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