Fact or Fiction: Historical Inaccuracies in the film 'Amadeus'

The 1984 film Amadeus (as well as the play upon which it was based) gives a dramatized account of the relationship between Mozart and Salieri, two classical composers who lived and competed for attention in Vienna in the 1700s, and the events leading up to Mozart’s death in 1791. Despite (or perhaps because of) the many historical liberties taken in the film, it was nominated for fifty-three awards and received forty, including eight Academy Awards. It won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1984, and has been called “a magnificent film, full and tender and funny and charming.”[1]

Peter Shaffer: writer (the original play and the screenplay)

Milos Forman: director

F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri

Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Elizabeth Berridge as Constanze Mozart

Roy Dotrice as Leopold Mozart

Jeffrey Jones as Emperor Joseph II

Did Salieri Hate Mozart?

In light of history, the film's plot is a bit absurd, albeit incredibly intriguing. It centers around Antonio Salieri’s profound hatred for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—a hatred which, by most accounts, did not actually exist.

Fact vs. Fiction:

In several of Mozart’s letters, there is evidence that the Italians (supposedly lead by Salieri) in Emperor Joseph’s court did get in the way of several attempts to advance Mozart's career, and some of these are portrayed in the film. There is, however, no clear proof that Salieri hated Mozart or plotted against him or planned his death, although those ideas made for a much more exciting story.

For example, there is a scene in the movie where Salieri uses his influence to prevent Mozart from getting a job teaching the Princess of Württemberg. In reality, Mozart did apply for the position, and Salieri was given the appointment instead, but the reasons for this choice are not known.

Also in the movie, Salieri is shown as conniving with the Italian musicians who resided in the Viennese court to prevent The Marriage of Figaro from being performed. But really, although there is evidence that the Italians were influential, it is not known whether or not Salieri was involved.

Interestingly, despite their rivalry in Vienna, there is also evidence that Mozart and Salieri were, if not best of friends, at least on peaceable terms with one another. For example, in another of Mozart’s letters, he tells his wife about how he personally picked up both Salieri and Madame Catarina Cavalieri on the way to a performance of The Magic Flute. Mozart writes of how openly Salieri liked the opera: “Salieri listened and watched most attentively and from the overture to the last chorus there was not a single number that did not call forth from him a bravo! or bello![2]

Amadeus's Infectious Laugh

Romantic Fictions in Amadeus

Speaking of Catarina Cavalieri, the film presents her in an interesting light. When she is first introduced, it is obvious that Salieri is attracted to her, but he states implicitly that he has not laid a finger on her (because earlier he had sworn his chastity to God). Shortly afterwards, we see Catarina singing a lead part in Mozart’s new opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio. The film implies rather strongly that she got the part because she had slept with Mozart, which only serves to increase Salieri’s jealousy and hatred.

In reality, it is very likely that Salieri slept with Catarina—it was generally known that she was his mistress, and if they were still together when The Magic Flute was first written, then their relationship must have lasted for years past The Abduction from the Seraglio. Also, although Catarina did in fact sing the role of Konstanze in the premiere production, it is not likely that she had to seduce Mozart to get the part. Just the previous year, Mozart had written to his father that he “never had relations of that sort with any woman.”[3]

Tom Hulce as Mozart
Tom Hulce as Mozart

Theatric Fictions of the Film Amadeus

The way music is performed in Amadeus presents an interesting historical discrepancy in the area of conducting. In every production that the film shows, the composer (whether it be Mozart or Salieri) is conducting the orchestra and singers much like today’s audiences would expect to see a conductor behave at a modern production—standing on a conductor’s box and waving their arms around. Though the baton was beginning to be introduced during this time, most Germans still used either a scroll of sheet music or their bare hands to conduct.[4] Also, eighteenth century German and Italian operas were generally conducted from the keyboard.

Peter Brown explains:

“[...] conductorial responsibilities were divided between the concertmaster, who was responsible for the orchestra, and the keyboardist, who was in charge of the vocal forces and playing a supporting role for the orchestra music. For the first several performances of an opera, the composer directed from the harpsichord or fortepiano with a few leading gestures aimed at the singers.”[5]

More Historical Discrepancies in Amadeus

Amadeus accurately asserts that the production of Marriage of Figaro was controversial in the Viennese court. This was mostly due to the fact that Emperor Joseph had banned the play that the libretto was based on. Mozart was, however, able to gain a special sanction from the emperor to perform his opera, supposedly because he leveraged the fact that The Barber of Seville (which is based on a related play) had just been produced by Giovanni Paisiello.

Another matter of contention was the dance used during the third act. There is evidence that Count Orsini-Rosenberg did in fact tear the scene from the music, claiming that “the Emperor won’t have ballets in his theatres,” as is portrayed in the movie. Interestingly though, no real edict has ever surfaced in which Emperor Joseph banned ballet. Confusion remains as to the source of the count's statement, but in the end dancers were hired, and the scene was performed.[6]

Though the movie scene was based on historical events, Cathleen Myers writes in a historical review of the film that the dance is set to the wrong music. She says: “Mozart provided actual dance music (the Fandango adapted from Gluck’s ballet Don Juan) for the wedding dance; it was [not] danced to the Third Act March.”[7]

The Truth About Mozart's Requium

Mozart’s Requiem (the requiem mass in D minor he left unfinished at his death) provides even more intriguing history. According to Albert Borowitz (see bibliography below), the commissioning of the Requiem was nearly as mysterious as the film portrays.

He tells the story this way:

“Around July of 1791, when Mozart’s work on The Magic Flute was virtually complete and rehearsals had already begun, Mozart received a visit from a tall, grave-looking stranger dressed completely in gray. The stranger presents an anonymous letter commissioning Mozart to compose a Requiem as quickly as possible at whatever price the composer wished to name [...] Mozart accepted the commission, but put aside his work on the Requiem when he received an offer to write an opera, La Clemenz di Tito, for the coronation of Emperor Leopold in Prague. Just as Mozart and his wife were getting into the coach to leave for Prague, the messenger appeared, it is said, 'like a ghost' and pulled at Constanze’s coat, asking her, 'What about the Requiem?'"[8]

The film implies that the commissioner was in fact Salieri, who was trying to play on Mozart’s fear and grief over his father’s death. Most people agree now, however, that the piece was commissioned by a count who wanted to commemorate his late wife, and secretly wanted to claim the music as his own.[9]

Another discrepancy from the film has to do with the involvement of Salieri in actually writing the work. One of the final scenes of the movie shows Mozart dictating a portion of the Requiem while Salieri scribbles away frantically. However, in fact, Constanze’s sister Sophie (who was with Mozart as he died) records that Mozart instead told a man named Süssmayr (a protégé of Mozart’s and at one time a student of Salieri’s) how to complete the work.[10]

Mozart's Requiem

Italians vs. Germans in Amadeus

One important theme that is seen throughout the film is the contention between the Italians and the German. Through their disputes, we see a growing nationalism that became even more prevalent in the nineteenth century. As already mentioned, throughout the film we see the group of Italians (often lead by Salieri) trying to thwart Mozart’s progress and popularity. The most obvious examples of this are the events surrounding the production of The Marriage of Figaro.

Another instance where we see this national divide is towards the beginning of the film. Emperor Joseph wants to commission an opera from Mozart, but he wants the opera to be in the vernacular—German. Most of his court musicians at the time are Italian and heartily disagree with his plan, claiming Italian is the traditional language of music and that “German is too brutal for singing.” Mozart sides with the Emperor, and the opera (along with several that follow) ends up being written in German.

Whether or not this is all historically accurate, the film conveys the vernacular librettos being sung in English. Obviously, these operas were not written in English, but for American audiences, it helps to get the idea across that having opera sung in the vernacular was indeed important to the German people.

Amadeus (Director's Cut)
Amadeus (Director's Cut)

Classical music fans and history buffs will want to watch this movie again and again. Last I checked, this film was available on disc at Netflix, to rent or buy electronically at Amazon, or on disc at various sites.


In Conclusion

There are many other historical inaccuracies in the film production of Amadeus—some more significant than others—but the examples above introduce a few of the larger liberties taken, even though some maintain an element of truth.

All in all, this dramatized portrayal of Mozart’s life was entertaining. I found the acting a bit contrived, but I think it was meant to be that way. The plot was fascinating (albeit fictionalized) and kept me hooked, despite my skepticism. Thankfully, the score was composed almost entirely of music by Mozart and was able to provide structure and beauty for a film that otherwise would have been lacking.


[1] Roger Ebert. [2] Eric Blom. Mozart’s Letters (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1961), 263. [3] Cathleen Myers. “Amadeus.” PEERS. [4] David Carnesi. “Eighteenth-Century Conducting Practices.Journal of Research in Music Education 18, no. 4 (1970). [5] A. Peter Brown. “‘Amadeus’ and Mozart: Setting the Record Straight.” The Mozart Project. [6] Dorothea Link. “The Fandango Scene in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.Journal of the Royal Musical Association 133, no. 1 (2008). [7] Cathleen Myers. [8] Albert Borowitz. “Salieri and the “Murder” of Mozart.” The Legal Studies Forum 29, no. 2 (2005), 923-924. [9] Ibid., 924. [10] Ibid., 925.

Works Cited

“Amadeus (1984).” The Internet Movie Database (accessed March 13, 2010).

Blom, Eric, ed. Mozart’s Letters. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1961.

Borowitz, Albert. “Salieri and the 'Murder' of Mozart.The Legal Studies Forum 29, no. 2 (2005) (accessed March 13, 2010), 923-940.

Brown, A. Peter. “‘Amadeus’ and Mozart: Setting the Record Straight.” The Mozart Project (accessed March 13, 2010).

Carnesi, David. “Eighteenth-Century Conducting Practices.Journal of Research in Music Education 18, no. 4 (1970), (accessed March 13, 2010).

Ebert, Roger. “ (accessed March 13, 2010).

Link, Dorothea. “The Fandango Scene in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.Journal of the Royal Musical Association 133, no. 1 (2008), (accessed March 13, 2010).

Myers, Cathleen. “Amadeus.PEERS. (accessed March 13, 2010).

Synopsis of Don Giovanni: An Opera by W A Mozart.Music With Ease (accessed March 13, 2010).

Comments 19 comments

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

I loved "Amadeus", just because of the music. I love that scene from "Don Giovanni"; also the "Marriage of Figaro", also "The Magic Flute", but by far the most moving part of the whole movie was the Requiem, accompanying Mozart to his final, miserable rest. The "kyrie elison" brings tears to my eyes, every time.

CarltheCritic1291 profile image

CarltheCritic1291 5 years ago

Yes, this is a common point that many make. "Amadeus" is not accurate, but that doesn't make it a bad film. I felt that the acting was quite good especially F. Murry Abraham's performance as Salieri. What was implausible about the plot? It could have happened, but it just didn't. In brief, there are a few things that I disagree with you about the film, however I do really respect your opinion, and feel that you make some really good points. Thank you for sharing, and keep writing more hubs.

Voted Up, Useful, and Interesting.

elfishflea profile image

elfishflea 5 years ago from Texas Author

Paradise 7–Yes, the Requiem is amazing. I got to hear it performed live about a year ago, and I've not experienced anything that was at once so restful and inspiring in quite some time.

CarltheCritic1291–Perhaps I should have been more gracious in my writing. I do enjoy the film–it's dark and entertaining. The original form of this article was written for a music history class, and so my goal was to look at the film from a purely historical standpoint...which renders "Amadeus" a bit ridiculous. Perhaps I'll go back and edit out the unnecessary mudslinging.

Thanks for the votes. And the comment!

John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Hi elfishflea, and great to see you're still writing for HP, haven't kept in touch...hope all is well

This is a great and well rounded hub. I'm not sure if you know this or not, as many people do not. "Amadeus" was originally taken from Korsakov's opera "Mozart and Salieri---in turn taken from Pushkin's play of the same name and, based on the same thing which is entirely fiction.

Voted interesting


elfishflea profile image

elfishflea 4 years ago from Texas Author

That's very interesting, John. I didn't know that. Thanks for the info!

TyeshaMatthews profile image

TyeshaMatthews 4 years ago from MOSS POINT, MS

I watch some movies and just say all that is historically incorrect. fashion be way off and etc

Beefie 3 years ago

This is totally absurd, AMADEUS never meant to be a historical account of what really happened - or even a bio-pic!! Shaffer never meant for it to be picked apart by historians, he would have known himself quite well, which artistic liberties he took.

elfishflea profile image

elfishflea 3 years ago from Texas Author

Beefle––You're right, of course. But as I stated in a previous comment, this paper was originally written for basic music history class I was taking, and so it was more to benefit me as a student, so that I could learn to discern fact from fiction.

MikeGerard 2 years ago

Actually I'm surprised how much of the story is based on history. I figured it was all made up.

Especially the conflicts over the Opera details (German vs Italian and having ballet). That and the writing of the requiem for a patron. I figured that was all made up. To learn some of it really happened and the story was constructed to tie it altogether was really interesting.

I got to see the play once in Salzburg and enjoyed it even more than the movie. You really felt the hatred from Salieri when he is 30 feet in from of you.

elfishflea profile image

elfishflea 23 months ago from Texas Author

MikeGerard - That sounds like such a fantastic experience! I'd love to visit Salzburg someday.

And yes, there were some interesting truths in the film. Like you, I was somewhat surprised that some of the facts from the movie were in fact historically correct. But in some ways, I think that made the fictional elements all the more amusing to me.

AMRnnr 22 months ago

was there any truth in the way mozart was portrayed, as a giggling, crude buffoon?

elfishflea profile image

elfishflea 21 months ago from Texas Author

I'm not positive. There is definitely literature to support his crude humor, but for him to acquire the positions he held, he probably had to maintain a more respectable public profile. Using scatelogical humor in letters to your friends is different than acting like a buffoon in front of noblemen.

Tamirogers profile image

Tamirogers 20 months ago from Seattle, Washington

I loved this movie and I always knew they took artistic "license" though I know very little about this subject. Thank you for helping me sort fact from fiction. Very well thought out and an interesting read.

pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 18 months ago from sunny Florida

I loved the movie and I guess ignorance was bliss for me. I knew some about the characters but obviously not enough, now did I?

It is interesting to know the factual backstory.

thanks for enlightening me.

Angels are on the way to you. ps

Josh Hilbert 18 months ago

I checked your third citation and nowhere in the text does it show your quote. Mind expaining?

JA 12 months ago

As a music teacher I find the film valuable regardless of historical inaccuracies. It is a powerful illustration of good versus evil in that it reveals the depth of deception that true evil succumbs to. When an incomparable genius dies so young, we question life itself. And we will conclude that this continual battle is still very much alive and very intense. Long live Mozart--his music lives for eternity!

Doug 10 months ago

The only possibility for historical inaccuracy is whether or not Salieri tried to commit suicide. The film is certainly not a historical drama. It is merely the recollections, correct or not, of an old man in an insane asylum. Use your heads. The entire film is this:

A scene where Salieri tries to kill himself

A scene where Salieri talks to the Priest

A scene where Salieri is wheeled down a corridor.

The remainder of the film are Salieri's MEMORIES. Whether these memories are accurate (or exaggerated) is unimportant. They are, to the best of the character's ability, a retelling of the story as it exists in the mind of one of the participants.

So all of the critics and self-important historical accuracy nitpickers can go back to their relative obscurity now. All you have done, in my view, is to do the one thing critics have always done. Lacking in the actual ability to create, they settle merely to disparage. Or, jealousy makes some people do some really idiotic things.

elfishflea profile image

elfishflea 5 months ago from Texas Author

Tamirogers and pstraubie48- Glad you enjoyed it! I enjoy the movie, but the real life of Mozart is fascinating too. If you still want to know more, try one of his biographies!

Josh Hilbert - Good catch! I think I must have meant to site it to Mozart's book of letters that is in my citations page, but I no longer have that book so I can't confirm it. I'll take the quote out until I can find my source. Thanks for pointing that out!

JA - Oh it definitely is valuable! And it can be used in multiple ways. My teacher's goal was to help us use research to derive fact from fiction (and this article is the result), but you could definitely use it to introduce student's to the character of Mozart or explore bigger themes as you suggested.

Doug - What an interesting take on the film! Of course you are right, Salieri is the narrator/memory keeper of this story, and it's what he's trying to tell us that is important. I hope I didn't come across as trying to disparage the film. As I've mentioned to other users, this article is the result of an assignment that asked students to sort fact from fiction. So even though the film didn't set out to be historically accurate, looking at the discrepancies might still be interesting to those who don't know much about Mozart.

Charles Ingrao 4 months ago

This truly wonderful film is so historically inaccurate that the eminent Cambridge historian Derek Beales devotes a chapter of his definitive biography of Joseph II to debunking the movie's portrait of the emperor as a bumbling dilettante when, in fact, he was an accomplished pianist, acute judge of music, and enormously effective in promoting the arts in Vienna. But it's still a terrific movie!

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