‘Mozart and Salieri’ from Alexander Pushkin to Peter Shaffer

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

When Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature and still its greatest figure, mooted a tragedy called ‘Mozart and Salieri’ an article had recently appeared in the German music press. The rumour was that Antonio Salieri, a minor composer dead in 1825, had confessed to lethally poisoning Mozart out of envy for his genius. Envy so interested Pushkin he branded the word on an envelope containing a draft of the play. [1]  But it was also poison, the very idea of poison, and Salieri’s relationship with God, that gripped him at a deeper level.

He had withdrawn to his country estate of Mikhailovskoe, in Western Russia, in the autumn of 1826. His enormous creative power at the age of 27, as both poet and dramatist, was stifled in a province of a repressive Empire. Don Juan and Jesus, Paul I of Russia and Romulus and Remus were items on list of ten possible dramatizations ahead. But the times were not propitious. Mikhailovskoe, 120 km south of Pskov, was were he was obliged to retreat in the bitter times following the Uprising of  December 14, 1825. When Russia’s first revolution failed at the hands of loyal tsarist troops, five of its leaders, known to Pushkin, drawn from fellow aristocratic circles, were hanged and many others exiled. They had wanted, instead of the imperial ukaz, a constitution and rule of law.

A Romantic view of Pushkin inspired

A Romantic view of Pushkin inspired

Pushkin was deft at handling the authorities. He communicated directly with the tsar. He challenged the bureaucrats who tried to censor his work. But ultimately his soul was defeated. Sometimes lyric poetry can be the most political of all, as Adorno observed, precisely because it is entirely silent about politics.[2] We have in what Pushkin wrote about love astonishing evidence of his political desperation.

One celebrated lyric ‘Bound for the shores of your distant home you were leaving an alien land…’  took farewell of a woman, a foreigner, who left Russia, a woman whom he could never visit, and she didn’t love him anyway, and then she died abroad. That 1830 poem had its roots in another, written in 1826, and which in his diaries Pushkin expressly linked to his Decembrist grief. [3] Failed love for a foreigner, or, in an earlier version of the poem, simply the phenomenon of a Russian friend fleeing abroad, underscored the dispicable and forelorn state of Russia, something  ‘The Upas Tree’, a poem of 1828, (‘Anchar’ in Russian), took up directly. In those verses Pushkin even named the tsar, by his office, as the evil-doer who blighted his own land. That direct reference had to go, but the censor allowed ‘prince’ in its place.

In 1830, in the wake of his Decembrist unhappiness and his sense of Russia as a lone pestilential tree ‘no bird flies towards, no tiger goes near’, Pushkin then wrote ‘Mozart and Salieri’.

This very short play is the other great reference to poison in Pushkin’s oeuvre. It raises the question how a human being can want to foul life itself. Tsar Nicholas I, who followed the weakly liberal Alexander I, and began his reign by executing the Decembrists, seemed to Pushkin like the bringer of plague, and like the plague Salieri had wished on the life of Mozart. It takes meanness and mediocrity to want to stifle genius, and to suppress art. The suppression of his art was how Pushkin most acutely felt the poison of Imperial Russia.

Did he identify himself with Mozart? Surely he did. Critics have often observed of his love of high society that Mozart’s music could easily have bubbled its way through Eugene Onegin (1826), at least in the happier scenes of that unique verse novel. Pushkin borrowed from Da Ponte’s libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni when he took up the Don Juan theme. It was also in 1830 that he was writing ‘The Stone Guest’. But the other ‘Little Tragedy’ of that year  was ‘Mozart and Salieri’, or, one might say, ‘The Poisoning of Art’ – my subtitle, not Pushkin’s.

The deadness of tsarist Russia included the miserable, backward, artistically cramped state of Russian theatre, also oppressed by censorship. Perhaps that’s why those dramas Pushkin had in mind, from Don Juan to Jesus, remained unexpanded, or were not written at all. It was as if he could hardly bring himself to make the effort, despite the brilliance of his ideas.  ‘Mozart and Salieri’ was highly condensed. A mere two scenes over ten pages separated Salieri’s declaration of envy from Mozart’s despatch. Still the work was astonishingly rich in dramatic potential. [4]

There was no scene-setting and there were no subsidiary characters, just Salieri the also-ran composer, who hated Mozart because he was a genius. Did the British playwright Peter Shaffer ever refer to Pushkin’s work as the stimulus for his enormously successful play Amadeus, a century and a half later? If so I haven’t found the reference. But it’s a pity for audiences of  the 1979 play, revived at London’s National Theatre in autumn 2016, not to know of the Pushkin connection. For a comparison helps to tease out the meaning of the drama, its glory and its potential weaknesses. The problem, already in the Pushkin script, is that the story has two conflicts at its heart: one between Salieri and Mozart, and one between Salieri and God. Both need dramatic resolution.

Peter Shaffer (1926-2016)

Peter Shaffer (1926-2016)

Pushkin’s Salieri makes it clear from his opening lines that God has let him down. God has tricked him into leading a pious life. He asked God to make him an Artist in return for a lifetime of service, and God’s reward was to show him Mozart, who made him know he was mediocre. Mozart’s art was effortless and irreverent, forever out of reach, like that loved foreigner who ran from her would-be Russian lover. God threw the painful truth  in Salieri’s face. In response Salieri said he ‘envied’ Mozart. Indeed. He envied him as God’s prodigy. But otherwise he hated him, as the ultimate threat to his own existence. If Mozart exists, Salieri’s own life is impossible. (Readers of Dostoevsky will already catch an echo of ‘if no God exists everything is permitted’, the great theme of The Brothers Karamazov half a century later.)

One of the miracles of Pushkin is that he set down, in embryo, so much of the substance of nineteenth-century Russian literature to come, from those ball scenes in Eugene Onegin that look ahead to Tolstoy, to the metaphysical rebellion against God, which became, in Dostoevsky’s hands, a theme no other literature could equal. The critic Vissarion Belinsky, a little younger than Pushkin, first referred to it as ‘returning the ticket’ to God, and what Belinsky felt, and what Pushkin and Dostoevsky gave their characters to say, was that given the state of the world – and perhaps particularly the state of Russia — God could not be just. No, Salieri, God is not just. But how can you incarnate that injustice yourself, as a destroyer of Art?  In Pushkin’s play it is in fact Salieri who is the main character, getting his revenge on God by ‘blocking’ his chosen voice, Mozart’s beautiful music.

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)

Pushkin enjoyed many dramatic and lyrical influences, from Schiller to Byron and Coleridge. He was working on ‘a continuation of Goethe’s Faust’ even as he had ‘Mozart and Salieri’ on his desk.[5] There was an early poem of Goethe’s, ‘Prometheus’, which spat at the deity: Und dein nicht zu achten/ Wie ich! (‘And someone like me, who will not respect your kind’ is a pale English translation.)  And then there was Faust himself.

Perhaps that’s why Pushkin in ‘a moment of literary mystification’ labelled his play as ‘translated from the German…’ [6] Faust made a pact, not with God, but with Mephistopheles, to give him total knowledge. Goethe’s play too was about a gifted man, but also a study in unearthly presumption. Except that where Faust failed, and had to be pardoned, ultimately be God, Mozart, succeeded and needed no punishment. He was God’s emissary from the start. God accepts no bargains. He doesn’t care for any of us, as Salieri moans. But he makes his choices.

Shaffer’s 1979 play surely grew out of the Pushkin text. It too opens with Salieri’s rejection of this cruel God who sends Mozart to torment Salieri. It too ends with Salieri aiding and abetting Mozart’s destruction. Pushkin also makes use of Mozart’s uxoriousness, his joking, his love of food and drink, and his healthy indifference to his music being played crudely. In ‘Mozart and Salieri’ a blind fiddler is trying to earn himself a coin by playing voi qui sapete from Act III of the Marriage of Figaro. Mozart rewards him with a coin, but Salieri feels the music is being degraded. Pushkin’s aimiable, bubbling Mozart already suffers from insomnia and has a premonition of darkness to come. The man in black calls on him. Already unwell he fears being poisoned. The actual figments in the mind of Pushkin’s Mozart don’t carry over into Amadeus, but they’re interesting because they’re fears that come from within the making of art, as if that process might hold terrible surprises yet. Pushkin’s Mozart has heard a story that Beaumarchais, author of the play The Marriage of Figaro, killed a man. Also that that Michaelangelo poisoned someone. Pushkin’s Mozart switches between acknowledgement of the ways of the artist, and fear of being their victim. But then he rejects the suspicion, crying out to Salieri: surely villainy and genius don’t go together; by which time Salieri, having administered the poison, knows, about himself, that he is a villain.


There was no music scripted in Pushkin’s miniature drama apart from the blind fiddler’s rendering of voi qui sapete. By contrast the greater part of Shaffer’s play was a reminder to Salieri, and to us, the audience, of just how perfect Mozart’s music was. Inevitably the music threatened to eclipse the subtleties of the verbal drama; in the 2016 NT revival of Amadeus, directed by Michael Longhurst the musicians were even co-opted as actors.

In Pushkin Salieri’s rebellion against God was announced in a thundering opening monologue whose logic was then acted out in the will to poison Mozart. In Shaffer it had to embrace a much longer and more elaborate play. Shaffer’s successful move was to have old Salieri, dying from his first moment on stage, confess his guilt to a priest. The 2016 revival however cut the priest and had Salieri railing at the sky, placing an enormous burden on the actor, and on the willingness of the audience to believe in his spiritual agony. Shaffer’s chain of intimate scenes worked far better, not least because the mediocre priest was shocked, as we needed him to be, by Salieri’s Promethean rantings; but also rendered impotent by them.

The revival, a tribute to Shaffer, who died earlier in 2016, stressed Mozart’s financial poverty, in order to beef him up as a character; and it made a terrible mistake in not allowing the extraordinary intimacy between Mozart and Salieri to flourish, as Shaffer wrote it. As Mozart lay dying, his only friend appeared to be Salieri, who volunteered to write down the last bars of music still in Mozart’s head. Behind that manoeuvre lay the hope, which another Mozart contemporary, not Salieri, had entertained, to pass this music off as his own. Shaffer consummated his fictional Salieri’s evil by adding this final flourish to it.

Milos Forman’s 1984 film of Amadeus was made in collaboration with Shaffer and like Shaffer’s stage play of five years earlier it was staggeringly successful. It turned Pushkin’s condensed ‘Little Tragedy’ into a splendiferous costume drama. It rejoiced in Mozart’s delirious happiness in his own music. To film it in Prague, in the intact eighteenth-century streets and the Tyl Theatre, where the real Mozart had conducted, was deeply personal for Forman, a Czechoslovak exile.

Milos Forman (1932-      )

Milos Forman (1932- )

Shaffer, overcome with emotion when he first entered the Tyl Theatre, could hardly have been unhappy with Forman’s fidelity to his script.

Indeed only Mozart scholars were distressed at the combined impact of play and film. H. C.Robbins Landon wrote his engaging 1791: Mozart’s Last Year  2nd edition, (London, 1989) to point out that Wolfgang Amadeus was not a salacious buffoon, and that he died of a virus after years of poor health, not of poison administered by Salieri.

But Robbins Landon might have read Pushkin, and the Shaffer text, before he condemned them. He might have allowed himself to be persuaded that this was not, originally, a play about Mozart, but one involving him in another man’s quarrel with God; that Shaffer’s Salieri was actually accusing himself of having poisoned Mozart’s life, not his body. Meanwhile Shaffer and Forman won many many new admirers for Mozart’s music worldwide.41jt33rfkpl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

Sadly, in this story of ‘Mozart and Salieri’ the 2016 revival of Amadeus at London’s National Theatre muffled the true human and metaphysical drama, while pushing the music towards sensational. We don’t live in poisoned times, but we are not subtle.

[1] A.S. Pushkin, Poln’noe sobranie Sochinenii v desyati tomakh [PSS], (Leningrad, 1978), v.V, p.511.

[2] Quoted in David Weir,  Anarchy and Culture The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism, (Amhert, 1997), p.165.

[3] PSS, (Leningrad, 1978), v.II, p.384.

[4] Cf. Robert Reid,  Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri: Themes, Character, Sociology, (Leiden, 1995)

[5] PSS, V, p.511.

[6] PSS, V, p.511.

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