backContentsTitle pageupcontinue

3.6 Music and sound

The drama of Amadeus revolves around music -- as the rivalry between the two protagonists is a musical one -- and for this reason Mozart's music is essential to the underlying structure of both the play and the film. In the screen version, however, music creates the true texture and ambience of the film. "In sheer quantity [...] the amount of music performed on screen and heard off screen is enormous." (Gianakaris 1985, 93) Since "the camera can sustain visual interest while underlining the ravishing aural experience" (Robbins), Forman and Shaffer make extensive and effective use of the Mozart repertoire. Peter Shaffer admits that this effect would not be possible in a theatre:

In the picture, the music naturally becomes more prominent than in the play. This is not just because on the screen one can show operas that can only be described on stage. The paradox is that in a live theater one cannot successfully play long stretches of music without subverting the drama and turning the event into a concert, whereas the cinema positively welcomes music in floods [...] (Shaffer 1984, 22)

In Amadeus, the music is not used as a background, in which case it would serve to underline the atmosphere, accentuate grief, joy, or any other emotion. Even in the theatre version it plays a more important role. In the film, though, "music almost becomes a character, the most important character" (Shaffer, quoted from Kakutani, 20).

The importance of music in Amadeus results from Shaffer's esteem for Mozart's musical genius. In his eyes, "Mozart's incomparability lies in the absolute nature of his achievements: The best of them cannot be even slightly rewritten without diminishment." (Shaffer 1984, 22) He even states that "[...] the existence of Mozart (as of Shakespeare) is central to [his] belief in the sovereign value of mankind" (Shaffer 1984, 22). Shaffer's admiration of Mozart's operas is expressed in his description of The Magic Flute, in which he sees "destructive darkness dissolved in the sun of joyful humanism" (Shaffer 1984, 38):

"The Magic Flute" is a sacred pantomime with a special and ineffably wonderful sound, simultaneously earnest and infant-like, sweet and sublime and solemn as childhood: It is almost too good for human beings. (Shaffer 1984, 35)

Through this "worship" of Mozart, "Shaffer has found in Mozart's music an evocative aural symbol of divinity equivalent to the sun and horse images of the earlier plays" (Lounsberry, 21). Although the court society in Amadeus regards Mozart's operas as vulgar and showy, Shaffer sees and presents them as the composer's true masterpieces, which represent the voice of God. In order to communicate this to an audience without musical education, he uses Salieri as a translator of music. When Mozart's music is heard for the first time, Salieri immediately puts it into words:

[...] The beginning simple, almost comic -- just a pulse -- bassoons and basset horns -- like a rusty squeezebox ... Then suddenly -- high above it -- an oboe -- a single note -- hanging there unwavering -- till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight ...  (Screenplay, 20f.)

Salieri explains every important fragment of Mozart's music in a similarly expressive manner. He is talking to the hospital priest, but the priest with his average musical knowledge represents the audience. Through this device, even the most tone-deaf of viewers can understand the core of Mozart's genius and of Salieri's tragedy.

The music in Amadeus is not only prominent in amount, but also recorded with great attention to detail. The musical director is the renowned conductor Sir Neville Marriner. For Amadeus, he recorded Mozart's music in London with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. He had a great advantage in that the film was shot around the music, not vice versa, which is usually the case. Accordingly, the music becomes a perfect complement to the scenes shown on screen. Another element that contributes to the musical and visual quality of Amadeus is the staging of fragments of Mozart's operas and including them in the film. These sequences from The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Wedding of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute form "the wonderful icing on the cake" (Forman, quoted from Kakutani, 20).

Mozart's operas shown in Amadeus are not mere ornaments; rather, they are closely connected with the plot. They function as instruments of the Mozart-Salieri rivalry: Mozart uses them to assert his position as the best composer in the world, and Salieri to harm his rival and to turn his work against him. Moreover, elements and tunes from the operas have a symbolic function throughout the film. From the very beginning, the dramatic opening chords of Don Giovanni become associated with fear and despair. They are first heard in the opening sequence, when the screen is in distressing darkness and Salieri shouts Mozart's name begging his forgiveness. Later in the film, they accompany Leopold Mozart, his portrait, and the masked messenger.

An extraordinary feature of the music in Amadeus is that it illustrates what goes on in Mozart's head. He is depicted as the "magic flute" who takes dictation directly from God. He constantly hears music in his head, and all he has to do is to put it down on paper. This ability to create music so easily is used in a number of scenes. For example, shortly before the introduction of Lorl, Mozart is composing and we hear the music together with him. Suddenly Constanze comes in and she has to shout at Mozart to make herself heard over the sound of music playing in his head. The music stops abruptly. Then Lorl arrives and Constanze starts to quarrel with Leopold. Mozart does not participate in the argument; he returns to his work, and gradually the sound of music rises again, while the voices of Constanze and Leopold fade away, leaving them in a pantomime of a quarrel. In another scene, Mozart leaves the sleeping Constanze and his work on the Requiem and goes to a party at Schikaneder's cottage. He amuses the drunken company by playing and singing fragments from The Magic Flute, but he cannot drown out his feeling of guilt for having left his wife and his work to go out and carouse. Although he starts to sing louder and louder, the sombre choir of "Rex Tremendae" gradually overshadows the joyful Magic Flute overture. This use of music is another example of a cinematic technique through which complex ideas can be expressed entirely without words. Usually, the cinema employs image rather than sound to achieve this aim, and therefore the application of music in Amadeus makes it a unique cinematic feat.

Apart from the music playing in Mozart's head, both Salieri and Mozart are shown to possess the unusual talent of hearing complete music as soon as they see the score. Exaggerated as it may be, this feature allows for such unforgettable scenes as that of Salieri reading Mozart's manuscripts: while Salieri quickly turns over the pages, the audience hears "an amazing collage of great passages from MOZART's music" (Screenplay, 56). A similar scene takes place on the night of Mozart's death, as the dying composer dictates the unfinished Requiem to Salieri. Mozart's over-hurried dictation is practically incomprehensible to any one but Salieri, but as soon as a passage is written down, we can hear it in its final form, first the single voices and instruments, and then the whole ensemble. The individual parts of the Requiem are combined with the plot: Constanze's return journey at night is accompanied by the fierce "Confutatis", and the peaceful "Lacrimosa" resounds over Mozart's grave. Shaffer stresses the importance of music in this scene:

[…] we were able to construct a scene which is highly effective in cinematic terms, yet wholly concerned with the least visual of all possible subjects: music itself. I do not believe that a stage version of this scene would have been half as effective. (Shaffer 1993, 110)

Finally, one of the more remarkable sound elements in Amadeus is the famous "Mozart giggle", an unforgettable noise at once unnerving and disarming, which manifests the duality of the screen Mozart. As a last salutation, it echoes through Mozart's music during the final credits. Despite his hard life and early death, it is Mozart who has the last laugh as Amadeus comes to an end.

backContentsTitle pageupcontinue