I am a thoroughly mediocre man, and I’ve made peace with this. In fact I honestly believe that making a monument to mundanity, recognising your meagreness and faults and moving on with your life, is part of growing up. It, hopefully, signals the transition from arrogant, self centred, child to a functioning part of a greater whole. One character archetype that has always fascinated me in cinema are the people who are innately aware of their own mediocrity and fight it with every ounce of their being. People who struggle to make something of themselves and who try to destroy, rather than reconcile, that which illuminates their own failings. A perfect example of this archetype can be found in the film Amadeus and the character of Salieri, as wonderfully essayed by F. Murray Abraham.


Now there are a few wrinkles to overcome in declaring Salieri a mediocre man. For one the creation of music as beautiful as the pieces composed by Salieri suggest that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder.  Not possessing an artistic bone in my body I have an unabashed awe for anyone capable of artistic creation and Salieri’s grand operas are masterful and graceful. They perhaps lack the punch of the work of his contemporary

Mozart but there is an elegance and delicacy to Salieri’s work which showcases his true talent. Thankfully there have been several recent recordings of Salieri’s operas made available and as he moves from being a niche artist hopefully his work will eclipse his, entirely fictional, reputation as classical music’s great second fiddle.


This separation of fact and fiction is worth looking into, as it forms the second hurdle in discussing Salieri. In real life Salieri was revered in his own time and produced Operas and pieces of music which were lavish and masterful (as evidenced by his patronage at the time and the praise which has followed recent recordings of his work). In Amadeus he’s portrayed as technically competent, but lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. In Amadeus his spiteful, envious, nature leads him to destroying the person who he was also awestruck by, in real life Salieri was one of the more consistent admirers of Mozart’s work and made several attempts to bolster the popularity of his work (including reviving the less than well received Figaro).  So this cognitive dissonance between the fiction and the factual is something that one must always keep in mind when discussing Salieri as a composer.


Anyways what is important here is that Salieri, at least in his fictional form, represents that self loathing, self aware, mediocrity I find so satisfying. In the film Salieri believes Mozart to be gifted with god given skills and finds himself becoming increasingly resentful of first Mozart and eventually God. His failure to understand why God would grant so much talent to such an uncouth oaf as Mozart creates in Salieri’s mind a classic persecution complex. Mozart, as played by Tom Hulce, whilst being an arrogant braggart is never invidious with his actions. In fact he counts on Salieri as a friend and his perceived slights are more a case of Mozart being unthinking rather than uncaring. He tends to not think of others or recognise the brashness of his own actions and has a habit of getting caught up in the moment, in many ways Mozart is a classic savant.


In anyone else Salieri would accept this as foolish folly but he sees Mozart as a pure receptacle of the thing he loves the most in the world, music. One gets the feeling that Salieri, as portrayed by the film, would have warmed to Mozart immensely if his talent hadn’t been so effortless. In fact the film paints Salieri as perhaps the only person who truly understands and appreciates Mozart’s pure talent. But Salieri understands he is a mediocre man and understands that his music isn’t instinctual, isn’t god given, wasn’t meant to be. Salieri has to work for every musical breakthrough and victory he has had and this is consistently counter pointed by Mozart’s seemingly prenatural talent. Where Salieri spends weeks agonising over a piece Mozart can modify and improve it on the fly. Mozart is, in this case, a living embodiment of pure, predestined, talent. A shining beacon designed to illuminate the meagreness of those around him.


Salieri certainly isn’t alone in feeling a certain sense of disquiet and feeling humbled by Mozart, but you get the impression that he is perhaps the most keenly aware of his own shortcomings of all the characters in the film. Salieri is a man filled with doubt from the first frame of the film and whilst others find themselves put off by Mozart for one esoteric reason or another Salieri is all too aware of his own shortcomings.


Salieri’s reaction to this is interesting not only in that he seeks to destroy that which he loves but also that he uses his own inadequacies as a form of self enlightenment. The aged Salieri we meet at the start of the film is a husk of a man, rotten and vain and petty, and he uses his bile and hatred to transform himself into an almost messianic figure for the mediocre. Whilst there are obvious elements of madness to Salieri’s ultimate fate it is amusing to juxtapose Mozart’s god given musical talents against Salieri’s god given mediocrity. In embracing these ‘gifts’ both men become objects of ridicule and venom. Mozart intimidates people with his skill; Salieri turns his mediocrity into a banner to raise himself up with.


His final speech, as he forgives the sins of the mediocre around him, is both the last straw of his psyche and the culmination of his own sociopathy. Salieri’s eventual acceptance of his own mediocrity and subsequent absolution of the mediocre he finds around himself is of course a very modern sort of thing, but within the context of the film it creates a spiritual link between Mozart and Salieri. Both are men out of their time, Mozart’s music too rambunctious and showy for the Viennese populace, Salieri’s temperament to analytical and self obsessed for the well to do society he finds himself in.

If Mozart’s music is, as some would say, the punk rock of the classical world then Salieri represents very modern theories on the nature of man. Salieri represents the humble man staring into divinity and his reactions, whilst awful and self destructive, feel all the more human for it.