Sound & Vision: AMADEUS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Sound & Vision: AMADEUS

Chris 'oh, oh, oh' Morley revisits Amadeus...


Time now to go for something a little more genteel by turning the dial towards classical music, and how better to do so than tuning in to Sir Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, the 1984 cinematic adaptation of his own 1979 stage play, which was directed by MiloŇ° Forman and became the darling of the following year's awards season, with Amadeus receiving no less than 10 Academy Award nominations and going on to win eight of them in March 1985, gongs for Forman and Schaffer included.

At the film's heart was a controversial theory later disproved, but you may not think of Classic FM the same way again should you choose to dip into the best works of the rock of its day. Shaffer was working on a premise that Antonio Salieri, an Italian composer jealous of the success of his Austrian rival in matters musical, wanted a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart dead. Not true, as it's emerged they were actually friends & contemporaries, and Salieri was distraught at the death of one of the giants of their shared genre in 1791 at the age of just 35.



The Vienna of the eighteenth century serves as the backdrop to all this, with Mozart's music heard throughout. In a sense things work backwards as we hear Salieri begging mercy for having killed off the man we now know was his friend. Sent to an asylum having been judged insane, he confesses all to a priest, allowing us to hear the full tale of the fictionalised rivalry.

Something of a child prodigy, young Wolfie was composing from the age of just five and would have a post as a musician at the Austrian imperial court by seventeen. He was dismissed following a visit to Vienna in 1781, and started to look for something a little better paid. 150 florins clearly not enough to keep him! Mozart also had not had much chance to experiment with opera despite a longing to do so, this being a contributing factor in the decision to quit.

Visiting Munich in the mid-seventeenth century would at least bring a première for one of his early operas, La Finta Giardiniera or The Pretend Garden Girl. Paris was next on the list of stopovers, though Amadeus was to turn down a position as an organist at Versailles after arriving in mid-March 1778 and staying with the secretary to the Duke of Orleans. After a disagreement Mozart returned to Salzburg via Strasbourg and set his sights on pleasing the ears of Joseph II, the recently crowned Habsburg emperor of Austria & brother to Marie Antoinette. "Charming lady, lost her head, poor thing", as the Fourth Doctor once said!
''My main goal right now is to meet the emperor in some agreeable fashion, I am absolutely determined he should get to know me. -- I would be so happy if I could whip through my opera for him and then play a fugue or two, for that's what he likes ''
Luckily Joseph proved receptive to what he heard and offered patronage.

When it came to realising Mozart's work for the film of Amadeus, the late Sir Neville Marriner was the conductor appointed to recreate the sound of the period.



Marriner had began his career as a violinist, playing first in a string quartet and trio, then in the London Symphony Orchestra. It was during this period that he founded the Academy of St. Martin in the Field, with the aim of forming a top-class chamber ensemble from London’s finest players. Beginning as a group of friends who gathered to rehearse in Sir Neville’s front room, the Academy gave its first performance in its namesake church in 1959.

The Academy now enjoys one of the largest discographies of any chamber orchestra worldwide, and its partnership with Sir Neville Marriner proved to deliver the most recorded of any orchestra and conductor.

When it came to his work on Amadeus, the publicity blurb for the film said:
“Only two people were qualified to conduct the score .”
Below those words were two pictures: one of Mozart in powdered wig, the other of Marriner in white dickie bow. Below them read,
“One was unavailable.”
Marriner's soundtrack went on to become one of the most popular classical music recordings of all time, topping the US classical album chart and selling over 6.5m copies! Way more than 150 florins banked there, I'd hazard to guess.

The original stage play was revived in tribute to its writer Peter Shafferafter his own sad passing in 2016, the production winning rave reviews. And, with another Doctor Who connection, there was a Master among its cast. The Guardian's theatre critic would write,
"...the supporting roles are given unusual weight by Geoffrey Beevers as a Mozart-patronising baron.

...In the end, the production works superbly because it places the human drama in the seething context of a music-dominated society; and there is more than a hint of Cecil B. DeMille in the staging, than there is in Shaffer’s theatrical spectacle.''
A spectacle that almost had a quite spectacular cast too, not that the final line-up of actors was anything but mind. Still, Mark Hamill, who had already replaced Tim Curry as Mozart towards the end of the run of the stage play on Broadway, recalled in an interview that he believed to have won the lead role and read with many actresses auditioning for Mozart's wife Constanze, but after the reads Forman decided to not cast him because of his association with the character of Luke Skywalker, believing that the audience would not believe him as the composer.

In his autobiography Beginning, Kenneth Branagh says that he was one of the finalists for Mozart too, but was dropped from consideration when Forman decided to make the film with an American cast.


That American cast was led by Tom Hulce, most famously known prior to Amadeus as Larry "Pinto" Kroger in 1978's Animal House. The portrayal of Wolfgan won him an Academy Award nomination but he lost out to co-star F. Murray Abraham who portrayed Salieri. So if that controversial theory had been true and Salieri had been jealous of his young contemporary's success then he'd finally got his revenge, in a roundabout fictionalised dramatic way that is.

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