This piece first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Evangelization & Culture, the quarterly journal of the Word on Fire Institute. Learn more and become a member today to read more pieces like this.
Under any musical setting, the Dies Irae portion of a Requiem Mass, with its consideration of that momentous commingling of mercy and justice—the powerfully articulated cry of the heart for the first, even as the last is acknowledged as necessary—can seem ponderous and heavy.
The meditation was excised from the Requiem in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and perhaps we have lost something there, as none of us know (and few of us likely wonder about) what is happening in those infinitesimal moments when human souls are straddling the distance between the end of their material life and the beginning of their eternal one—what mercy is offered, or gratefully pursued.
It is something we see Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart thinking about in what is perhaps the most compelling scene in the film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus.
Culled wholly from Shaffer’s imagination, we watch as a gravely ill Mozart, striving to complete a commissioned Requiem for a mysterious masked client, decides to dictate the music—“already finished in his head”—to his fellow composer Antonio Salieri. Working through the mercy-pleading Confutatis section of the Mass, Mozart wonders aloud: “‘Confutatis maledictis’—when the wicked are confounded. ‘Flammis acribus addictis . . .’ How would you translate that?”
Salieri answers, “Consigned to flames of woe.”
“Do you believe it?”
“A fire which never dies,” Mozart explains, “burning you forever.”
“Oh, yes,” Salieri replies instantly.
Mozart seems less sure. “Possible,” he grants.
The dying composer seems less convicted than Salieri, but perhaps that is because, in understanding his own immense gift as something so singular as to entertain no rival, Mozart has no notion of the long-simmering jealousy that has inspired the over-praised court composer to secretly commission this very composition. He has no idea that the work he is so effortlessly dictating is music intended for his own funeral, and meant to debut under the baton, and the name, of Antonio Salieri.
The court composer more readily accepts the concept of enduring an everlasting fire because it is one that has already burned relentlessly in him, for his whole life—first in his pleas that God might make him “a great composer” (a bargain for which he has vowed himself to celibacy), and then in his instant perception, upon encountering Mozart firsthand, that his answered prayer was only half-granted, and that his own music was mere dross when compared to the otherworldly offerings of the diminutive, impulsive social butterfly before him. “This was a music I had never heard . . . the voice of God,” Salieri grieves as he wonders to a priest why the Creator would implant within his spirit such a deep desire to compose great music, “like a lust in my body,” and then show him, ultimately, to be a “mediocrity” able only to recognize the true greatness of another composer—and one so ill-mannered, vulgar, and unseemly too.
We recognize ourselves in Salieri—our jealousies, our resentment toward others who we deem unjustly blessed. We recognize how, despite having put forth our best efforts in good faith, there remains, often, a hopeless sense of what our lives and our work might have been if only God had allowed us the fullness of our dreams.
Salieri’s sense of having failed in the most passionate of his pursuits is common to all of us at some point in our lives, particularly for evangelists who find their offerings ultimately rejected. We wonder if we have taken a wrong turn, made the wrong choice, used the wrong Scripture verses to help bring a soul to faith. But we can surmount those feelings and ultimately find peace—even the peace beyond all understanding—if only we are willing to look away from what we desire, and recognize what we are truly meant to accomplish with our gifts. And Amadeus can actually help us to do that.
As depicted by Shaffer, neither Mozart nor Salieri seem fit for heaven. Mozart is the outwardly sinful libertine—able to give human expression to the tender longing of God for his creatures while unwilling to internalize that voice sufficiently enough to defeat (or even wish to defeat) his own pride and concupiscence. Indeed, he seems perpetually antsy, unable to rest at all, unless he is composing—when he is, as it were, cooperatively resting within the bosom of the Source.
Salieri, meanwhile, is the outwardly successful and devoted celibate whose interior jealousies and rage so torment him that, rather than unite himself to God from his own lesser sphere—to a paradoxically greater reward—he allows his frustrations to overwhelm him and tries to steal creation.
As he indulges his fury, spitefully working to keep Mozart impoverished and unsuccessful, Salieri’s greatest sin may be that he has completely failed to recognize (indeed has actively renounced) the true gifts he’d been given: first, the wholly despised ability to recognize another’s genius, and second, the means—through the powerfully connected offices and networks that came with his apparently half-answered prayer—to further God’s glory by supporting and promoting this “chosen” conduit.
When he prayed, “Make me a great musician,” it was with no notion that the prayer would demand anything at all of Salieri beyond his earnest sweat. Had his prayer contained a sincere longing to work fully within God’s will—had it contained the “Thy will be done” that even Christ uttered in complete submission at Gethsemane—he would have participated positively in the great communication of God’s love that poured out of Mozart, and had a share in the very glory he sought.
Instead, he wore his jealousy as a second skin, unable to cast it into those flames of surrender that burn from us all wrongly ordered ambitions for the sake of the Eternal. When Mozart’s wife, Constanza, enters into the scene of brilliant, fiery creation that has left Mozart spent and Salieri sizzling with light, she notices that the score strewn about her husband’s prone body is written in a hand not his own. As she seeks an explanation, we watch the court composer stand upright, chin raised, chest out, declaring, “No. It’s mine.” Superficially, he means the markings, but by his demeanor we see once more Salieri’s unresolved, greedy need to claim the work, at least some small part of it, as his own.
And with that, any further opportunity to help Mozart, and to participate in creation with him, is now gone; but Salieri’s ambition to steal from creation, to cheat the Creator’s intentions, is also thwarted. Having refused to cooperate with the Creator in the humbler fashion that was his portion, he is ultimately denied any portion at all. Rather than being remembered as the man who championed the one God chose to transcribe his voice, he will instead face his own ongoing flames of woe, living long enough to see himself, and his music, forgotten. Ironically, Salieri lives in precisely the kind of hell that the Requiem itself pleads against.
Hope has died, rather than thrived, for Salieri, because of his unwillingness, finally, to cooperate with the great and begraced gifts he’d been given but could never rightly see.
Any good teacher knows how satisfying it is to watch a student whose gifts they first spotted and encouraged become recognized by others. Great delight can be found in helping speed along God’s glory from the sidelines. To promote the giftedness of others is to assist in creation itself, part and parcel of participating in the great “Let there be” uttered by the I AM, which in its eternal affirmation and assent is even today ever-expanding the whole of the universe.
Evangelists, in particular, should be heartened to recognize God working through themselves in various, unexpected ways—ways that might seem humble (or humbling), yet are just as important as the efforts of more public and well-known evangelists. We should take note with gratitude, and perhaps a bit of awe, at how God begins to work through those we are teaching and encouraging, even when they begin to teach us.
Mozart’s Requiem, with or without the drama of Salieri’s rivalry, is a great lesson in how the smallest part of collaboration with creation brings all of us closer to the Creator. It is a transcendent piece of music, encouraging us to hope that—within those mysterious moments between life and death, where all possibilities make themselves known—justice and mercy will strike the very balance that Christ provides through his place on the cross, and lead us into paradise.
In a very real sense, the supplicant’s hope for mercy ends up being its own cooperation with the Creator as it seizes on the last, grasping chance to beseech a pardon—to ask forgiveness.
And that asking is the great work of hope whose expression has, since 1791, been assisted by the subsequent work of all the musicians, conductors, luthiers, vocalists, playwrights, and filmmakers who have perpetuated the initial creation. Mozart’s Requiem is the unequalled piece of music that takes sometimes terrifying ideas and—rather than tearing us listeners to pieces with them—lifts our hearts, minds, and, most importantly, our spirits into a realm of humility suffused with buoyant expectation, thanks to a continual cooperation with creation.