The idea of "fake news" has gathered great force in the past few years. Perhaps the media truly has reached an unprecedented level of virulence, but the idea of disseminating and then amplifying a wildly inaccurate tale is not a recent phenomenon. History reveals that false reports have been circulated across the centuries, and once they take root in the collective culture, it takes enormous efforts to uproot the distortions and propaganda. It has only been in the past few years that ever so slowly the claims of Mary Magdalene as a penitent sexual sinner, adulteress and prostitute have been stripped away and her original titles as "Apostle to the Apostle" and "First Witness" have been championed once again. Mary Magdalene's true identity as loyal disciple and spiritual teacher was damaged, distorted, obscured and erased through elaborate fictions that emerged from the 4th to 13th centuries for a variety of reasons that ranged from sheer ignorance and confusion over the many different Marys in early Christianity to more deliberate and controlling socio-political purposes. But sometimes, the dignity of individuals can be destroyed for something less overt but equally insidious: pure entertainment.
A case in point is the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It took less than a week after his burial in an unmarked pauper's grave for rumors to fly from Vienna to Berlin that Mozart had been poisoned. The rumors persisted over the years and speculation began to fly about who was behind the dastardly deed? Perhaps his wife Constanze? Or maybe it was favored court composer Antonio Salieri? Modern science has determined that far more likely than poison is the premise that Mozart succumbed to strep before there was such a thing as penicillin. Ill in the midst of a brutal winter, exhausted from simultaneously working on The Magic Flute, the Clarinet Concerto and the Requiem Mass, it is more likely that Mozart succumbed to a combination of germs and fatigue, coupled with the prolonged inability to pay for decent heating. But perishing from a punishing schedule and a lack of heat is less exotic and entertaining as a story than murder. Six years after Mozart's death, these early and unfounded rumors gained new life when they became the basis for Alexander Pushkin’s invented story of rivalry and envy, Mozart and Salieri: A Little Tragedy. A century later Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, developed this theme in a play set in an insane asylum where an aged Salieri seeks absolution for driving Mozart to an early death. Amadeus went on become a blockbuster film that garnered eight Academy Awards including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture.
I confess that as entertainment, I thoroughly enjoyed Amadeus. Sumptuously produced, it was a cinematic masterpiece in many ways, with a fine rendering of the exquisite soundtrack conducted by Sir Neville Mariner with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The opera scenes were scrupulously researched and visually fantastic, the costumes opulent, and the gorgeous filming in the cobblestone streets and palaces of Europe allowed the audience to really feel like they were time traveling to the 18th century.
However, as a biography, it was every bit as insidious as the smear campaign against Mary Magdalene. For the sake of drama (and a good laugh) both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri were reduced to caricatures. In Tom Hulce’s hands, Mozart became a petulant, spoiled pottymouth, while F. Murray Abraham brilliantly etched an unforgettable portrayal of Antonio Salieri as a bitter mediocrity, brought to a state of deranged jealousy because of his own suppressed carnal desires. Meanwhile, Mozart’s father was portrayed as sober, upright, devout and respectable, and Mozart’s wife Constanze became a supreme nitwit and slob (in the director’s cut, even more horrifyingly, she disrobes in an attempt to prostitute herself to Salieri). All four depictions are dreadfully, almost criminally, incorrect portrayals.
The truth—as the truth often is—was far more complex, multilayered and nuanced.
The stories of Mozart as a child depict a boy so tender he would weep when animals were yelled at. He did everything he possibly could (include sacrificing his childhood) to try to make his ambitious and rigidly controlling father happy. Constanze was a well trained singer who underwent much grief, enduring grave illnesses and the early death of four of their six children. It was partly her passion for the music of Bach and Handel that encouraged Mozart to begin to write in a more polyphonic style towards the end of his life. After Mozart’s death, Constanze dedicated the rest of her life to preserving his memory and musical legacy.
Mozart’s delight in scatological language ? He learned it from both his mother and father, whose letters to one another are rife with endearments that would make many of us blush to the roots of our scalp.
As for Salieri? I rank him right up with Mary Magdalene as one of the most falsely accused and maligned figures of history. Not only was he a much better composer thanAmadeus might lead us to think, he was also a stupendously gifted teacher and a profoundly generous human being. In the month after Mozart’s untimely death, he mounted a benefit concert for the bereaved family and conducted Mozart’s own works. Later, he was to become the most important composition teacher for Ludwig Van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt, and Franz Xavier Mozart (Wolfgang’s own son), all whom he taught solely from the generosity of his bountiful spirit, without any financial compensation.
Fake news and media – as Amadeus so deftly demonstrates- - can be entertaining. But I long for the world where the real (and for me, far more interesting) stories become part of our collective consciousness. To that end, I hope you will join me in learning a little more about the real man behind Amadeus. Mozart lived a life woven with both deep sorrow as well as unbridled laughter. Like most of us, he was a messy mixture of virtue and vice. Neither a perfect plaster bust of Apollonian perfection nor the “obscene monkey” idiot savant of Amadeus, Mozart was achingly human. In the days leading up to his birthday on January 27, I will be posting a little piece of “real news” about Mozart each day on Facebook, along with links to what matters the most about him: his sublime music. Should you want to explore even more deeply, I encourage you to ferret out books that quote in depth from source material, such as Maynard Solomon's moving Mozart: A Life.
Finally, I invite you to a birthday party in Mozart's honor at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum when we will celebrate both the sunshine and shadow of this marvelous man in an afternoon of story, song and cake. Joining me will be soprano Dianna Morgan, soloist of Sonoma Bach and two Concerto winners of the Santa Rosa Youth Symphony, violinist Grace Yarrow and flutist Devon Bolt. A portion of all profits will joyfully go to a cause Salieri gave his life to: nurturing the talents of the next generation of musicians. If you'd like to join us, you can purchase tickets here.