MSO: Amadeus

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Published: 25th July, 2017

Milos Forman’s sumptuous biopic was penned by Peter Shaffer, based on Shaffer’s eponymous stage play. The approach to telling the story of prodigious composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life was thoroughly inventive and worthy of recounting here.

Mozart died at the tender age of 35, but much mystery has surrounded the actual cause of death. As nature abhors a vacuum, conspiracy theories emerged.

Some years ago, scientists generally agreed that it was likely that he succumbed to some sort of strep infection leading to kidney failure, as his symptoms accorded with the presentation of the disease.

However, according to a biography written by Franz Niemetschek, Mozart’s wife, Constanze, claimed that Mozart alluded to feeling as if he had been poisoned. Presumably, he was referring to the pervasiveness and severity of his symptoms as well as his inability to account for them, not to any conspiracy whose theories ensued.

Shaffer’s play doesn’t involve Salieri literally poisoning Mozart. Rather, he poisons his psyche, by manipulating his colleague’s pre-existing frailties and precarious current circumstances.

We view Mozart’s transcendence and subsequent decline through the eyes of composer Antonio Salieri, who has been institutionalised following a suicide attempt. The suicide attempt is based on factual events, though the motivation is attributed to Salieri’s guilt for having “killed” Mozart.

In reality, Salieri had been deteriorating due to dementia, and contrary to rumours that he confessed on his deathbed to killing Mozart, those who attended to him while he was hospitalised insisted that no such confession ever occurred.

At any rate, the film opens with Salieri’s attempted suicide, and subsequent committal; the bulk of the film consisting of Salieri’s reminisces, told to a priest who visits him at the asylum.

Much like Mozart’s life, the film turns from bright wit, to increasing foreboding and drama. The film portrays Mozart as Salieri’s arch-nemesis. While it’s true that Mozart complained in his letters, about the frustration of his ambitions resulting from the influences of Italian Court musicians.

That being the basis of the story, we witness a bitter Salieri recount the rise and fall (at his hand) of the prodigious Mozart. Salieri is portrayed as a sublimated servant to music, who is tormented by his dichotomous regard for Mozart. On the one hand, he is bewildered, by Mozart’s vulgarity, while on the other hand, he is in utter awe of Mozart’s musical talent.

Just prior to Mozart’s passing, we see Salieri at the foot of Mozart’s bed, furiously penning the completion of the famous Requiem Mass, as instructed by the dying composer.

It’s a fanciful story, but a creative one, and an effective vehicle for examining creativity, rivalry, and jealousy, with a dash of residual issues from childhood, in a setting awash with dazzling beauty and exquisite music. And it is the music that made watching this film again after so many years, so thoroughly enthralling.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has presented live performances alongside a number of screenings at Hamer Hall. Not one has been disappointing. But this particular concert was exceptional.

Most of the films we have been privileged to enjoy at Hamer Hall, feature music written specifically for the film. In the case of Amadeus, the soundtrack is comprised almost entirely of music composed by Mozart (with a brief excerpt or two by Salieri). Having seen a number of films accompanied by the MSO, the high standard of the orchestra was no surprise. What completely floored me on this occasion, however, was the finely nuanced dynamic range.

Imagine a scene in which a familiar Mozart tune is playing in the background. Then imagine a character walking into a room in which the music is being performed live. The door opens, and we hear a subtle, finely executed crescendo.

Or consider a scene in which a dramatic excerpt from Mozart’s Requiem is playing in the background. The intensity of the music needs to be conveyed, while the volume is diminished in keeping with its requirements as part of the soundtrack. Quite extraordinary.

These dynamics were so seamless that it wasn’t until I reflected upon them during the Interval, that I realised how incredible they were. From then on, each recurrence created goose bumps too abundant in number that I feared I’d start to shiver!

Bearing in mind that the tunes – and their dynamics – are so familiar, such a feat would require meticulous direction from MSO Conductor Benjamin Northey, and MSO Chorus Conductor Warren Trevelyan-Jones, as well as finely-honed skills of the instrumentalists and vocalists.

There were so many instances in the film in which similar scenarios occurred: where the familiar dynamics of Mozart’s music required subtle manipulation to be integrated into the score: to become the “soundtrack”.

An appreciative audience tried to remain silent as the last of the credits rolled, but it was clear that they were keen to applaud the skill of the musicians. As they did so, the musicians beamed back at the audience. My applause instinctively intensified at the sign of excellent musicians clearly demonstrating their pleasure in performing the music.

At their helm was Conductor Benjamin Northey, graciously acknowledging the applause, and gently touching his heart in a sincere gesture whose humility was all the more poignant to those of us aware of the exceptional feat he and his musicians had accomplished.

The Score of Amadeus was performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, at Hamer Hall, on Sunday July 23, 2017.

Conducted by Benjamin Northey, with the Melbourne Symphony Chorus conducted by Warren Trevelyan-Jones. ________________________________________________



It is worth noting that the MSO, in conjunction with the Melbourne International Film Festival, will be presenting a live performance of Johnnie Greenwood’s score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, to be conducted by Hugh Brunt, who conducted the recording of Johnny Greenwood’s score to another of P. T. Anderson’s films, The Master.

You can find more details about this special event at