About half-way through the film Iron Man (2008), there is a scene in which the main villain Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), plays piano for Tony Stark aka Robert Downey Jr. aka Iron Man. It takes place when Stark is beginning to construct his Iron Man suit, and before it becomes apparent that Stane will be his antagonist. When I saw the movie in theaters, I wasn't sure what piece Bridges played. It's only a few seconds of music, rather stiffly performed (I'm not sure if Bridges was the actual pianist), sounding Classical-period and vaguely Mozartean.
But director Jon Favreau did something pretty smart, albeit not that smart. I noticed in the credits that the piano music was by Antonio Salieri, apparently the Larghetto from his Piano Concerto in C. Salieri is, of course, famous for something he didn't do: kill Mozart. But they were rivals. And here's where the Iron Man conundrum comes in. Favreau casts Bridges as the second-in-command of Downey Jr.'s company, the hard-working man who runs Stark Industries while Iron Man comes up with all the ideas. So by having Bridges play a kind of Salieri, Favreau establishes the Salieri-Mozart/workman-genius dynamic made famous in Amadeus. The parallels with Amadeus abound: just like the movie's depiction of Mozart, Stark is a party animal and a bit of a womanizer, in stark contrast with his mechanical brilliance. And Favreau has Stane go crazy and try to kill Stark, just as in Amadeus. Granted, Salieri didn't dress up in a giant robot suit.
This quick allusion, though clever, is based on false pretenses. Salieri is known in pop culture as the insane murderer of Mozart, and Favreau is co-opting the truth-bending of Amadeus to add an extra layer to Iron Man. It's a weird relationship that classical music often has to deal with. Last summer I was listening to Die Walkure in my car, and the Ride happened to come on when a non-musical young friend of mine was riding shotgun. He asked me why we were listening to army music.
It's obvious that classical music, just like anything old, takes on multiple meanings over time and is refracted in different ways through culture. The Ride is now more famous as the song from Apocalypse Now than as the prelude to Act III of Wagner's opera. But it becomes a little weird when actual people become fictionalized, and their historical identities are dwarfed by these adaptations. This is something that might be unique to classical music. No one takes Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to be the real Caesar, or for a more contemporary example--no one thinks Shakespeare in Love is a true story. But Mozart has become the foul genius of Amadeus, and Salieri the murderer.
Is it bad, though, that people know Salieri for something he's not? If he weren't the "murderer", we probably wouldn't have as much interest in him. Certainly the small amount of music that we hear by him would diminish. And there would be no reason for his Piano Concerto to be in Iron Man. His name is probably better known to the public than one of classical music's real murderers.
I discovered recently that the Salieri myth is not just something perpetuated by Amadeus--it was a real rumor in 19th-century Europe. An interesting conversation between Rossini and Wagner took place in Paris in 1860, as documented by Edmond Michotte in La Visite de R. Wagner a Rossini. Salieri's name comes up briefly (p. 40):
Rossini: "Incidentally, Salieri had enjoyed equally good relations with Mozart [in comparison to his relations with Beethoven]. After the latter's death, it was suggested-and even seriously charged--that out of professional jealousy he had killed him by means of a slow poison..."
Wagner: "That rumor was still current in Vienna in my time."
The idea that Salieri poisoned Mozart was dramatized in 1830 by Pushkin in his drama Mozart and Salieri, which was turned into an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1897.
So you could argue, actually, that Iron Man is simply perpetuating a hundred-and-eighty-year-old tradition; an invented tradition, but a tradition nonetheless.