The eighties in many ways was a lost decade for me. It was then I began raising a family and building my career. I was too busy to notice much of the cultural developments going on around me in those days, particularly in the pop music scene. I did watch Fame and the Cosby Show religiously every week; so I hadn’t completely isolated myself. I also went to movies on occasion. Probably my favorite film from that decade, and one that has made my personal best list is Amadeus.
They would have had to have really messed Amadeus up, bringing it to the screen, for it not to make my list. Amadeus encompasses much of what I have liked for about as long as I can remember. Mozart has been my favorite composer ever since reading a biography of him called, The Wonder Boy, when I was in the third grade. And as you might predict, I adore classical music. And of course, I am a student of history. Amadeus couldn’t miss, and Forman’s picture didn’t disappoint us. Indeed, Amadeus took eight academy awards in 1985, including best picture, best director (Forman), and best actor (Abraham).
As with all great works of art, Amadeus teaches us something about the human condition. What it has taught me is what I have affectionately dubbed, The Salieri Syndrome.
Antonio Salieri was a real composer who lived contemporaneously with Mozart. A legend arose after Mozart’s death claiming Salieri had poisoned Mozart out of jealousy. The story gained legs because of the mysterious circumstances that had surrounded the commissioning of Mozart’s Requiem Mass, which would be his last and also unfinished work. Salieri was purported to have been the anonymous patron in question, and allegedly his intent was to claim the piece as his own after eliminating Mozart. The legend has been kept alive by the playwright, Pushkin, and more recently, Peter Shaffer, whose play Forman adapted to the screen. The legend makes for great drama, but is almost certainly a myth.
However, The Salieri Syndrome (hereafter called The Syndrome) is all too true. At its heart, The Syndrome is what I describe as coveting your neighbor’s purpose.
As the story has been told, Salieri aspired to become a famous composer, and did, indeed, attain to a high degree of fame as court composer in late 18th century Vienna. Being a religious man, Salieri likely attributed much of his success to God’s favor. So far, so good. But the appearance of Mozart would soon cast a shadow of doubt over Salieri’s healthy perspective. Salieri had enough giftedness to recognize Mozart’s greater gift. This point was driven home in the film when Salieri told a Priest, who was hearing the story, something to the effect of, “I looked through the bars of the music and beheld an absolute beauty.”
Unfortunately for Salieri, instead of thanking God for having given Mozart such an awesome gift, Salieri began to resent the fact God had not so gifted him; Salieri started to covet Mozart’s purpose.
And see what happened as this covetousness took hold within Salieri’s heart. First, Salieri could no longer enjoy the fruit of God’s gift to him. Many people were blessed by Salieri’s compositions; his works were celebrated by the public and awarded by the Emperor. But perhaps more importantly, Salieri became a highly regarded and sought after teacher. God had given Antonio a position and a platform in that society. Salieri had the attention of a great many people. He was in the enviable vantage point to shine the light of God’s love and grace across a vast expanse of needy people. Instead, because he allowed The Syndrome to infect his heart, Mozart’s purpose quickly blinded Antonio to his own accomplishments and his own purpose. Salieri would end up squandering his God-given opportunities by exploiting them in an attempt to bring ruin upon Mozart. As I said, the tale is fiction, but The Syndrome it portrays is a tragic reality of human nature.
The second ramification of The Syndrome for poor Salieri was it stunted his growth. Salieri’s relationship with Mozart afforded Salieri a tremendous opportunity to learn from one of the great musical geniuses. True, Mozart was no great teacher; yet Salieri had enough innate talent to hone his own compositional skills through his close association with Mozart, just by soaking in Mozart’s many instructions, comments, and ideas. Sadly, consumed by The Syndrome, Salieri cheated himself of a rare chance by attempting to steal Mozart’s purpose for himself. What a colossal and horrible lie it is to take what belongs to someone else and actually believe it has become one’s own.