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.