|Salieri: Truth or Fiction|
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Not until the success of Peter Shaffer’s film Amadeus has Antonio Salieri become a household name. However, this notoriety that Antonio Salieri has gained is far from desirable. He is reputed to be a mediocre composer with a passionate envy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It has even been alleged that Salieri went as far as to poison Mozart. Musicologists agree conclusively that this rumor has no substance. However, that has not prevented it from being spread by such works as Alexander Pushkin’s little tragedy "Mozart and Salieri." The popularity of Peter Shaffer’s dramatic play, Amadeus, and the movie that followed brought this image of Salieri to the masses. However, poor Salieri has not been served justice in history. Salieri was indeed an excellent composer who actually enjoyed more success in his lifetime than Mozart did in his time.
Antonio Salieri was born on August 18, 1750 in the little Italian town of Legnago, which was part of the Venetian territory. Salieri was sent to the public school to learn Latin, and was also taught by his brother, Francesco, in the study of violin, piano, and singing. Francesco was a very talented violinist and was often called upon to play for church festivals in the area surrounding Legnago. Salieri, having a taste for music from his infancy, would accompany his brother whenever there would be enough carriage space to accommodate him. Once when Salieri was ten years old his brother went off to play at a neighboring village. As usual, little Salieri wanted to join his brother and hear the wonderful music, in this case, a violin concerto. However, there was no room for him in the carriage, so he was not able to attend. Nonetheless, Salieri soon set off on foot to the village without asking permission from his parents. His parents were very worried by his disappearance, and when he returned his angry father threatened to confine him to his room for a week with a diet of nothing but bread and water if he ever attempted the offense again.
Young Antonio had no doubt that his father would stay true to his word if he was ever to try the same stunt. However, he would not pass up on future opportunities to hear beautiful music. It is in this story that a strange fact about Salieri surfaces: he was in love with sugar. Salieri reasoned that this imprisonment would be bearable if only he would have sugar to eat with the bread. Accordingly, he began to stockpile sugar in his room in case the time ever came where his father would indeed punish him as stated. The time soon came when Salieri’s brother went off to play and he could not bring his little brother. That morning, Salieri told a servant that he was going to mass. He fully intended on going to mass and then coming home. It just so happened that mass was on the way to where his brother was playing. Salieri could not resist and began to travel off to hear his brother play. However, a person that Salieri’s father had sent to keep watch of him brought Antonio back to the house before he began his journey. Salieri’s father was very upset and keeping his word sent Salieri to his room. Antonio was not very upset of his punishment for he was prepared with his sugar. He waited for his dinner and when the time came, a servant brought in the bread and water as his father had promised. When the servant left, Salieri went to retrieve his stockpile of sugar, but to his horror, it was gone. According to Alexander Wheelock Thayer in his work Salieri: Rival Of Mozart, Salieri wrote in a letter, "I had entrusted my secret to my sister; she had entrusted it to my mother, and she had entrusted it to my father, who on that very morning before I was brought back, had confiscated my entire stock as contraband of war" (27).
Returning to the matter of Salieri’s instruction in music, besides being taught by his talented brother, he was also taught by a local organist, Giuseppe Simone. He proved to be a very apt pupil in his studies of music. Even at a young age he had formed his own opinions of what good music should sound like. For example, Salieri frequently attended mass and vespers at a nearby convent. One day while Salieri was walking with his father, they encountered the monk who played organ at the convent. Salieri’s father greeted him kindly, while Antonio greeted him with noticeably less enthusiasm. When Salieri’s father asked him why he was so cold to the organist, he responded, "I don’t like him because he is a bad organist" (Thayer 28).
Misfortune soon struck the Salieri family with Antonio’s father and mother dying between the years 1763 and 1765. Antonio lived with a brother in Padua until some time in 1766. At this time, Giovanni Mocenigo, who was a friend of Antonio’s father and a well-off Venetian nobleman, took Antonio with him to Venice. He planned on sending Salieri to Naples to continue his musical education. In the meantime Salieri happened to attend the opening of an opera in Venice. Before the opera, a man in a large fur cloak came near Salieri to greet a woman. Salieri soon realized that the man was none other than Pietro Guglielmi, the composer of the opera. Guglielmi was so absorbed in his talk with the woman that he did not realize that the young Salieri was hugging his coat sleeve out of love for his music.
Salieri only stayed with Mocenigo for three months, but during this time he studied thorough bass with Giovanni Pescetti and signing with Ferdinando Pacini. There was to be held in Venice an opera called Achille in Sciro. Florian Leopold Gassmann, the court ballet and chamber music composer in Vienna, was called to Italy to compose the music for this opera. Ferdinando Pacini was employed to sing in the opera and came to know Gassmann. Pacini happened to mention the talented youth he was currently teaching. Gassmann took quite an interest to the young Salieri as he was very impressed with his singing and piano playing. He insisted that he take Antonio back to Vienna with him as his pupil in composition. So began Salieri’s career in Vienna where he would spend the rest of his life.
Interestingly, Gassmann made sure to take Salieri to the church as soon as they arrived in Vienna. According to Thayer, Salieri wrote that Gassmann told him, "I thought it my duty to begin your musical education with God. Now it will depend upon you whether its results shall be good or bad; I shall at all events have done my duty" (30). And so it was that Gassmann instructed Salieri only after having made this pact with God. Salieri had of course already mastered the piano, violin, and singing. He had knowledge of thorough bass and reading music came naturally to the talented young musician. In instructing the boy, Gassmann intended on making him a master at vocal composition and especially at operatic composition. Antonio was provided with a teacher of the languages of German and French. Don Pietro Tommasi, a priest, gave Antonio lessons in Latin, Italian, poetry, and anything else that would be relevant to his future profession. Gassmann began instructing Antonio in counterpoint. Gassmann insisted that Antonio restrict himself to learning the rules of music and not yet begin to compose. However, Salieri could not refrain from composing, and he did so in secret every chance he could.
At this time Joseph II was the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Joseph II is commonly referred to as the musical emperor. He was fairly gifted in music and saw to it that Vienna became the premiere musical city in Europe. Gassmann was the court ballet composer in Vienna. Joseph was very fond of Gassmann and his music. When he heard of the talented youth that Gassmann had brought back with him from Venice, he expressed that he would like to see him. Gassmann brought Antonio to the palace soon thereafter and the boy had a conversation with the Emperor. At first Salieri was very nervous and reluctant, but he soon became at ease with the kind Emperor and they proceeded to talk of music, his home and so on. Salieri also took the opportunity to express his gratitude to Gassmann whom he considered a second father. Joseph then requested that Salieri sing and play the piano for him. The emperor was very impressed with the boy’s singing and his skill on the piano. He requested that Gassmann be sure to bring his pupil with him whenever he came to the court. It was from this moment that Salieri endeared himself to the Emperor, a very important factor in his career progression. According to Grove Music Online, Salieri proved to indeed be "the greatest musical diplomat" as one of his students described him. He had a knack for befriending those that would be beneficial to his career. Besides befriending the Emperor, Salieri also befriended Gluck, a forefather of opera, and Metastasio, one of the finest librettists to this date, among many others he met along the way to his success.
Salieri soon had his chance to write real operas to be produced upon the stage. In 1769, Gassmann went to Rome to compose an opera for a carnival there. It so happened that Giovanni Gastone Boccherini had written a comic Italian opera libretto entitled Le donne letterate. It was intended that Gassmann compose the music for the opera. However, since Gassmann was in Italy, the composing duties were placed upon Salieri. Salieri, now twenty years of age, accepted this task with great enthusiasm. He worked very passionately on this opera until he completed it. On the opening night, Salieri was very anxious. He ran around the town to look upon the fliers with his name on them. When he arrived at the theatre, he was thrilled to see how many came to hear his first opera. The opera was performed to much applause and Salieri was greatly pleased. This was a fine comic opera, or opera buffa as it was called. Now Salieri turned his attentions towards writing a dramatic opera, or opera seria. In 1771, Salieri wrote Armida on a libretto by Marco Coltellini. The year 1772 was an important year for Salieri in which he composed three operas. Two were only moderately successful, but the first, La fiera di Venezia, was a major success. It made Salieri’s name known all throughout Europe. The Emperor Joseph helped to spread the word about the young composer in Italy and in France, for he had powerful connections there: his sister was Marie Antoinette and his brothers were Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Ferdinand, Governor of Lombardy. Joseph sent a copy of Salieri’s Armida to his brother Leopold and told him of the great success it enjoyed in Vienna. Leopold soon replied that he would like to have Salieri write an opera for Florence. So it came to be that Salieri was sought after throughout Europe for his compositions.
In 1774, Salieri lost his second father and benefactor. Gassmann died on January 22 of that year. Gassmann’s wife and children would always have a kind protector in Salieri. Joseph was very upset by the loss of his dear Kapellmeister Gassmann. He offered the now vacant position of imperial royal chamber composer to Salieri. He also appointed Salieri as the Kapellmeister to the Italian opera. Salieri was only 24 years of age at the time. In 1775, Salieri met his future wife, Therese von Helfersdorfer. However, before he could have her hand in marriage, he had to obtain permission from her guardian whom her father had appointed before he died. The guardian said that he would allow Salieri her hand in marriage if he was convinced that he could support her. Salieri told him that he earned 300 ducats as Kapellmeister of the Italian opera, a hundred ducats as imperial chamber composer, and that his compositions and music lessons brought in another 300 ducats annually. The guardian responded that Salieri could only count on the hundred ducats that he received from the court. He told Salieri to come back when his position improved. When the Emperor found out about this, he raised Salieri’s salary from one to three hundred ducats. Salieri returned to the guardian and he consented to the marriage which would eventually produce eight children.
In 1776, Joseph reorganized the court theatres with an emphasis on spoken drama. This allowed Salieri to return to his homeland to write opera there. Between the years 1778 and 1780, Salieri wrote five operas for theatres in Rome, Venice, and Milan. These were mainly comic operas. One of these comic operas was La scuola de’ gelosi, a work which up to this point was the most successful and established Salieri’s reputation all throughout Europe. In 1780, Joseph commissioned Salieri to write Singspiel, or a German opera, for the National theatre. Der Rauchfangkehrer was performed in 1781. It was one of only two German operas written by Salieri. It was very successful until it was overshadowed by another opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The composer of this opera was none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
A turning point in Salieri’s career occurred when Gluck was commissioned for a work by the Paris Opera. However, Gluck was too weak to compose the opera. He passed the duty on to Salieri. This opera, Les Danaïdes, was a major success when it was performed in Paris. Its success was such that the Paris Opera commissioned two more works from Salieri. The second, Les Horaces, was a failure due to bad luck on the part of the performers. However, the third, Tarare, was one of Salieri’s greatest triumphs. His Italian translation of this opera, Axur re d’Ormus, was just as big of a success.
In 1788, Salieri was made Hofkapellmeister by Joseph, a position which he filled until his retirement in 1824. From this point on he focused more on the administration of the court chapel and the composition of church music. Joseph II died February 20th of 1790. Rumors circulated that Salieri was to be dismissed or resign as Hofkapellmeister. However, the truth of the matter is that Salieri requested that his duties be reduced, agreeing to compose an opera every year for the court theatre. So began a decline in Salieri’s career, for he no longer had the patronage of Joseph II, the stimulating rivalry of Mozart, or the opportunity to write operas for France because of the Revolution.
Salieri continued to stay active in the music world even though his rate of composition slowed. He focused very much on his duties in the chapel and the music library. He also served as the president of the Tonkünstler-Societät, which was founded by Gassmann to support the widows and children of musicians. He conducted and composed much music for this society’s benefits. To be certain, Salieri did not just write operas; his range of compositions was very diverse. He wrote piano concertos, symphonies, masses, among many other types of music. In 1815, Salieri was responsible for directing and planning musical events for the Congress of Vienna.
Throughout Salieri’s busy life, he made teaching a priority. Not only was he a wonderful vocal and composition teacher, but most of the lessons that he gave were gratis. Salieri was forever grateful to the kindness of Gassmann in teaching him for free and taking him under his wing, and he returned the favor to many musicians including the likes of Beethoven, Schubert, and even Liszt. When teaching, he placed an emphasis on placing words to music, for this was his specialty.
There is indeed no evidence to support the idea that Salieri killed Mozart. In Salieri’s last years, he suffered a physical and mental breakdown. He was admitted to the Vienna general hospital and the rumor spread that Salieri accused himself of killing Mozart. However, there was no concrete evidence of this. It would have been very unreasonable to think that Salieri killed Mozart. For during the times that the two great composers were both alive they were, for the most part, friends. Of course, there were times when the two did not see eye to eye. This was only natural as Salieri and Mozart came from different musical traditions and wrote in very different styles. On the whole, they got along with one another fine. It was even reported that Salieri came to visit Mozart on his deathbed. It is also reported that Salieri was one of the few who attended Mozart’s funeral. It is now widely accepted that Mozart’s cause of death was rheumatic inflammatory fever.
Thus, it is very unfortunate that Salieri, such a brilliant person and composer, would be defamed as such by the likes of Pushkin and those who rumored against him. He was indeed a truly outstanding person. As a family man and a musician, balancing both demanding efforts, there were no rivals. Fortunately, Salieri’s reputation is now being cleared. More and more people are becoming aware of his works through new recordings and increasing numbers of performances of his music. Much of this revival can be credited to his being brought to the spotlight by the movie Amadeus, which while factually inaccurate, never actually directly indicts Salieri of killing Mozart. Hopefully, one day Salieri’s music will be played again worldwide in all its glory and he will receive the credit that he so rightfully deserves.
Braunbehrens, Volkmar. "Maligned Master: The Real Story of Antonio Salieri." New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1992.
Mandelstam, Nadezhda. "Mozart and Salieri." Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1973.
Pushkin, Alexander. "Mozart and Salieri: The Little Tragedies." Trans. Antony Wood. London: Angel Books, 1982.
Reid, Robert. "Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri: Themes, Character, Sociology." Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.
Shaffer, Peter. "Amadeus." New York: Perennial, 2001.
Thayer, Alexander Wheelock. "Salieri: Rival of Mozart." Kansas City: The Philharmonia of Greater Kansas City, 1989. Ed. Theodore Albrecht.
"Antonio Salieri", Grove Music Online
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