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Let's Hear It for Salieri

Regardless of your reaction to Peter Shaffer's Amadeus in either the original stage or the quite different, Academy Award-winning film version-some seem to have loathed, most apparently loved it-consider what it has done to heighten Mozart in the public consciousness. The reason for the outpouring of commentary, ranging from parlor patter to essays and appraisals in the media and the most learned journals, has not, after all, been the productions, superb as they may have been; nor the music itself, hardly noticeable in the theatrical form and but a fragmented collage on the film's soundtrack. Any live performance or recording played on a reasonably tolerable sound system would give the listener a more faithful notion of the music. The cause of all the speculation has been the central question asked so artfully by the author: how can genius exist in a mediocre world?

Before going too far afield, it might pay to pause a moment over these deceptively simple words. What, after all, is genius? Webster tells us that genius implies superior gifts of nature impelling the mind to exceptional creative or inventive effort in the arts or sciences (as distinguished from talent, merely a "special aptitude for being molded"). Mediocre, on the other hand, which so many of us think of as an abysmal pejorative, does not mean bad at all, but, again according to Webster, "moderate, ordinary, of a middle quality."

In our time, the use of superlatives has become so promiscuous that the cautious person is tempted, on hearing such epithets as "genius," "great," "masterpiece," etc., to inquire: Who said so? The late Deryck Cooke, no slouch of a musicologist and music critic, once wrote an essay on "The Futility of Music Criticism" in which he effectively demonstrated that there is no test of literary merit except survival. Invoking "informed majority opinion," he drew the conclusion that "if enough intelligent and sensitive artists want to perform a composer's music and go on performing it, and if enough intelligent and sensitive listeners want to hear it and go on hearing it-then that music has to be regarded as being of the finest."

The acid test, by Cooke's hypothesis, lies in the repeated expression "go on." History is full of composers, painters, writers who were the minions of their day, only to be relegated to oblivion by future days. The real key then to Cooke's point is his belief that informed majority opinion must be measured over the long haul of several generations. Only then do civilization's Titans clearly emerge.

But hold everything. Should we not be looking at the broader picture, realizing that Titans are not born and do not live in a vacuum? They are, after all, mortals destined to live in a mediocre world; their superiority is often not recognized or duly appreciated by their own contemporaries. Must we then not suppose that the random flowering of genius requires the arable soil of mediocrity? A biographical sketch of the composer Anton Diabelli [MadAminA!, Fall 1981] concluded: "He [Diabelli] is not the only composer of lesser stature but nevertheless estimable gifts. The little Bachs, the Stamitzes and Spohrs, the Reineckes and Raffs-without them, we could have no Titans and no musical heritage."

Enter Salieri-both the real historical figure and the figment of Mr. Shaffer's fecund imagination. Here was a musician who was truly representative of his time, whose works were widely performed, known, and admired, and who was a palpable component of the musical mulch which brought forth a Mozart. It is therefore not surprising to find that the entry on Salieri in The New Grove's was authored by one of the editors of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, Rudolph Angermueller, a well-known and highly respected musicologist who has devoted much time to various aspects of Salieri's life and works. Nor should we miss one of Shaffer's main messages, brilliantly conveyed by the actor F. Murray Abraham in the film. Salieri, himself ephemeral as a composer, was a genius at recognizing and responding to genius. Who knows if the magnificence of Mozart's creations would have had sufficient time to root in the world's consciousness had it not been for those endowed with a superior sensibility?

Let's hear it for Salieri.

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