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What Amadeus Shows Us About Creativity

Comedy & Tragedy

When I first saw the film Amadeus as an impressionable teenager, I had a lot of sympathy for Salieri. Not for what he did to Mozart of course, but for the frustration and disappointment that drove him to it. Listening to his account of his early life and motivations, they sounded perfectly noble:

While my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of. Lord, make me a great composer! Let me celebrate your glory through music – and be celebrated myself! Make me famous through the world, dear God! Make me immortal! After I die let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote! In return I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, amen!

After this pious prelude it was hard not to share Salieri’s astonishment and disgust at the childish, lecherous, drunken Mozart, and to question God’s purpose in bestowing the gift of divine music on a “giggling, dirty-minded creature”:

But why? Why would God choose an obscene child to be His instrument? It was not to be believed!

It just didn’t seem fair.

Yet every time I’ve watched the film since, my sympathy for Salieri has waned a little more. And not just because I’ve seen the ending, or the Director’s Cut which makes his crimes against Mozart and his family more explicit. The seeds of Salieri’s downfall – and the justice of it – are plainly there to see in that speech about his ambition:

While my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of. Lord, make me a great composer! Let me celebrate your glory through music – and be celebrated myself! Make me famous through the world, dear God! Make me immortal! After I die let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote! In return I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, amen!

Setting aside the theological implications, let’s consider the effect of all that “me… me… me…” and “I… I… I…” on Salieri’s creativity. For all his professed love of music, Salieri has made the fatal mistake of trying to use it as a means to an end. He is obsessed with his own fame and immortality, not the music itself. It becomes a counter in his imaginary bargain with God (“in return I will give you…”). Every time he sits down to compose, he has one eye on the manuscript and one on the critics and audience. And the music suffers – as well as the composer.

Let’s have another look at Mozart, at least as he appears in the film. For all his apparent flaws, he is redeemed by one thing – his love of music and total devotion to it. Yes, he enjoys the trappings of fame, the praise that is showered on him, and the temptations it brings. But when starts composing, all of that fades into the background and he becomes intoxicated with the melodies, the tones and the rhythms of the music. It courses through his veins and fires him up, strutting and waving his arms, beaming with delight. Mozart is no longer composing music, the music is playing him.

Making allowances for cinematic hyperbole, I think we can identify two different approaches to creativity in Salieri and Mozart. We live in a world where artistic ability is admired, even revered, so that any aspiring artist has to confront the temptations of fame, money and other rewards for creative work. For Salieri, these temptations intrude on the creative process, distracting him from his real work so that he deteriorates into obsession and mediocrity. For Mozart, they are kept at bay – at least during ‘work time’ – by a kind of magic circle, within which the artist is entranced by the art itself, immersed in creative flow.

Amadeus is a parable that famously takes liberties with historical truth, but there are intriguing parallels with some of the academic research on creativity. Harvard Business School Professor Theresa Amabile has conducted numerous experiments on the effects of two different types of motivation on creativity:

Intrinsic motivation refers to the pleasure of creative work pursued for its own sake, the joy of absorption in the act of painting, writing, dancing, composing or otherwise creating.

Extrinsic motivation refers to all the rewards that can result from a successful piece of creative work – such as money, fame and critical acclaim.

Amabile’s experiments showed that high levels of intrinsic motivation are conducive to creative performance, but the introduction of extrinsic motivators can have a negative effect on creativity. For example, in one experiment, one group of children were given the opportunity to draw some pictures for fun, while a second group of children were told they could have some sweets if they drew a nice picture. When the drawings were compared, those from the first group were consistently judged to be more creative than those in the second group. The introduction of an extrinsic motivation (the sweets) distracted the children from the pleasure of drawing and the results suffered – ironically, because the artist were too concerned about results. Amabile illustrated the dilemma by quoting the poet Anne Sexton:

Sexton told her agent that, although she would love to make a great deal of money from her books, she knew that she had to forget all about that while actually writing her poems.

I think this goes some way to explaining the familiar ‘difficult second album syndrome’. When a band records their first album, they are fuelled by enthusiasm for their music. Of course they are ambitious, but ambition hasn’t materialised in too many tangible distractions yet. But when it comes to creating the follow-up to a successful first album, the weight of expectation can be overwhelming. Similarly, I remember hearing an interview with Seamus Heaney where he described how hard it was to write his next poetry collection after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He said it was impossible to live up to an award like that, and he had to somehow escape it in order to write freely again.

To a greater or lesser extent, this is a challenge we all face every time we begin a piece of creative work. I once went to a writing workshop with the poet Mark Doty, when he said “We’re usually too eager to get out of the poem” – meaning that we’re impatient to get our hands on a finished, perfect piece of work, so that we can relax and feel we’ve achieved something. When more often than not, we could do with immersing ourselves in the work a little more – listening too it, looking at it, getting a feel for its essence and where we are closest (and furthest) from bringing that to full expression.

Amadeus dramatises the challenge by showing us the two extremes – one man consumed by ambition, the other by music. But it’s rarely so black-and-white. We all have our inner Salieri and inner Mozart – every time we sit down to work it’s an open question who will gain the upper hand.

Comments

  1. Thanks Mark, lovely read! And I agree whole heartedly with almost everything you said.

  2. Thanks Henri, glad you liked it. Some nice stuff on your blog too.

  3. One of the best blog posts I’ve read in a long, long time. Very insightful, Mark.

    There’s a sequence in Amadeus that just slays me every time. Salieri composes a welcoming march for Mozart. He struggles with it. It’s hard work, but he’s pleased with the final piece. It’s played as Mozart enters. Mozart is genuinely touched by the gesture. Without thinking, though, he improvises improvements right on the spot. It’s creative play for him. It’s effortless. And it breaks Salieri’s heart.

    Again, great post. Thanks.

  4. Thanks Tim! I actually watched that scene again yesterday, when I was transcribing quotations for the post (couldn’t help letting the film run on…) and started to think I was being a bit hard on Salieri, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to pity him in that scene.

    I’m glad you liked the post, it’s been turning over in my mind for a while. And I’ve got another Amadeus one in the pipeline…

  5. I think the concept of “beginner’s luck” in sport or games can be seen in the same way. At first we approach it with the sheer enjoyment of the novice, but then exterior things intrude, we read coaching manuals on how to play better, we compare ourselves to others and to our last game.

    Reading the quotation by Salieri and suffering bouts of CFS/M.E. myself, I am always intrigued when, where and how the word “me” (m.e) pops up.

Trackbacks

  1. […] ‘I think we can identify two different approaches to creativity in Salieri and Mozart.… For Salieri, [the temptations of real world success, praise, etc] intrude on the creative process, distracting him from his real work so that he deteriorates into obsession and mediocrity. For Mozart, they are kept at bay – at least during ‘work time’ – by a kind of magic circle, within which the artist is entranced by the art itself, immersed in creative flow.’ […]