Ok ok ok. So Miloš Forman’s Amadeus comes out in 1984, and I’m only six years old at that point, so I definitely didn’t see it on the big screen. Somewhere in the mid-90s, my bythen-classical-music-enthused parents let me watch one of the only cool classical-music-related films ever made…and sweet jumping Jehosaphat…within three minutes of the opening credits I encounter one of — to this day, for me at least — the most disturbing moments in movie history: the attempted suicide of Antonio Salieri. Two valets (including actor Vincent Schiavelli…and who doesn’t adore Vincent Schiavelli?) of this second-rate composer pound down his door only to discover their charge bleeding from the neck with a self-inflicted knife wound.
Quick aside here: my wife and I are horror movie über-fans (faves include The Citadel, Lake Mungo, and Wake Wood…you’re welcome), but nothing has ever quite surpassed the adrenaline rush and eventual, ongoing dread I experienced from Forman’s grisly opening scene.
This bit of writing that you’re reading is not about traumatic childhood film experiences, though. I simply mention it to assure you that Amadeus looms large in my personal filmic biography. What is actually far more intriguing is the portrayal of the titular composer: a genius who closely resembles that friend from college who mysteriously misplaces his wallet every time you eat out, and nests on your couch a week or five past his self-imposed departure deadline.
This is why I love Amadeus. Just about everyone in western society — even those who will never meaningfully engage with classical music — has been indoctrinated from an early age to believe that old “Wolfie” is an unassailable genius and that to disregard his music is tantamount to leaving one’s hat aloft on one’s head during the national anthem at a monster truck rally. It’s unthinkable. But it plays into a pervasive, societal fascination that we have with so-called “Wunderkind.” A fascination — one I would argue is unhealthy and more than a little disturbing — with a perverse form of middle-aged wish-fulfillment.
Though he was by no means the first — and almost certainly not the most extreme — example, Mozart’s childhood performative and compositional success is to blame, to some significant extent, for our culture’s preoccupation with children as miniature dancing show ponies. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a majority of you reading this have rolled your eyes at Dance Moms, or at least harrumphed the idea of a parent parading around their five-year-old in some hyper-sexed costume at a beauty pageant. But the truth is, classical music is just as perverse.
Look at any stringed instrument soloist’s bio. Inevitably you will be confronted with some mention of their debut concerto appearance at an improbable age. Why should we care? Do we really think that, at age seven, they unlocked some profound philosophic truth with their performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto? Emphatically: no. We are just dumbstruck that a kid whose high-water-mark at this age should be not peeing the bed at a sleepover is playing passable octaves and whipping out thorny, 16th-note passages like a next-gen Silicon Valley robot.
Another quick aside here to say that, in my humble opinion, Malcolm Gladwell writes compelling books, but his 10,000 hours theory is — not to put too fine a point on it — bullhonkey. Ask any performer on the UMS roster this season how many hours a day they practiced — and from what age — and with what sacrifices to what were supposed to be their carefree childhood years… and the math gets a bit grander than what Gladwell suggests. Also, none of them will likely claim to be our era’s “Mozart,” so then you need to add in whatever godforsaken whip-cracking Papa Leopold brought to young Wolfgang’s training. Let’s just agree that this phase of life probably didn’t include any skateboard injuries or sleep-away theater camps.
One of my favorite classical-music-related reads of the last decade is Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated. At the risk of oversimplifying, which I will inevitably do here, Colvin asserts that talent and ability are not lightning strikes from Mount Olympus, but simply a matter of hours spent practicing. Important to note here, those hours spent are generally achieved by those who exhibit an obsessive interest in their field. Because practicing sucks… and anyone that tells you otherwise is a liar. Please don’t take my word for it — go and read this gripping and data-substantiated book — and then consider why so many classical musicians consider themselves “average” if they didn’t kick it on stage with the Chicago Symphony before they could buy cigarettes, or Juul pods, or whatever.
None of this is meant to take anything away from Mozart. I, like the overwhelming majority of classical music fans, am incapable of anything short of bliss when listening to his music. As a violist, I am more often than not relegated to supporting roles in his music…and I am never happier than when I am playing it. It’s funny, it’s tricky, it’s transparent, it’s nimble, and it’s euphoric (even when it’s sad). This was a special person, on par with a Toni Morrison, or a Diego Rivera, or a Pina Bausch. But, as Amadeus so cleverly divulges — and many artists’ biographies eventually reveal — he was a manic provocateur incapable of managing day-to-day minutiae, with a boatload of pain in tow thanks to his unusual upbringing.
This is why I love Forman’s Mozart so much: the preposterous laugh, the idiotic pink wig, and the fart jokes. He was just a flesh-and-blood human and no supernatural force ever tapped a magic sword on each of his shoulders and instructed him to go and change the future of western art music. He couldn’t help but be the over-stimulated, deeply flawed man that he was. To me, this doesn’t detract from Mozart’s mystique at all. It just brings him more into focus because he isn’t so different from you and me. He simply lived with the blessing/curse of being obsessed with harmony and melody and drama, and the compulsive need to translate it into music…and pay the bills occasionally.
One of my favorite moments in the film arrives right at the conclusion, when a (self-)defeated Salieri is wheeled out into the common room of his mental health facility, following the interview with a priest that provides the frame for the entire script. After telling his confessor that he is the patron saint of the mediocre, he passes his fellow patients in the hallway, exclaiming, “Mediocrity is everywhere…I absolve you… I absolve you.”
If mediocrity means bypassing burial in a mass grave, pennilessness, and a lifetime of neuroses and selfdoubt, well, then I say, “Long live mediocrity!” You, my friend, are not a failure. You are one of the lucky ones.
– Doyle Armbrust