Sooner or later, I must get around to Amadeus. It's one of those films of which, for me, it's insufficient to say that I admire it. In a sense it created me -- contaminated me with its conception of art and artists, excellence and mediocrity, influence and envy. Certain of its lines of dialogue, gestures, facial expressions, are never far from my thoughts. A day probably doesn't go by -- certainly not a week -- when some sliver of this film doesn't drift through my brain.
I was first introduced to the film on videotape, a couple of years after its theatrical release; my father, a classical music aficionado, bought the tape and eagerly pointed out to me his favorite scenes. Particularly moving to him -- and, later, to me -- were the sequences in which F. Murray Abraham's Salieri described some passage of Mozart's music in the wistful, wounded way of a man torn between admiration and resentment.
Though its depiction of Mozart as a vulgar man-child seemed revolutionary at the time -- I had, prior to this, imagined all great classical composers merely as soullessly noble marble busts -- there is something deeply conservative at the core of the film and the Peter Shaffer play that it's based on. Mozart's talent is seen as something ineffable, indescribable, as unattainable to mere mortals as knowledge of the divine. Paradoxically, this view might be considered demeaning to Mozart, as it undervalues the very human effort he must have put into his work. 'Like taking dictation from God' -- was it really as effortless as that?
It's proposed, in Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Outliers,' that the key to excellence is to spend 10,000 hours practicing a particular craft or task. Is the key to Mozart, then, merely that he got started on his 10,000 hours earlier than most, with a rigorous taskmaster of a father to keep him focused on his business, and so was able by late adolescence to move beyond the technical and to invest his work with the human emotion that makes it meaningful to others? Does such an explanation account for the difference between him and, say, Camille Saint-Saens, who had a similarly prodigious childhood yet whose ranking as a composer is somewhat lower? Of course, it's folly to view composers in a vacuum, as self-contained entities; every artist's life is contingent, a function not only of internal gifts and training, but of historical events, cultural currents, artistic rivals, financial circumstances, and so on.
But back to that ineffable 'talent.' To the religious-minded -- as Amadeus's Salieri clearly is -- it may be defined vaguely as a 'divine spark' -- some immaterial quality bestowed by God on a privileged mortal; or, perhaps, the musical ideas themselves are actually conceived by God and then simply passed down to the chosen vessel for transmission. God then becomes the true Great Composer, the Mozarts and Beethovens mere copyists. Again, a rather demeaning view. From a secular or materialist standpoint, 'talent' -- as distinct from background and training -- must be defined differently. It must boil down to some physical difference in the brain, which in turn has a genetic or developmental origin. Is there a gene for music? (As it happens, others have asked this question too.)
I've gotten off track a bit, and barely scratched the surface of Milos Forman's wonderful film, which I'll have to revisit again later. I will merely leave with a recommendation to see it if you haven't, and also to see it if you feel you don't "get" classical music. As a former girlfriend once said, if watching Amadeus doesn't make you start to like classical music, then probably nothing will.