What’s In a Name?

In addition to many wonderful memories and a stack of terrific books, the other thing that I brought home with me from the mystery writers’ convention Malice Domestic this year was a case of COVID. Not a bad case–it felt pretty much like a garden variety head cold. But I had to quarantine myself, nevertheless, and therefore spent a lot of time hanging out at home watching old movies.

One of those was Amadeus.

my DVD of the movie

That film–adapted from the stage play by Peter Shaffer–has special meaning for me. When it first came out in 1984, I was just becoming interested in opera. My friend Valerie (with whom I had played in the Cabrillo College orchestra—me on clarinet, she on violin) used to get together to drink wine and listen to operas together, and when Amadeus was released, we went to see it together. Both of us were much taken with the movie, and started listened to more Mozart afterwards, including Don Giovanni and the Requiem in D minor.

I met Robin the following year, and the first evening we spent together I apparently raved to her about Amadeus. She went home and searched the whole Bay Area for a theater screening the film—no simple task in that pre-internet era—and finally found one in San Francisco. She then called to ask me on a date to go up to the City to see the movie, but alas, I was out of town for the weekend and did not get her message until after it had left the theater. But wasn’t that romantic of her?

Then, years later, I decided to make the Mozart Requiem a focal point of my second Sally Solari mystery, A Measure for Murder. (The Requiem has a mystery of its own, since it wasn’t completed by the time of Mozart’s death, and there remain questions to this day as to who in fact completed the piece.) I’d recently sung this glorious mass with the Cabrillo Chorus, and thought it would make for a great subplot in a murder mystery.

yours truly singing with the Cabrillo Chorus at Carnegie Hall

I hadn’t seen Amadeus in many years, and that night as I rewatched it, I pondered—as I have before—the title of the film. For although Amadeus was Mozart’s middle name,* no one refers to him that way; it’s always either “Mozart” or “Wolfgang.” But then, neither of those two names has the ring of the name Amadeus—which rolls off the tongue in a lovely way—so I’d always figured that was the reason for the film’s title.

But lying in bed after watching the movie, I started thinking about the Salieri character—how he had dedicated his life to the love of God and wanted nothing more than the ability to compose beautiful music for His glorification. But then Salieri becomes possessed with anger that his God has endowed the “obscene” boor Mozart with such musical genius, making Salieri—a devout Catholic—seem a mediocre composer in comparison. Salieri therefore rejects God, and decides to dedicate the rest of his life to destroying this “creature” whom God has chosen over him.

And then I thought again about the title of the film, and it hit me—like one of those light bulbs in a cartoon.

light bulbs of Thomas Edison at the Huntington Library, Pasadena

Amadeus. Ama Deus. That’s Latin for both “loved by God” and “lover of God”.

Duh! How could I have never thought of it before—it seemed so obvious now. That is, of course, the irony: It’s Salieri who has dedicated his life to the love of God. He is the lover of God “ama-deus.” But it’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whom God has chosen– the beloved of God version of “ama-deus.”

Very clever Mr. Shaffer.

*It turns out that “Amadeus” wasn’t even really Mozart’s middle name, but merely a nickname he sometimes adopted. See here, if you’re interested.

Readers: Have you ever had an AH-HAH moment about the title or meaning of a book you’ve read or film you’ve seen?

25 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?

  1. Fascinating! Love how you put that all together. I also love that I didn’t get covid, in spite of being around you more than once at Malice! At least my test was negative. If I had it, it was the lightest case ever.

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  2. Leslie, what a great post to mull with my coffee this am. I was so touched by Robin’s romantic gesture, and I am glad you explained more about the movie to me, because for some reason I remember being a little confused by it in general. (No connection between Solieri and Solari, right?) I also want to know more about the little girl in the left forefront of that choral photo. Offhand, I can’t think of specific titles, but I was always intrigued by Turn of the Screw. And weirdly, there were 2 TV show titles that have stuck with me since I was a kid: Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and My World and Welcome to It. Somehow I think I always knew I’d be a writer (as opposed to a cartoonist) and my life would be delightfully and hopelessly…chaotic.

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    1. Ha! No relationship between Salieri and Solari–other than the fact they’re both Italian! As for that gal, she was/is a pistol! We actually became pretty good buds during that trip to NYC. And I was always fascinated by the title “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” too.

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  3. OMG, I have a history with Amadeus. I saw it first in London, then twice in NY on Broadway, once when a friend took over the part of Amadeus. I got to compare the approaches in the two cities. (In London, they really played up what a coarse boor he was; they toned it down for the U.S.) But THEN I eventually also got to meet Peter Shaffer, a nice man with a self-deprecating sense of humor. You’d never know he was an esteemed playwright.

    I never thought about this title and name. I feel like I have an example – but I can’t think of it right now!

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    1. How fun to get to see the two versions of the play! I got to see a great production of the play years ago, here in Santa Cruz. Fascinating to see the difference between it and the movie. And how cool that you got to meet Peter Shaffer–what a talented playwright!


  4. I had no idea. Leslie. that is so cool! I don’t know that I’ve ever had an a-ha moment like that. Those types of things usually fly right over my head. BTW, there was a wonderful interview with F. Murray Abraham on Fresh Air not long ago where he talks at length about the making of Amadeus. So entertaining!

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  5. Thanks for sharing that illuminating a-ha moment. “Ama Deus” sure had not occurred to me until I read this blog post. I have a vivid memory of that call and romantic invitation from Robin, as I’m the one she left the message with, in those days when you were temporarily living with me and nobody had cell phones yet. (Also: I thought that was me in that choral photo at first, LOL.) Signed, your sister

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  6. What a great post, Leslie!
    I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that was not a ah-ha moment for that. But I do recall a commercial for Kellogg’s cereal back in the day, probably when you were a lil young whipper snapper. It was a commercial where someone asked someone else what they were eating, and they said “nut and honey”. Great look on the drill sergeant’s face when he was told that by one of his recruits. It took me probably 2-3 years before I figured out they were saying “nut and honey”, and the other people were hearing “nothing honey”.
    Good times!

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  7. Interesting, Leslie! I’m a fan of the movie, and now want to go watch it again. A friend gave us the soundtrack for a wedding present. We listened to it a LOT! Not a huge opera fan, but I do love The Marriage of Figaro.

    As for titles, of course I can’t think of one when I need an example, but I love those cryptic titles that come from an obscure phrase in the book—often toward the end—which is lovely and poetic, but means nothing until BAMMO you read the phrase in the text and the entire book falls into place. I tried to do that with one of the books I wrote for kids— The Armor of Light. Means nothing, right? Until it does ….

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  8. Great post, Leslie! I’m gullible. I always took it on faith that Amadeus was Mozart’s middle name. And that hit song, Rock Me Amadeus, was complicit in reinforcing that impression!
    And it sounds like Robin was smitten with you right away, going to all that trouble to plan the perfect date!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. So cool, Leslie! Love this film–and all of the performances were incredible. Such a cool take on the title. Wow!

    That is one of the moments I enjoy most in literary studies, when the title of a piece, the potentially deeper meaning of it, becomes clear. (Always appreciate the conversation in the classroom when we discuss As I Lay Dying or Alias Grace.)

    Hope you are feeling so much better now.

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