What Amadeus Teaches About Being Content in Academia

The 1984 movie Amadeus deservedly netted 8 Oscars for its gorgeous sets, brilliant acting, nuanced direction, and unforgettable music.  The film can also be appreciated for the lessons that Peter Shaffer’s story conveys about fame, talent, humility, and gratitude.

 The tale is told through the eyes of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, above right) the court composer of Emperor Joseph II. Having risen from poverty to great musical success, Salieri is grateful for his lot in life until brash, young, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrives in Vienna (Tom Hulce, above left).  Salieri is quite talented but Mozart is a genius whose gifts dwarf all of Vienna’s many composers.  Salieri admires Mozart’s music but is consumed with envy — as well as rage at God — for the fact that he himself has never produced anything quite as beautiful.

Almost everyone who works or studies at a university will at one time or another identify with Salieri in the excruciating scene where a welcome march he has labored on all night is effortlessly transformed into a much better piece of music by Mozart.  No matter what university is your home, it will bring you into contact with people who are smarter than you, and that can be hard on one’s vanity. For example, a few years ago, a friend of mine at another university worked out a bunch of scholars in my field’s h-index, and sent me an email saying that I should be proud of how relatively high mine was.  Fifteen minutes of my own fiddling on Google Scholar revealed that I clock in slightly below the median of my regular poker game with faculty colleagues.  

This is where one of the key messages of the film becomes relevant: Salieri deserves no sympathy at all.  He had the extraordinary privilege to pursue his talent in a nurturing environment, to create and be appreciated for his creations, and to know and appreciate Mozart. All of Salieri’s emotional misery stemmed not from his objective circumstances, but from his irrational conviction that he was entitled to be a Mozart. I speak from experience when I say that letting go of that vanity can make one appreciate how lucky it is to be a Salieri.

The other aspect of the movie that is meaningful to me concerns the character I consider the hero, Baron Van Swieten (played by Jonathan Moore, above). All the other Vienna court musicians lodge ridiculous critiques of Mozart’s work (“too many notes”) because they are terrified at being passed up by the dazzling new arrival. But the Baron advocates for the talented tyro because he takes uncomplicated joy in what Mozart creates.  Many people in academia have horror stories about mentors who saw them as competitors. It’s easy for even well-established faculty to be intimidated by extraordinarily talented young students, fellows, or junior faculty. That’s why it’s vital for mentors to summon their inner Baron Von Swieten, set ego aside, and be grateful for the chance to see such magnificent birds take wing.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “What Amadeus Teaches About Being Content in Academia”

  1. I was struck when I first heard it by an anecdote from the demise of the Prague Spring with the arrival of Russian tanks in August 1968. Many of the liberal élite fled the country, or tried to. One of them put his family in a small plane and headed for the Austrian border. Just short of it, MIGs caught up with the plane and tried to force it to land. In 99.9% of cases, the story ends there. You can’t beat fighter jets in the equivalent of a Cessna. But this pilot happened to be the world aerobatics champion. He got safely into Austrian airspace. I don’t suppose his family enjoyed the ride, but assume they thought the result was worth it. Supreme skill is always something to admire.

  2. A minor quibble: Salieri (in both the film and in “real life”) did not “rise from poverty,” but from an upper-middle-class merchant family with no court connections. The telling narration by F. Murray Abraham immediately preceding his father choking to death at the table itself makes a nice contrast with the sense of entitlement expressed in Salieri’s later court position. (Or, for that matter, in the initial sense of entitlement so many nascent academics have based on who they studied under in grad school.)

  3. It’s a long time since I saw the movie, and my memory may be misleading me, but I recall feeling reservations about the portrayal of Mozart as a spoiled brat who happens to be a genius. This was poetic licence by Shaffer, and can be pardoned as the play is written from Salieri’s POV, and plausibly that’s what he saw. But it unfortunately reinforces the pernicious Romantic myth that geniuses are above morality and have licence to behave badly. In fact, men and women of supreme talent exhibit the normal range of moral character. Some, like Wagner and Bernini, were very unpleasant people. Some were exceptionally nice and decent: Darwin and Chekhov. Most, like the rest of us, were morally in between, including, from what I’ve read, Mozart, Tolstoy and Shakespeare. Some were just weird like Newton. The grain of truth in the romantic myth is that high achievement demands dedication and hard work, which often entails inattention to personal relationships. That’s morally no different from business people who spend long hours at the office.

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