer (and the 30th of the play upon which it was based) is unlikely to attract musicological attention. But Amadeus is no ordinary film: a lavish tale (purportedly a biopic) of more than two-and-a-half hours; one of the most decorated post-war films (widi eight Oscars to its credit), based on an acclaimed play; ultimately the best-known film about a classical composer, reaching a wider musical and non-musical public than any other. Mozart's iconic status in classical music - indeed in Western culture - at last, in 1984, found a suitably high profile outlet in the mass media.1

Amadeus has proved highly contentious in scholarly circles. Detractors focus on factual inaccuracies, on 'a gaudy pageant that was straight Hollywood', and on an Overdose of bathos and banality', a 'phony and opportunistic' revisionism, a 'portentous meaningfulness' and a 'smorgasbord' soundtrack 'in which all the food blandly intermingles on a single huge, sloppy platter'.1 Its impact is wearily acknowledged by some scholars, Stanley Sadie explaining tiiat 'we ought perhaps to be grateful [to Shaffer] [...] probably not the instinctive reaction of most scholars' and glibly dismissed by others (a 'glossy, soap-opera film version' that 'may not do much for Mozart, but [...] may do a little for the early piano', according to Nicholas Kenyon).3 One or two writers are more generous, notably Robert Marshall, who interprets Amadeus positively as a 'work of the imagination'.4

But how do (or should) changes in the musicological and scholarly climate since much of the criticism was aired have an affect on judgments about the film? Historiographical self-awareness in serious biographical and reception work and receptivity to the 'popular' - pop music, popular taste, and the aesthetically and stylistically popular in a given era - are more prevalent today than in the mid-late 1980s;5 an uncomplimentary account of the personality of a great figure is also less likely to meet with a knee-jerk negative reaction.6 It is time, then, for a re-appraisal of Amadeus in light of now-prominent values and perspectives. One gauge of the success of a cultural product is that it has the capacity to enrich us as values, predilections and orientations evolve over time, that it encourages each successive generation to re-affirm, re-establish, or re-invent its significance. When we return to the landmarks of Mozart biography - Otto Jahn, Hermann Abert, Alfred Einstein, for example7 - we recognise them as factually out-ofdate in many respects, but as highly insightful still on musical, theoretical, psychological, aesthetic, and stylistic matters. Does Amadeus, now at a ripe old age in a fast-moving celluloid medium, have anything substantive to offer early 21st-century audiences? And if so, what, and which audiences?

Just as Amadeus is no ordinary film about a musician, so, needless to say, it is no ordinary biographical portrait of Mozart; Shaffer readily acknowledges as much.8 It is neither 'fact' nor 'fiction' but a work that freely intermingles the two, enlivening the continuum. Less surprising than how much the film gets wrong in factual terms, or the artistic licence it takes, is how much it generally gets right: the broad sweep through Mozart's decade in Vienna is more or less accurate (with works appearing for the most part in the right order); the key musical figures are present at Emperor Joseph II's court (Giuseppe Bonno, Antonio Salieri, Count OrsiniRosenberg); Le none di Figaro is contested ground on account of its subject matter; Die Zauberflöte is staged at a discernibly different venue from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Figaro and Don Giovanni. And there are many other historically-sensitive touches too, including a dignified Gottfried van Swieten promoting Mozart as 'remarkable' and first announcing himself to Mozart as a 'great admirer' of his work, a piano moved out of Mozart's apartment for a performance of the Piano Concerto no. …

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