Autumn Longing: Peter Shaffer and AMADEUS
First, my standard proviso: If you haven’t already read the first installment in this series of posts, then please do so before reading this one, since the first one lays the groundwork for what I’m going on about.
But for now, to reiterate briefly: Since childhood I have been overcome from time to time by an experience of intense longing for something that I can neither name nor remember, but that seems bound up with beauty (both natural and artistic), transcendence, infinity, freedom, melancholy, joy, poignancy, nostalgia — a whole host of strangely interrelated moods and cognitions and emotions. It trembles just beyond the edge of attainment and seems to represent the fulfillment of everything I have ever desired, and of everything I have ever intuited about the deep meaning of life. C.S. Lewis experienced the same thing and built his life around it, borrowing the German term “sehnsucht” to refer to it. I sometimes call it the Autumn Longing since it seems bound up with that season — as indeed it was for Lewis, too, who once described the way he became intoxicated with longing at “the Idea of Autumn” upon reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. H.P. Lovecraft was also subject to it, and wrote about it copiously. Most of the classical Romantics knew of it. And so have a great many other authors, as I have only begun to find in recent times.
For several years now I’ve set myself the task of keeping an eye out for writings where other people describe this longing. The very act of reading them fills me with a strange exhilaration and rekindles the longing itself. It’s addictive, let me tell you. I seem to be drawn to such things even when I don’t realize at first that they’re right before me.
Which brings us to Amadeus. As a teenager I discovered the movie version of this play, which had been written some years earlier by the great Peter Shaffer. It positively entranced me. I’ve always been extremely susceptible to the mesmerizing influence of certain films, but Amadeus was and is amongst a handful that head the list. Everything about the movie coheres for me. It seems a Perfect Thing.
And so it was that when I finally looked into the original stage version a few years ago, I was astonished to find that the great longing that has been so important to me features in Amadeus as well. I hadn’t watched the movie for some years, but when I read the script for the play and saw it depicting Salieri’s great longing for the beauty he heard embodied in Mozart’s music, I remembered instantly one of the most powerful scenes in the film, where Salieri looks through a portfolio of Mozart’s work and, recalling the incident decades later, says that he seemed to be “staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at an Absolute Beauty.” And of course when I reached that point in the play script, the same line was there, and it was equally wonderful.
So here, today, I’m reprinting the two scenes where this theme comes out most clearly in the play. The first is from the part of the play where Salieri has just spied upon a young Mozart as the latter flirts rather vilely(much more so in the play than in the movie) with his fiancée Constanze. Then music starts playing in the other room — the scene takes place at an aristocratic gathering at the home of a Baroness, where musicians are assembled to play some of Mozart’s music — and Salieri realizes this vile young man before him has composed music that seems to speak with the voice of God. And God is something Salieri knows about, because as a youth he prayed fervently for God to make him a composer, and promised that if God granted this wish, then he would devote his life to making music in God’s service. Salieri speaks to God frequently, referring to Him formally as “Signore” and thanking Him for the music that he sends to his humble servant. So naturally, when he finds that a vulgar, dirty-minded little man like Mozart (as Salieri sees it, and as Mozart is here portrayed) is the one who has received God’s greatest gift of musical expression, he turns against the deity and consciously works to block Him and destroy Mozart. (This is just another theme that renders the story endlessly absorbing to me.)
The second scene is the one mentioned above, where Salieri looks through a portfolio of Mozart’s music and recognizes the same awesome beauty and longing embodied in it. The scene departs a bit from focusing on the longing proper in order to deliver an emotional punch based on the impression of awesome power of the absolute reality that shines through Mozart’s music. As you’ll read, Salieri is overcome and, as it seems, nearly destroyed by the revelation of this power, which is made known via some impressive theatrical and musical flourishes. Truly, this strikes me as one of the most purely and potently apocalyptic scenes, in the pristine root meaning of the word (the Greek apokalypsis meaning literally “the lifting of the veil”), to appear in modern drama, at least in my limited experience of the field.
This whole thing — the twin package of these two scenes from Amadeus — makes me want to dig further into Shaffer’s works to see whether he pursued such subjects elsewhere. In any case, I hope you enjoy reading all of this material, which as I’ve said is endlessly fascinating to me. It also elicits profound melancholy and, on some days, unbearable despair. And that’s just a natural part of it.
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From Amadeus, Act One, Scene 5
[The Adagio from the Serenade for thirteen wind instruments (K. 361) begins to sound. Quietly and quite slowly, seated in the wing chair, SALIERI speaks over the music.]
SALIERI: It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lowest registers — bassoons and basset horns — like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity. And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note from the oboe.
[We hear it.]
It hung there unwavering, piercing me through, till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. The light flickered in the room. My eyes clouded! [With ever-increasing emotion and vigor] The squeezebox groaned louder, and over it the higher instruments wailed and warbled, throwing lines of sound around me — long lines of pain around and through me. Ah, the pain! Pain as I had never known it. I called up to my sharp old God, “What is this? . . . What?!” But the squeezebox went on and on, and the pain cut deeper into my shaking head until suddenly I was running —
[He bolts out of the chair and runs across the stage in a fever, to a corner, down right. Behind him in the Light Box, the library fades into a street scene at night: small houses under a rent sky. The music continues, fainter underneath.]
dashing through the side door, stumbling downstairs into the street, into the cold night, gasping for life. [Calling up in agony] “What?! What is this? Tell me, Signore! What is this pain? What is this need in the sound? Forever unfulfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it, utterly. Is it Your need? Can it be Yours? . . .”
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From Amadeus, Act One, Scene 12
[He moves upstage in a fever — reaches out to take the portfolio on the chair — but as if fearful of what he mind find inside it, he withdraws his hand and sits instead. A pause. He contemplates the music lying there as if it were a great confection he is dying to eat, but dare not. Then suddenly he snatches at it — tears the ribbon — opens the case and stares greedily at the manuscripts within.
Music sounds instantly, faintly, in the theater, as his eye falls on the first page. It is the opening of the Twenty-ninth Symphony, in A major. Over the music, reading it.]
She had said that these were his original scores. First and only drafts of the music. Yet they looked like fair copies. They showed no corrections of any kind. It was puzzling — then suddenly alarming.
[He looks up from the manuscript to the audience: the music abruptly stops.]
What was evident was that Mozart was simply transcribing music completely finished in his head. And finished as most music is never finished.
[He resumes looking at the music. Immediately the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola sounds.]
Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.
[He looks up again: the music breaks off.]
Here again — only now in abundance — were the same sounds I’d heard in the library.
[He resumes reading, and the music also resumes: a ravishing phrase from the slow movement of the Concerto for Flute and Harp.]
The same crushed harmonies — glancing collisions — agonizing delights.
[He looks up again. The music stops.]
The truth was clear. That Serenade had been no accident.
[Very low, in the theater, a faint thundery sound is heard accumulating, like a distant sea.]
I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at — an Absolute Beauty!
[And out of the thundery roar writhes and rises the clear sound of a soprano, singing the Kyrie from the C Minor mass. The accretion of noise around her voice falls away — it is suddenly clear and bright — then clearer and brighter. The light grows bright: too bright: burning white, then scalding white! SALIERI rises in the downpour of it, and in the flood of the music, which is growing ever louder — filling the theatre — as the soprano yields to the full chorus, fortissimo, singing its massive counterpoint.
This is by far the loudest sound the audience has yet heard. SALIERI staggers toward us, holding the manuscripts in his hand, like a man caught in a tumbling and violent sea.
Finally the drums crash in below: SALIERI drops the portfolio of manuscripts — and falls senseless to the ground. At the same second the music explodes into a long, echoing, distorted boom, signifying some dreadful annihilation.
The sound remains suspended over the prone figure in a menacing continuum — no longer music at all. Then it dies away, and there is only silence.]