I am the patron saint of mediocrity: Amadeus and Art

Thanks to the wonderful podcast Filmspotting I recently revisited the 1984 Oscar winner, Amadeus. I was inspired by their list of Top 5 movies about Art, referencing films not just about artists, but the process of creating art.

Having not seen Amadeus since high school, it struck me how deeply the film discusses the painful process of creating art. The film explores the complex rivalry between two composers of the 1700s, Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri, having given his life to music, languishes as he watches a young, talented Mozart attain compositions he is simply not capable of producing.

Salieri: All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing… and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?

Salieri experiences the jealous anger all artists experience when someone younger and more brilliant appears like a glorious angel. While the film does take many liberties with history (my husband assures me that Salieri was highly regarded in his time and that Mozart had an incredibly hard work ethic), it is a beautiful character portrait which draws out every emotion from the performances, from jealousy to ecstatic rapture.

While the film is about music, it is also about art with themes reaching to literature, painting and drama. Mozart finds it convincingly easy to write, creating variations upon variations of Salieri’s simplistic melodies.

Salieri: [Mozart’s sheet music] showed no corrections of any kind. Not one. He had simply written down music already finished in his head. Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation. And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.

It reminded me something that I once read, that there are good writers and then there are great writers. Becoming a good writer is a learned ability, nuts and bolts writing, clean and clear. Great writers have a voice that is instantly recognisable; words come out of their pores in their sleep.

This kind of art is the art that fills us with longing, a desire to do better than we can, and a jealousy for the creator, that we could not be so gifted as to be able to produce such art. Describing the first time he discovers Mozart’s music, Salieri decries:

Salieri: On the page it looked nothing. 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! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God.

In spite of their differences, Salieri’s jealousy and Mozart’s ardent desire to please, the two characters come together in a climax that is entirely intimate. For that one moment of understanding Salieri participates in the composition of a masterpiece, Mozart’s Requiem, a piece that was never finished. He touches for a moment the brightness of Mozart and understands he can never reach that light, never give his life to the work in the same way the young ingénue did.

Amadeus truly captures what it is to languish in obscurity while the precocious artists around us shine for some brief moment. Salieri ends the film proclaiming “I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint”. Is it better to languish in mediocrity than shine for one brief moment? Or to live fast and die young?

Like Van Gogh, Mozart died a poor man in a pauper’s grave. Yet his music is more remembered, more played than Salieri. It is the unfortunate curse of great artists that they may not be recognised in a lifetime, because their music, their words and art are for the future. Amadeus is a masterpiece about this nature of art; a film that makes me want to shine brighter, burn harder and hate upon all the great artists of the world.