Salieri the villain

“I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

If I had to choose a favourite film, it would be Amadeus, almost solely because of my appreciation for Salieri. It is Salieri who carries the story, Salieri who narrates, Salieri with whom we identify. Salieri is the protagonist, and Salieri is the villain.

I have pondered this film often enough to figure out why I love Salieri’s brand of villainy so much, and have narrowed it down to four reasons.

First, Salieri and Mozart are similar. They share their love for music and their ambition to compose and be applauded. They occupy the same niche, even as Mozart is vastly more talented than Salieri. A relationship, even an antagonistic one, is built upon similarities as well as differences. The shared traits are amplifiers of the conflict. Without such parallels, the hero-villain dynamic becomes a simple black and white affair, but with them, we get nuances of grey. It is in these patches of overlap that relationships become interesting, but to achieve that, there needs to be common ground. Salieri is hopelessly fascinated with Mozart’s music, adores it like no other in the film. He is touched to the core by reading the sheet music for Serenade for Winds, and while he engineers the failure of The Marriage of Figaro, he attends all of its limited performances in secret. This fuels his hatred for Mozart but also creates complicating moments of sympathy between the characters.

Second, Salieri and Mozart are different. We see Salieri in the beginning of the film, a respected composer with reasonable talent, likable, civilised: a fortunate, content man. Enter Mozart, a loud and crass man, and from Salieri’s (and therefore the audience’s) point of view undeserving of his talent. Where Salieri is reserved, Mozart is boisterous; where Salieri is knowledgeable, Mozart is ignorant; where Salieri is manipulative, Mozart is naive. Interestingly, this is perpetuated throughout the film, but increasingly in reverse. As Mozart’s flamboyance, braying laughter, thoughtlessness and tactlessness give way to a much more subdued and arguably more sympathetic character, Salieri becomes aggressive, overtly nasty (see the scene with Mrs Mozart) and cruel.

This balancing of Salieri’s villainy with the tempered Mozart is crucial to allow the two characters to stay at opposite ends of the spectrum as the story progresses. It maintains the diametrically opposite relationship and forms the contrast against which Salieri’s descent can be more clearly seen. At the same time, the love for music tethers the increasingly villainous protagonist and his increasingly sympathetic antagonist to each other, never allowing them to drift apart.

Thirdly, Salieri’s justification is clear. From Mozart’s introduction and his tactless reworking of Salieri’s welcome composition in a public and humiliating manner, we understand Salieri. Who has not felt mediocre, envious, and bitter at the success of others, and presumably with less cause? His every petty thought is relatable on some level. Upon Mozart’s arrival, Salieri’s talent is instantly dwarfed, his self-image and ambition crushed. He is humiliated and insulted. It is no great stretch to see that he wants retribution. Maybe even deserves it. Unlike weaker villains, Salieri gives us someone with whom to identify, leading us every tiny step of the way into the role of villain. It is a well-crafted slippery slope, each move so easily justifiable almost until the end. Particularly since Salieri’s jealousy is ever tempered by his love for Mozart’s music. Even in his final deceit, Salieri supports the composition whilst working to destroy the composer.

Finally, Salieri is unable to win. Even though Mozart dies, poor and almost alone, Salieri still loses and destroys himself through his own inadequacy, jealousy and rage. If the story had ended with Mozart’s burial, the film would have been a much simpler story of one man destroying another. Instead, we are given the final scene: Salieri wheeled away, old, mad and bitter, having endured a front-row seats to his own destruction for 32 years, watching himself judged by time and found lacking. All to the tune of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor.

“Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all.”

Exit stage.

7 thoughts on “Salieri the villain

  1. Thank you for a superbly insightful and rewarding essay. There are so many positive takeaways from this, especially for me as a genre writer.

    It’s a wonderful film, too. Although it leaves historicity on the cutting room floor in favor of this cunningly crafted story. Which is as it should be. It’s an irresistible tale of dark, pitiable, tragic transformations. The inflection of the two mirroring character arcs is masterfully executed.

    1. Thank you! That is lovely feedback, especially from a writer. Of course, you’re right: story trumps history in Amadeus. Yet it is such good work that I am not bothered at all by accuracy. The power of stories, for good or bad, I suppose.

      Since you mentioned it, I think genre fiction has an almost unrivalled potential to create truly great villains, as it concerns itself so often with the pure hero vs villain conflict. What do you think, as a genre writer? To me, the scope to subvert tropes, to generate nuances, to create worlds where the villain is even a necessity, is all readily available in genre fiction. It is a shame that so many stories leaves this part underdeveloped, as most readers I know tend to find the villain of the piece intriguing. The ‘why’ of the villain’s descent is as important to the story as the ‘how’ of the hero’s ascent.

      1. Oh yes, absolutely.

        The villain’s belief system must be as thorough, convincing and persuasive as the hero’s. Villains don’t see themselves as villains. They are acting logically according to convincing, justifiable motives. In the best stories, the hero and the villain both want the same thing. In the best stories, we are almost seduced by the villain’s viewpoint, we extend our sympathy to the villain.

        The villain and the hero are one. The villain is what the hero would become if she’d had the same experiences. The hero is who the villain could have been in other circumstances.

        The villain as necessary to the world is a very profound and intriguing notion. The concept is beautifully exemplified in the Gnostic stories of Satan. If you’re not familiar with them, you should hunt them out. In Gnostic mythology, God is an evil usurper, Satan is Christ’s twin brother, and the Rebel Angels serve to bring humankind back to the truth of their mortality. Ultimately, the price they pay is their own destruction. Satan is a tragic figure, corrupted only by the injustice meted out to him by a false deity and the hubris of his brother.

        I agree there’s a lot of scope for developing the idea of the villain far beyond the cackling wizard who wants to rule the world!

        As I read your post, I thought, “This is a masterclass in the creation of credible villainy in fiction.” That’s why I mentioned it.

        I hope it is widely read.

        1. Fantastic comment, and I utterly agree.

          “The villain is what the hero would become if she’d had the same experiences. The hero is who the villain could have been in other circumstances.” You’re absolutely right. This is the crux of the matter, in my opinion. This is what generates the tension. It delights me as a reader, and frustrates me as a writer, because I find it surprisingly hard to pull off.

          I have not yet read any of the Gnostic stories, but will definitely seek them out. It sounds like just the sort of thing I would enjoy. Thanks for the recommendation! And I think your point about tragic figures is spot on. From the villain’s point of view, the story is just that: a tragedy. A hero in their own eyes, their failing can only be interpreted as such. It is important, I think, to treat this part of the story accordingly. It needs to have an emotional impact for the reader to see the the villain fail – a sadness to temper the relief at the hero’s victory.

  2. That’s an important point you make at the end. Yes, the reader must have some human empathy with the tragedy of the villain’s demise. Absolutely.

    It’s also great when the hero achieves her final success by doing a villainous thing. What do I mean by that? By doing something necessary to victory (because the value of winning at all costs is shared by her and the villain) which causes the suffering or death of another good guy.

    If the villain can simultaneously, self-sacrificially save something she loves from sharing her fate, all the better!

    I really must blog about this business of the villain/hero thing. When I do, I’ll credit you and this blog for the inspiration. Nothing like a bit of cross-fertilization of ideas. 🙂

    1. You are absolutely right: the inevitable ‘villainy’ of the hero and the self-sacrifice of the villain is incredibly potent. Put as clearly as that, it’s highlighted a problem with a WIP that has been troubling me for a long time. Thank you for that!

      Looking forward to your blog post on the matter, and don’t feel under any obligation to assign credit – this has been an enlightening dialogue and your comments have greatly clarified my thoughts on the hero in relation to the villain.

  3. Regarding the first part of your comment, you’re very welcome. Just let me know where i should send the invoice. 😉

    And to the second part, I feel no obligation – it will be a pleasure. 🙂

    I may write that post next after the one I’m working on at the moment which is a bit of an essay on the popularly imagined relationship between writers and alcohol. But that would be off topic here.

    I’ve enjoyed this post and subsequent discussion. It has helped me clarify my thoughts on the matter of the villain. Good stuff!

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