SALIERI and MOZART…who were they really? And how did Peter Shaffer write AMADEUS?

by Stephanie Cowell

I have read a huge amount about Mozart: his letters, biographies, etc. I own cds of all the music he ever wrote and I wrote a novel called MARRYING MOZART (Viking Penguin) about the young Mozart and the four young musical Weber sisters, one of whom he married (eventually). But the shadow of the movie AMADEUS is a long one, and there is hardly a time when I go to speak about my novel that someone does not ask if Wolfgang Amadé Mozart was really just a funny little man in a white wig. Well, no; he was a very great composer and as a matter of fact he never would act as he did in the film except when breaking into the third bottle of wine with good friends, for which one cannot blame him. In court he was terribly dignified.

my novel about Mozart’s courtship days

The hilarity when it came was a release from a serious childhood. He had been a child prodigy at six. “Remember, you are a genius,” his father told him again and again. And so he went out in the world which mostly did not want genius. And all that scatological humor? It was common in the Austria of his day; it is common even now a friend from Bavaria told me. His mother and father wrote cheerfully to each other that way.

And what about Salieri? Did he have less talent that a plodding first year piano student? Did he really promise his celibacy to God for a great gift of composing? And most importantly, did he kill Mozart? The answer to all these questions is no. Salieri was a very gifted composer; he did not have the original genius of Mozart but then who else did? He was a major figure in the development of late 18th-century opera. As for celibacy, he was married with eight children and had a mistress. And last, he never killed anyone. He lost his mind at the end of his life and imagined he had killed Mozart, but indeed they were on friendly terms. Salieri tutored Mozart’s son and cheered on Mozart’s music.

Mozart – was he just silly?

Nevertheless, AMADEUS is a wonderful movie! And it did include Salieri’s consecration of his music to God, a piece of moving and true history.

In the film and play we have the skill of a historical novelist or, in this case, a historical playwright. But why on earth did Peter Shaffer portray Mozart like that? When asked, he explained he portrayed Mozart as remembered through the eyes of a crazed old man who was dying likely from syphilis which was tragically common then.

Yes, Shaffer made a villain of poor Salieri and a fool of Mozart, but he did more good than harm. Millions of people first discovered Mozart’s music through the movie, and the almost forgotten Salieri has had many of his operas brought back to the stage. The movie did with Mozart what no novel can do. It showed him as a cocky little fellow swaggering through Vienna with a wine bottle in his hand and his music roaring in his head. By using the bold strokes of contrast between the two men (such contrast as never was) it made a moving plot line and a great story.

Salieri – was he a man of no talent?

Almost ten years ago I used my lifelong love and study of Mozart (and my years singing his music as a high soprano) to write my novel MARRYING MOZART, not of tragedy and death but of his stumbling courtship years when he found his wife. For those of you in the New York City area, the novel with have its premiere as a singspiel (an opera with a great deal of dialogue), for four performances only mid-December 2012. The novel adaption is by Michael Capasso and music is by Mozart! What better? Tickets may be reserved here.


About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is

  • Susan Dormady Eisenberg

    What a beautuful article. I’m glad to learn more about Salieri whose reputation was surely tarnished by Peter Shaffer’s loose approach to the facts.

  • Janet Oakley

    I love singing Mozart. I’m an alto in the Whatcom Chorale and sang the requiem a few years ago. This is a great post, Stephanie. I wish so much that I could hear your little opera. What a thrill it must be for you.

  • Lynn Cullen

    Wonderful article, Stephanie! I like that it’s okay to love the film Amadeus (and I DO!) and the interesting story it told of the everyman’s envy of genius, and yet to still appreciate the real men. To me, historical fiction is its best when trying to tell a larger story than the biography of the characters. You make this clear in this article and in your work. Bravo!

  • diabolik

    i think you give too much credit to Peter Shaffer as author

    • Stephanie Cowell

      In what way? Don’t quite understand your comment!

  • ChevalierDupin

    Dear Stephanie…I read your novel earlier this year and was quite pleased and refreshed at the scholarship dramatized by that formidable period of Mozart’s life. While your assessment of the play/movie Amadeus is very much correct, the disdain towards Salieri as a conspirator against Mozart began during Salieri’s own lifetime. One of the biggest purveyors of the purported rivalry between the two men was Pushkin which is really what began the modern misconception of the misappropriated legendary archetypes of both men. Fortunately there are many individuals and performing ensembles today that are trying to give Salieri’s excellent music it’s fair shot at production. He was by far one of the most important and prodigious composers and teachers of his time having taught numerous great composers including Beethoven and Hummel, and was himself the star student of Gluck. He revolutionized opera in Vienna and was the first to collaborate with Lorenzo da Ponte, of whose relationship with Mozart is what he is most remembered for…he was an extremely interesting and talented historical figure whose music is truly outstanding and worth hearing by any fan of Mozart’s. Thanks again for an enjoyable read and best for all your current and future projects!