Pushkin’s “Mozart & Salieri”
The Inspiration for Amadeus
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:
In the winter of 1823, Antonio Salieri is committed to a psychiatric hospital after surviving a suicide attempt, during which his servants overhear him confess to murdering Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The young priest Father Vogler approaches Salieri for elaboration on Salieri’s confession. Salieri recounts how, even in his youth in the 1760s, he desired to be a composer, much to his father’s chagrin. He prays to God that if He makes Salieri a famous composer, he will, in return, promise his faithfulness. Soon after, his father dies, which Salieri takes as a sign that God has accepted his vow. By 1774, Salieri has become court composer to Emperor Joseph II in Vienna. Seven years later, at a reception in honor of Mozart’s patron, the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Salieri is shocked to discover that the transcendentally talented Mozart is obscene and immature. Salieri, a devout Catholic, cannot fathom why God would endow such a great gift to Mozart instead of him and concludes that God is using Mozart’s talent to mock Salieri’s mediocrity. Salieri renounces God and vows to take revenge on Him by destroying Mozart.
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.
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!
Aha! You saw me! Damn — and I was hoping
To treat you with an unexpected joke.
You here! — since long?
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.
(Enter a blind old man with a violin.)
Some Mozart, now!
(The old man plays an aria from Don Giovanni; Mozart
roars with laughter.)
And you can laugh?
Salieri, aren’t you laughing?
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!
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.
What did you bring me?
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.
Ah, Mozart, Mozart!
When am I ever in no mood for you?
Sit down; I’m listening.
(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…
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.
So, it is good then?
What symmetry and what audacity!
You, Mozart, are a god — and you don’t know it.
But I, I know.
Well! rightly? well, perhaps…
But My Divinity has gotten hungry.
Then listen: how about we dine together,
Say, at the Golden Lion’s Inn?
So be it;
I’m glad. But let me first drop in at home
And tell my wife not to expect me later
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.)
You seem a little down today?
You surely are upset with something, Mozart?
Good dinner, glorious wine, but you keep quiet
And sit there looking gloomy.
I should own,
My Requiem’s unsettling me.
Your Requiem! —
You’ve been composing one? Since long ago?
Long: some three weeks. A curious incident…
I haven’t told you, have I?
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…
I’m quite ashamed to own to this…
What is it?
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,
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.’”
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?
I doubt he did: too laughable a fellow
For such a serious craft.
He was a genius,
Like you and me. While genius and evildoing
Are incompatibles. Is that not right?
You think so?
(Throws the poison into Mozart’s glass.)
Well, now drink.
Here is a health
To you, my friend, and to the candid union
That ties together Mozart and Salieri,
Two sons of harmony.
But wait, hold on,
Hold on, hold on!.. You drank it!.. Without me?
(throws his napkin on the table)
That’s it, I’m full.
(He goes to the piano.)
And now, Salieri, listen:
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…
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.
See you later.
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?