Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Gospel According to Mozart

This quote from the movie Amadeus recently stopped me in my tracks:
I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theater, conferring on all who sat there, perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar.
The narrator is the composer Antonio Salieri, Mozart's chief rival in the competitive Viennese music scene of the 1780s-90s. This 1984 film, based on Peter Shaffer's play of the same title, was a childhood favorite of mine, and I find it still speaks to me. Amadeus won eight Oscars, including one for best picture and a well-earned best actor nod to F. Murray Abraham for his superb portrayal of the troubled Salieri.

In case you don't remember, this is the basic storyline: A young Salieri bids God to grant him a world-class talent with which to praise the Creator. Later, while serving as composer at the court in Vienna, Salieri waits with rapt anticipation to meet the young Mozart, who has by now become a world-renowned prodigy. Salieri is shocked and scandalized, however, at the famous composer's crude, risque and foul-mouthed demeanor. Why would God bestow such stunning abilities upon this frivolous little man while the ever dutiful, yet less inspiring Salieri languishes in the wings? The jealously that consumes Salieri leads to him to go mad as he conspires to drive a sickly Amadeus to his early death.

The play and movie are dramatic explorations and not historically accurate depictions of Salieri and Mozart, who are reported to have collaborated amiably. The message, however, is timeless and one of the best cinematic depictions of the Gospel I've ever seen. One might well view it as a creative retelling of Jesus' parable of the two brothers (Luke 15:11-32). (I wonder if Karl Barth, who wrote a short book on Mozart, would have approved of the film? Somehow, I think so.)

The "true forgiveness filling the theater" of our petty little lives is pure gift. There's no bargaining with the Giver, period. The absurdity of trying to parlay the gift in exchange for some service rendered drives us inexorably toward hell (in Salieri's case, the hell of the insane asylum filled, as he sees it, with "mediocrities" such as himself). The gift is "unstoppable" -- or as a Calvinist might put it, "irresistible." Each of us is Salieri. Each of us tries and fails to parse out the gift for our own selfish ends.

And what about Amadeus himself? He is each of us as well -- the younger brother, the prodigal, the profligate and punk who has no business playing in the prince's house. The "little man" of Salieri's sneer -- that's you and I.

This shitty world of ours -- that's what we've made of it --  marches toward dissolution and death minute by minute and day by day. And what does God do about it? Scandalously, shockingly, offensively, God keeps on singing absolution.

And God will keep on singing until the last note rings out and when the curtain drops on all the musicians and the prince of Vienna (thank heavens!) and those of us in the audience -- a the point when, finally, the real concert will begin.