Was Mozart a moral idiot? The question may seem impertinent. But with the road show of the Broadway play ''Amadeus'' whistle-stopping around the country, and the movie version being written by the playwright, it begs to be answered. Because that is exactly what most theater and moviegoers will think after meeting the Mozart of ''Amadeus.''
In the play, Mozart is portrayed as an infantile character who happens to be blessed with an accidental connection to heaven. He receives his musical ideas as a divine gift, neatly tied in celestial bows, while he goes about 18 th-century Europe cavorting with any willing partner and prattling a lot of childish, scatological nonsense.
The thing that lends dignity to the proceedings is a weaving together of two subthemes: the development of Mozart's creative genius and the tragedy of his personal circumstances.
Using these twin strands and a masterly sense of drama, playwright Peter Shaffer crafts ''Amadeus'' into a remarkably moving evening of theater. If Shaffer had written theplay about anyone else, it might have taken its place high on the list of pseudo-historical narratives that rewrite the lives of distant figures.
But this is Mozart. And Mozart is special. Let me explain.
On the door of an upper chamber in Boris Goldovsky's Brookline, Mass., home is a plaque inscribed ''His serene highness Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Private Chambers.''
Inside this room one finds the collected treasures of a Mozart scholar who has spent a lifetime studying the composer, playing his concertos, and producing his operas.
Not every musical thinker has a private room devoted to Mozart. But I have never spoken with any conductor or composer who did not harbor a special place in his heart for Mozart. ''To me, No. 1 - the only one, really - is Mozart,'' says Polish composer Andrezj Panufnik. And Gustav Mahler's last words were ''Mozart, darling, Mozart,'' as a radiant smile appeared on his face.
Musicians may disagree about one composer or another, but they tend to be unanimous about Mozart. Mozart is not only admired, but loved.
He is widely regarded as probably the most gifted musical thinker ever to walk this planet, which accounts for the awe he inspires in other musicians. But he also had no peer in the business of translating human feelings into musical forms. Bruno Walter, the great Mozart interpreter, once said that his music ''speaks to anyone who has a human heart.''
Indeed it does. After 16 weeks of listening almost exclusively to Beethoven - and thinking in the back of my mind that, as great as he was, Mozart was greater - I played Mozart's G-minor symphony one day. From the first measure, I knew what it was about Mozart that set him apart from everyone: Beethoven struggled all his life to get into heaven; Mozart was already there.
Recently I searched through dozens of Mozart recordings, read several volumes of analysis, and discovered the truth of what Boris Goldovsky pointed out in his Mozart room: There is so much to Mozart that even the best scholarship confines itself to some isolated manifestation of his genius.
No other composer shares his universality. Mozart was no revolutionary, in the sense that Beethoven was. He did not set out to change the musical forms of his day. He was content to write the consummate masterpiece in each form.
This much is acknowledged by most scholars, and you can find it all codified and analyzed in the myriad studies of Mozart's work. What you cannot find there is the Mozart that Walter described, the one who speaks to the human heart. As one Mozart scholar said about the G-minor symphony, ''I have found a few people who could describe what was happening, but no one who could really explain whym .''
This ''why'' is hidden somewhere in the nature and character of a complicated man who could be devastatingly critical and immature in his personal relationships, and yet unutterably profound in his music. Mozart's music speaks of things that we barely understand in our better moments; it is a living testament to the human spirit.
More than anywhere else, more than in the many letters, more than in the few authentic portraits, a picture of the man who speaks to the human heart is to be found in Mozart's voluminous musical creations.
This is where so many musicians seem to find the essential Mozart. They find him in the wistful despairing of the G-minor symphony, the continuously enriching themes of ''Sinfonia Concertante,'' the profound grief of the Requiem, the interweavings of character studies in ''Don Giovanni.''
It is in the category of opera that musicologists find the most unparalleled Mozart. ''His ability to translate human emotions into musical terms is unequaled,'' Goldovsky maintains. ''Mozart was not a very learned man,'' adds Dr. Christoph Wolff, a specialist in 18th-century music. ''But there is plenty of evidence that he was an extraordinary judge of literary issues.''
These literary issues in Mozart's operas have to do with the creation of musical characters and their development through music and drama. ''By the end of the 18th century, the idea that Mozart was a musical Shakespeare had become a pretty stock comparison,'' points out Charles Rosen, author of the highly acclaimed book ''The Classical Style.'' Rosen adds that the comparison is still a fair one today.
Musicologists welcome any new light of realism thrown on Mozart, who in the 19th century had been treated like some porcelain idol. But no one I have spoken with is prepared to accept the portrait of Mozart as a stunted adolescent.
''It just isn't true!'' Goldovsky exclaims. ''I know this man like my brother. He was a perfectly ordinary human being. Like most geniuses, there was nothing exceptional about him in everyday life. His major problem was that he was an unimpressive physical specimen. But he wasn't an 'obscene child,' as that play tries to portray him.''
Goldovsky and others maintain that no ''obscene child'' could have worked out the incredibly taxing musical and emotional problems in Mozart's music. Recent evidence shows that the composer sketched these problems out and mulled them over far more than had been supposed. By carefully examining inks and papers, Mozart scholars have done away with the notion that his creations, especially the later works, were dashed off in an afternoon.
It is true that Mozart sometimes worked at a speed that seemed to defy human comprehension. (He could compose a piece entirely in his head, commit it to memory, and produce it on paper as much as a year later.) But it is equally apparent that he thought deeply about the human and musical issues in his work.
Shaffer's thesis is based mostly on the heavenly themes that soar through Mozart's musical architecture. It fails to grapple with the real genius of Mozart's work: ''Of course, there were the themes,'' argues director Peter Sellars, who once staged ''Don Giovanni.'' ''But there was also the development of these themes. And this development involved serious problems that very intelligent people thought about for a long time.''
With Beethoven, Goldovsky explains, we have the sketchbooks. We can see how he slowly, tortuously worked out his musical themes. ''But, for the most part, with Mozart the music is just there. All in one piece. It's something apart. We can't touch it.
''And that is what they want to do in that play. They want to touch it. They can't touch the creative genius, so they go after the human personality.
''It is slander, slander about a dear friend.''