Wednesday, August 17, 2016
The Salieri Conspiracy
Antonio Salieri (1750 – 1825) was a central figure in the musical world of late eighteenth-century Vienna. Appointed by the Habsburg court as director of the Italian opera, he also served as the Austrian imperial Kapellmeister from 1788 to 1824. During his lifetime, Salieri wrote several operas that were performed extensively throughout Europe, while he was also an important and sought-after music teacher, counting celebrated composers such as Liszt, Schubert, and Beethoven among his pupils.
Salieri did not compose any new operas after 1804, his music gradually becoming less popular until it slowly disappeared from the repertoire during the first half of the nineteenth century. Towards the end of the last century, however, Salieri’s fame saw a somewhat unexpected revival, largely due to his depiction as the archrival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozartin Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (1979) and its subsequent cinematic adoption by Miloš Forman in 1984.
Salieri’s place in popular imagination as Mozart’s nemesis and even alleged murderer goes at least as far back as 1832, when Alexander Pushkin published his short poetic drama Mozart and Salieri. There, Pushkin has Salieri murdering Mozart by pouring poison in his drink, after acknowledging the latter’s undisputed musical genius. As Salieri exclaims in Pushkin’s play:What profundity!
What symmetry and what audacity!
You, Mozart, are a god — and you don't know it.
But I, I know.
But how much truth is there in this much-hyped conspiracy surrounding Salieri’s name? Very little, the historical evidence found so far suggest. It seems that during Mozart’s early years, while he was still trying to get established in Vienna, Salieri was indeed sometimes portrayed unfavorably in Mozart’s correspondence. In July, for example, 1783 Mozart wrote of “a trick of Salieri's” in a letter to his father, while in other instances he would also accuse Salieri of trickery. What is more, a rumour that Mozart had been poisoned by Salieri started to spread decades after Mozart’s death, further enhancing the theories behind Salieri’s alleged wicked character and malicious motives.
However, there is little evidence to support such kinds of claims outside the realm of fiction and popular imagination. The truth is that the two composers enjoyed a rather courteous and respectful relationship, especially after Mozart had managed to establish himself as a composer in Vienna. It appears that they often supported each other’s work, while they even composed together the cantata Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia for voice and piano (a work that, although thought to be lost, was recently identified and recovered by German musicologist Timo Herrmann in the archives of the Czech Museum of Music in Prague). It might also be worth adding that Mozart’s youngest son Franz Xaver Mozart, born just five months before his father’s death, received musical instruction by Salieri.
A prominent opera composer and music teacher with a significant impact upon subsequent composers of the Romantic era, Antonio Salieri no doubt deserves to be remembered differently than merely the man who envied Mozart to death. The revival of his fame over the last decades and the modest popularity his music has enjoyed through recent recordings is perhaps a late yet rightful vindication for the man whose life and work was so completely overshadowed by the blinding brightness of Mozart’s star.
Header image: Mikhail Vrubel, Salieri pours poison into Mozart's glass (1884)
Join me in the primephonic community