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When You’re Salieri

by Peter BollandAugust, 2017

The 1984 film Amadeus presents a fictionalized biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The movie, and the Peter Shaffer play that preceded it, drives serious Mozart scholars nuts because it’s completely made up. But who says art has to be true?

What’s fascinating about Amadeus is the relationship between its two adversaries: a young, brash Mozart and an older composer named Antonio Salieri. In real life, the two were friends, and in many ways Salieri mentored Mozart. But the playwright Shaffer had a different set of issues to explore–in a word, envy. Everyone knows who Mozart is, but Salieri isn’t exactly a household name. Shaffer’s play, and Milos Forman’s film, plunge us into the depths of the despair every artist feels–envy for those more successful than we are.

As Shaffer tells the story, Salieri was a reasonably successful composer. He wrote very good music. But everyone, especially Salieri, could see that Mozart had something Salieri could never have: a natural, effortless greatness. Even though Mozart was undisciplined and lazy, the music he dashed off on the fly far surpassed Salieri’s well-crafted and well, boring compositions. This tortured Salieri. He eventually went mad and plotted to have Mozart killed. As I said, none of this actually happened. But Shaffer’s play and Forman’s film are not interested in historical documentation–they are using the Mozart story to open a wound, a wound every artist knows as well as the back of their hand.

All of us who paint or write or act or dance or sing or make films or in any other way create art instinctively recognize Salieri’s pain. We simultaneously loathe him for what he did to Mozart, and absolutely understand why he did it. No matter how successful you are as an artist, there’s always someone better. Envy is a dark and chaotic emotion. We all feel it. The trick is to transmute it into action. Rather than wallowing in self-pity when confronted with the genius of your artistic rivals, you simply have to get back to work and dig deeper to try and discover your own genius. Use envy to drive you toward your own excellence.

Very few artists ever “make it,” whatever that even means. The fact is, most singer-songwriters will never move beyond the relatively small circle of their city’s small and insular music scene. Sure they make a few records. They get a little local radio play. They get some media attention. They open for a few national acts. But then five years slip by, then ten, then 20, and the realization looms larger and larger–you’ve already peaked. There’s nothing waiting for you up ahead. That fantasy you used to indulge in, of wider acclaim, is never going to happen.

But a few of you made it out. Some of the singer-songwriters you used to share the scene with are now huge international stars. And you know why. Because you were there 30 years ago in the coffeehouses alongside them. You saw it then. And you felt it. They had chops you didn’t have. They had an energy you didn’t have. Their songs had a clarity yours lacked. It was intrinsic, it was inherent, it was effortless, and it was magical.

You went home and tried to write some new songs, songs that did that. And you couldn’t, because you aren’t them. You can’t be somebody else. The best art is never imitation. Great art never chases someone else’s power–it unfolds its own. So you resolved to be a better you, the best you you could possibly be. And you did that. And it still wasn’t enough.

What should you do when you realize that you’re Salieri, not Mozart? How do you make peace with the fact that your art is mediocre?

You have to shift your expectations and transform the very reason you even make art. You have to rediscover that love of playing, singing, and writing you had long before you ever got on stage, before your first open-mic–that pure, for-the-love-of-it enthusiasm. You lost a bit of that when you got in the game, when you competed for bookings, when you scratched the money together to make your first record, and your second, and your fifth, when you brought the awards home and still felt empty when you didn’t get the cover story or the TV slot, and they did; when you didn’t get national radio play, but they did.

The damn thing about it is this–when you sit down to write a song, even now, you think big. You believe this could be it, this could be the one that really connects with people, this is as good as anything on the radio, hell better. This is so beautiful. In the midst of any act of creation, you have to believe that, or why bother? You open the floodgates and pour everything you think, everything you feel, and everything you know into it. And in the following days when the dew is off the rose and your manic enthusiasm fades and you hear your song objectively and realize, oh, it’s just another so-so song, like all the others, derivative of its influences, unclear, forgettable, underwhelming. You begin to doubt your judgment. Am I naïve? Self-absorbed? Or just stupid?

It can really eat you up.

Nearly every song is born a masterpiece and dies as dreck. If you aren’t willing to take that deal, then you don’t get to be a singer-songwriter. That’s the awful bargain. It’s a brutal business, this business of creating art. Making art means making friends with failure.

Coming to terms with the fact that you’re more like Salieri than Mozart takes time. It takes time to let go and transmute your music from career-launching Great Art into middle-aged hobby. But it is possible. Hell, just look around. We’re all doing it.

But here’s the good news–what at first feels like defeat transforms into joyful gratitude. You look back and you have to laugh–the piles of show posters, the unsold boxes of your CDs and band T-shirts, the wall hook with the tangle of backstage lanyards, the music awards trophy shelf, the camaraderie with your tribe, the 10,000 small victories–you wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. The fact is, if you made art, you made a difference, even if the wider world didn’t notice.

Salieri went mad, at least in the fictionalized version of the story. But we don’t have to. We can graciously set aside our youthful yearnings. We can mentor other artists coming up. We can tap into our considerable experience and teach voice, guitar, stagecraft, or marketing. We can produce. We can turn lovingly, consciously, gratefully, to whatever’s next. And we can keep playing on the side, on whatever scale we want, unburdened by the ambition that plagued our younger days, just for the sheer joy of it.

Because when you let go, the joy comes back into your music. But it takes time. It takes time to learn how to no longer feel defeated just at the sight of a guitar.

Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at

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