September 30, 2008

Last night I shook hands with Salieri

This was a BIG DEAL for me.

Imagine you’re a music teacher, and imagine in the course of your career you witnessed the invention and promulgation of old school rap, beat-boxing, hip hop, gangsta rap, freestyling and battling, not to mention the demise of melody, a reliance on meandering and nonsensical vocal ornamentation, pyrotechnical preferences of practically the entire gospel world, a burgeoning of Latino music, and the interpretation through lyrics, rhythm and harmonies of the most primitive ways humans are capable of using and abusing each other sexually and otherwise.

Take all of that and try to teach Mozart, to 50 kids at a time.

In fact, why limit oneself. Try to teach classical music in general, or how a composer actually composes, or the difference between genius and ordinary talent, or what it's like to write with a quill pen, or any of the subtle emotions expressed by the Bard himself when he spoke of music in his plays:
"If music be the food of love, play on." (Twelfth Night)
"In sweet music is such art"(Henry VIII)
"Like softest music to attending ears!" (Romeo and Juliet)
"Music, ho! music, such as charmeth sleep!" (Midsummer Night’s Dream)
"'Tis good; though music oft hath such a charm" (Measure for Measure)
"Solemn and strange music, marvelous sweet music" (Tempest)
"As they smelt music: so I charmed their ears" (Tempest)
"Music of the spheres! Most heavenly music."(Pericles)
Sings heavy music to thy timorous soul (Henry IV, pt 1)
Will whisper music to my weary spirit. (Henry IV, pt 2)

While rappers play brilliantly and mercilessly with the language and singer songwriters ply their trade from coast to coast, kids all over pour their passionate hearts out into lyrics of their own — notebooks full of them, written to the objects of their affection and the perpetrators of their hormonal torture.

Yet they're worlds away from Barnfield’s miraculous description of music and lyrics in a sonnet of some four hundred years ago:
If music and sweet poetry agree,
As they must needs, the sister and the brother,
Then must the love be great 'twixt thee and me,
Because thou lovest the one, and I the other.
Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch
Upon the lute doth ravish human sense;
Spenser to me, whose deep conceit is such
As, passing all conceit, needs no defence.
Thou lovest to hear the sweet melodious sound
That Phoebus' lute, the queen of music, makes;
And I in deep delight am chiefly drown'd
When as himself to singing he betakes.
One god is god of both, as poets feign;
One knight loves both, and both in thee remain.

So, how do you teach the art forms of centuries ago to our big-city teenage poets?

The movie Amadeus was a godsend to me: it could captivate the imagination of any kid between the ages of 11 and 18 and put classical music within their reach. I taught it meticulously, thoroughly and tirelessly 10 times a year or more, putting the sound of Mozart's works into the minds of thousands of kids.

I taught them what it means to be born with great, inexplicable talent, and what it means to be so much in awe of it that you burn up with jealousy. They saw the palaces of the aristocracy with their vast spaces and polished door handles at forehead level, the musician servants in their black tails perpetually vying for the patron’s love, a world where music was performed live or not at all. They heard the exquisiteness of an oboe solo perhaps for the first time (Salieri describing it here in the movie) and the sweet harmonies of the Finale of The Marriage of Figaro. Even Piffmonkey, one of the kids who left a comment at the end of this YouTube clip, had to admit: “Yeah i know what you mean!!! when i first watched this part i started to tear! but i was in class.. so i just made it look like i was yawning. ;) ”

I couldn’t help myself using this movie to explain European culture, art, talent, musical proficiency, languages, customs, clothing and wigs — anything and everything. Even when I saw the kids grappling with all this strangeness, coming as they were from a world so far away, I knew it was the right way to give this music to them. And make no bones about it, they were traveling huge distances to get to where I was coming from. You could tell from their comments:
“Hey miss, you mean dey didn’t wear Reeboks in doze days?”

Seeing Mozart enter a scene: “Hey, dat’s George Washington!” and when Constanze followed: “And dat’s Betsy Ross!”

“Hey miss, you mean they only talked about music in those days? They didn’t talk about anything else?”

“If Mozar’ talked so dirty, how come he’s in the Bible?” (Mozart, Moses, it's all in the past)

“Hey miss, when ‘re dey doin’ the second movie about Mozart? You know, like Rocky II?”

So here I am last night at a play reading downtown (at the Red Bull Theater), sitting no more than six feet from the edge of the stage, when in walks F. Murray Abraham himself. Salieri!

As much as I loved the reading, I could barely contain myself for the next two hours knowing I was going to have to go up and thank this actor for making my entire career as a music educator so effortless.

I took the famed hand of Antonio Salieri himself, warm and honest, and shook it heartily, gushing how much Amadeus meant to me all these years trying to make classical music come alive. He said, “You know, that movie is already 25 years old! Can you believe it?” I said yes, I knew that, because that’s practically how long I’ve been using it. I told him how it fascinates them, students remember the sound of Mozart and his genius many, many years after they leave my classroom. He said: “Oh, so you must be the reason kids come up to me talking about Mozart,” or something like that, and I said perhaps so, because it’s happened to me as well. I can be in the subway in the middle of Harlem and a kid can call out “Mozart!!” from across the tracks when he sees me.

There was too much substance for us to laugh at really, all we could do was marvel for a moment at the movie’s universal appeal. He told me that in a month he’d be seeing the movie's director, Milos Forman, again and was going to tell him about our conversation.

I felt some kind of circle was now complete.

I met Salieri.


  1. I showed parts of "Amadeus" when I taught music back in the '90's to learning disabled self contained kids. The fictional but dramatic conflict between Salieri and Mozart kept them interested, and the movie's rendering of costumes and customs of the times fascinated them. I couldn't hide my love for Mozart, my favorite composer since I was little. F. Murray was brilliant as Salieri. It's surprising what appeals to them. I also once showed them parts of the black and white "A Tale of Two Cities" when I taught world history. A little scene, the one where Parisian royalty run down a little boy in their carriage and leave him to die, left a great impression and graphically illustrated the great divide between the poor and the rich in France during that time. In my life, both movies are classics. You were so fortunate to meet F. Murray himself!

  2. Can I just say how jealous I am? I would love to meet FMA!

    So much great stuff in that movie (Personally, I loved Jeff Jones as Jospeh II)

    I discovered both the Requiem and the Mass in C minor through "Amadeus"