Pushkin’s “Mozart & Salieri”

The Inspiration for Amadeus

Tom Hulce as Mozart (l) and F. Murray Abraham as Salieri (r), as depicted in the 1984 Miloš Forman film, Amadeus. (Fair use/CCL).

This play was written in c. 1832 by famed Russian playwright, Alexander Pushkin. It is (obviously) in the public domain. I am posting it here in case some other nerd might be interested in it. Curiously short, the play was yet the inspiration for the 1984 Miloš Forman film, Amadeus, albeit by a circuitous route.

The plot of Amadeus, as summarized in Wikipedia, is as follows:

Real drama here! The film is also very funny and quite good, as it won eight Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (two nominations), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, etc., etc.

And yet, you may wonder, where did this story come from? Well, from the following obscure Russian play, of course. But there was an intervening stop. Actually two. First, Pushkin’s Mozart & Salieri, below, served at the basis for the libretto for an 1897 opera of the same name by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It was that work, in turn, which served as the inspiration for a play by Peter Shaffer, entitled Amadeus, which premiered in London in 1979 and opened on Broadway in 1980. Shaffer then adapted his play for the screen, and it was that adaptation that became the screenplay for Forman’s Amadeus four years later.

How did Shaffer discover an 1897 Russian opera based on an 1832 Russian play? I will leave that research to others.

Without further ado, adieu.

(A room)

Salieri

Some people say: there is no right on earth.

Not in the heavens, neither! This to me

Appears as clear as any simple scale.

I came into this world in love with art.

Yet on a childhood day, when in the heights

Of our old church the lofty pipes resounded,

I listened, and was lost in listening — tears

Were pouring out, involuntary, sweet!

In early years I spurned all idle pastimes;

All sciences extraneous to music

Disgusted me; with obstinate disdain

I soon rejected them and gave myself

To music only. Hard the initial step,

And dull the initial path. I overcame

The first adversities. I put up craft

To constitute the pedestal of art.

I turned into a craftsman: to my fingers

I taught submissive, dry dexterity;

My ear, precision. Having stifled sounds,

I cut up music like a corpse. I measured

Harmony by arythmetics. Then only,

Well-versed in science, dared I give myself

To the sweet languor of creative fancy.

I started to compose, but still in silence,

Still secretly, not dreaming yet of glory.

Quite often, having sat in my mute cell

For two, three days — both sleep and food forgotten,

The thrill and tears of inspiration savored -

I burned my work, and frigidly observed

How my ideas, the sounds I had begotten,

Took flame and disappeared with the light smoke.

And what of that? When star-enchanted Gluck

Arose and opened up to us new secrets

(What candidly profound, what charming secrets!),

Did I not leave all I had known before,

And loved so much, and trusted with such fervor,

To follow him, submissively and gaily,

Like one who has gone errant yet encounters

A man to set him on a different course?

By arduous, ever-earnest constancy

At last in the infinity of art

I reached a high degree. Now glory smiled

Upon me finally; in people’s hearts

I found strings consonant to my creations.

I was content; at peace I took delight

In my own work, success and glory — also

In works and in successes of my friends,

My gentle comrades in the wondrous art.

No, never did I know the sting of envy!

O, never! — neither even when Piccini

Knew how to charm the savage ears of Paris,

Nor when I got to hear for the first time

The initial harmonies of “Iphigenia”…

Who’d say that proud Salieri would in life

Be a repellent envier, a serpent

Trampled by people,

Gnawing sand and dust in impotence?

No one! And now — I’ll say it —

I am an envier. I envy; sorely,

Profoundly now I envy. — Pray, o Heaven!

Where, where is rightness? when the sacred gift,

Immortal genius, comes not in reward

For fervent love, for total self-rejection,

For work and for exertion and for prayers,

But casts its light upon a madman’s head,

An idle loafer’s brow… O Mozart, Mozart!

(Enter Mozart.)

Mozart

Aha! You saw me! Damn — and I was hoping

To treat you with an unexpected joke.

Salieri

You here! — since long?

Mozart

Just now. I had

Something to show you; I was on my way,

But passing by an inn, all of a sudden

I heard a violin… My friend Salieri,

In your whole life you haven’t heard anything

So funny: this blind fiddler in the inn

Was playing the “voi che sapete”. Wondrous!

I couldn’t keep myself from bringing him

To treat you to his art.

Entrez, maestro!

(Enter a blind old man with a violin.)

Some Mozart, now!

(The old man plays an aria from Don Giovanni; Mozart

roars with laughter.)

Salieri

And you can laugh?

Mozart

Ah, come,

Salieri, aren’t you laughing?

Salieri

No, I’m not!

How can I laugh when some inferior dauber

Stains in my view the great Raphael’s Madonna;

How can I laugh when some repellent mummer

With tasteless parodies dishonors Dante.

Begone, old man!

Mozart

Hold on a moment: here,

Take this to drink my health.

(The old man leaves.)

You, my Salieri,

Seem squarely out of sorts. Well, I’ll come back

Some other time.

Salieri

What did you bring me?

Mozart

This?

No, just a trifle. Late the other night,

As my insomnia was full upon me,

Brought some two, three ideas into my head;

Today I jot them down… O well, I hoped

To hear what you may think of this, but now

You’re in no mood for me.

Salieri

Ah, Mozart, Mozart!

When am I ever in no mood for you?

Sit down; I’m listening.

Mozart

(at the piano)

Picture… well, whom should you?..

Say, even me — a little younger, though;

In love — not much, just lightly — having fun

With a good-looking girl, or friend — say, you;

I’m merry… All at once — a deathly vision,

A sudden gloom, or something of that sort…

Well, listen.

(He plays.)

Salieri

You were bringing this to me

And could just stop and listen at some inn

To a blind fiddler scraping! — Oh, my goodness!

You, Mozart, are unworthy of yourself.

Mozart

So, it is good then?

Salieri

What profundity!

What symmetry and what audacity!

You, Mozart, are a god — and you don’t know it.

But I, I know.

Mozart

Well! rightly? well, perhaps…

But My Divinity has gotten hungry.

Salieri

Then listen: how about we dine together,

Say, at the Golden Lion’s Inn?

Mozart

So be it;

I’m glad. But let me first drop in at home

And tell my wife not to expect me later

For dinner.

(He leaves.)

Salieri

I am waiting; don’t you fail me!

No, I cannot withstand it any longer,

Resist my destiny: I have been chosen

To stop him — otherwise, all of us die!

All of us priests and votaries of music,

Not I alone with my faint-sounding glory…

What use is there in Mozart living on

And reaching yet to new and greater heights?

Will he thus lift up art? Not really: art

Will fall again as soon as he will vanish.

He will bequeath us no inheritor.

What use is he? Like some celestial cherub,

He came to bring us several tunes from heaven,

To rouse within us, creatures of the dust,

Wingless desire and fly away thereafter.

So fly away! the sooner now, the better.

Here’s poison — late Isora’s final gift.

For eighteen years I’ve carried it with me,

And life since then has seemed to me quite often

A wound unbearable; and oft I sat

At the same table with a carefree foe,

And never to the whisper of temptation

Have I inclined — although I’m not a coward,

Though I can feel profoundly the offense,

Though small my love for life. I kept delaying,

As thirst of death excruciated me.

Why die? I mused: perhaps yet life will bring

Some sudden gifts before me from her treasures;

Perhaps, I will be visited by raptures

And a creative night and inspiration;

Perhaps, another Haydn will create

New greatnesses — wherein I will delight…

As I was feasting with a hateful guest —

Perhaps, I mused, I’m yet to find a worse,

More vicious foe; perhaps, a worse offense

Will crash upon me from disdainful heights —

Then you shall not be lost, Isora’s gift.

And I was right! and I have found at last

My greatest foe, and now the other Haydn

Has filled me wonderfully with my rapture!

The time has come! Prophetic gift of love,

Transfer today into the cup of friendship.

(A special room at an inn; a piano.

Mozart and Salieri at a table.)

Salieri

You seem a little down today?

Mozart

Me? No!

Salieri

You surely are upset with something, Mozart?

Good dinner, glorious wine, but you keep quiet

And sit there looking gloomy.

Mozart

I should own,

My Requiem’s unsettling me.

Salieri

Your Requiem! —

You’ve been composing one? Since long ago?

Mozart

Long: some three weeks. A curious incident…

I haven’t told you, have I?

Salieri

No.

Mozart

Then listen:

About three week ago, I came back home

Quite late at night. They told me that some person

Had called on me. And then, I don’t know why,

The whole night through I thought: who could it be?

What does he need of me? Tomorrow also

The same man came and didn’t find me in.

The third day, I was playing with my boy

Upon the floor. They hailed me; I came out

Into the hall. A man, all clad in black,

Bowed courteously in front of me, commissioned

A Requiem and vanished. I at once

Sat down and started writing it — and since,

My man in black has not come by again.

Which makes me glad, because I would be sorry

To part with my endeavor, though the Requiem

Is nearly done. But meanwhile I am…

Salieri

What?

Mozart

I’m quite ashamed to own to this…

Salieri

What is it?

Mozart

By day and night my man in black would not

Leave me in peace. Wherever I might go,

He tails me like a shadow. Even now

It seems to me he’s sitting here with us,

A third…

Salieri

Enough! what is this childish terror?

Dispel the empty fancies. Beaumarchais

Used to instruct me: “Listen, old Salieri,

Whenever black thoughts come into your head,

Uncork yourself another Champagne bottle

Or reread ‘Le mariage de Figaro.’”

Mozart

Yes! I remember, you were boon companions

With Beaumarchais; you wrote “Tarare” for him —

A glorious thing. It has one melody…

I keep on singing it when I feel happy…

La la la la… Ah, is it right, Salieri,

That Beaumarchais could really poison someone?

Salieri

I doubt he did: too laughable a fellow

For such a serious craft.

Mozart

He was a genius,

Like you and me. While genius and evildoing

Are incompatibles. Is that not right?

Salieri

You think so?

(Throws the poison into Mozart’s glass.)

Well, now drink.

Mozart

Here is a health

To you, my friend, and to the candid union

That ties together Mozart and Salieri,

Two sons of harmony.

(Drinks.)

Salieri

But wait, hold on,

Hold on, hold on!.. You drank it!.. Without me?

Mozart

(throws his napkin on the table)

That’s it, I’m full.

(He goes to the piano.)

And now, Salieri, listen:

My Requiem.

(He plays.)

You weep?

Salieri

Such tears as these

I shed for the first time. It hurts, yet soothes,

As if I had fulfilled a heavy duty,

As if at last the healing knife had chopped

A suffering member off. These tears, o Mozart!..

Pay no respect to them; continue, hurry

To fill my soul with those celestial sounds…

Mozart

If only all so quickly felt the power

Of harmony! But no, in that event

The world could not exist; all would abandon

The basic needs of ordinary life

And give themselves to unencumbered art.

We’re few, the fortune’s chosen, happy idlers,

Despising the repellent cares of use,

True votaries of one and only beauty.

Is that not right? But now I’m feeling sick

And kind of heavy. I should go and sleep.

Farewell then!

Salieri

See you later.

(Alone.)

You will sleep

For long, Mozart! But what if he is right?

I am no genius? “Genius and evildoing

Are incompatibles.” That is not true:

And Buonarotti?.. Or is it a legend

Of the dull-witted, senseless crowd — while really

The Vatican’s creator was no murderer?

THE END

It's been a real leisure. [That picture is not me.--ed.]