"I tell you before God and on my word as an honest man," said Franz Joseph Haydn to Leopold Mozart in 1785, "that your son is the greatest composer I have ever heard of." To millions of people living and dead, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote music more fluently and majestically than anyone else who ever walked the face of the earth. His untimely and mysterious death at the early age of 35 remains a rich and provocative source of speculation and drama.
Peter Shaffer's 1979 Tony Award-winning play Amadeus explores Mozart's eccentric and controversial life through the eyes of Antonio Salieri, a composer to the Austrian court who in his later years claimed to have poisoned the musical genius. In the dazzling screenplay, the playwright wrestles with the love/hate dimensions of the human thirst for the transcendent. Shaffer called the film a "fantasia based on fact."
Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a suicidal, decrepit, and bitter old man, tells an abbreviated story of his own life to a listening priest in an insane asylum. He recalls making a pact with God in which he promised to serve him if could become a famous composer. In time, Salieri, an Italian, is Emperor Joseph II's (Jeffrey Jones) court composer and the toast of Vienna.
After hearing about Mozart, the child prodigy who has performed for Europe's nobility and achieved amazing feats of improvisation, Saleri is astounded when he meets his rival in 1781. Mozart (Tom Hulce), the 26-year-old composer, is a foul-mouthed, conceited libertine. Yet, when the Italian hears his music, he realizes God has tricked him this unruly boor is an artist whose work stirs the soul. Salieri recognizes the yawning gap between his own mediocre talent and Mozart's God-given virtuosity. He vows to thwart the Creator by ridding the world of his messenger.
Amadeus (the name means "love of God") rebels against his domineering, puritanical father by leaving the service of his patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg. He marries Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge), an uneducated woman, and is commissioned to write an opera for Emperor Joseph II. Salieri begins a subtle campaign against Mozart and is abetted by the composer himself, who is seen by all as an interesting talent but an unstable character. Despite the rejection of his work by the court, Mozart continues to amaze his rival with an inexhaustible supply of flawless music.
Following the death of his father, Mozart is haunted by images of him one of which appears in his opera Don Giovanni. Salieri steps up his efforts to destroy the now poverty-stricken composer by placing a woman in his rival's household as a spy. Then, wearing a face covering to hide his identity and to simulate the masked figure in Don Giovanni, Salieri commissions Mozart to write a Requiem Mass. Having been deserted by his wife and child, the desperate musician also works on a parody of his own operas for a popular theatre troupe. Exhausted, ill, and depressed, Mozart reaches out to Salieri for help in transcribing the Requiem Mass just before he dies. The genius is buried in a pauper's grave with only a handful of people in attendance. Salieri lives on, at once triumphant and tormented by his deceased rival.
Amadeus was directed by Milos Forman with a theatrical flair that makes the most of Mozart's supernal music, arranged and conducted by Neville Marriner. The film was a multiple Academy Award winner in 1985, garnering Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Screenplay Adaptation (Peter Shaffer), and Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham).