- Born: Legnano, Italy, 18 August 1750
- Died: Vienna, Austria, 7 May 1825
Antonio Salieri has been rather hard done by. He was the leading opera composer in late 18th century Vienna; he triumphed in Italian opera buffa, opera seria, and in French tragédie lyrique. He served as court composer, director of Italian opera, and later Kapellmeister to Maria Theresa, Joseph II, Leopold II, and Francis II. Gluck named him his artistic heir, and Salieri taught Beethoven, Meyerbeer, Liszt, and Schubert.
Most people remember him as the envious schemer who murdered Mozart, and a mediocre composer to boot. Neither is true. Pushkin, Shaffer, and Forman have much to answer for.
Salieri was born at Legnano, near Milan, in 1750, the son of a businessman who went bankrupt and died of shame when Antonio was a teen. His mentor, the Hapsburg court composer Florian Gassmann, whom he always loved and revered, brought him to Vienna in 1766; he made his operatic debut there in 1770 with Le donne litterate, after Molière: a modest success. Three more opere buffe and an opera seria, Armida (1771), drew the Habsburg court’s attention to him, and on Gassmann’s death in 1774, Salieri succeeded him as chamber composer.
When Vienna’s Italian opera company went bankrupt in 1777, Joseph declared that court-owned theatres would only perform ‘German’ music and drama – not Italian opera, French drama, or ballet.
So Italy beckoned. Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta was the first opera ever performed at La Scala, Milan, in 1778; the same year, his Scuola de’ gelosi was a hit in Venice. Five years later, its performance in Vienna (April 1783) marked that city’s return to opera buffa. Some, though, would consider his greatest service to the form was to bring Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s future librettist, to Vienna.
Two of Salieri’s greatest successes were in Paris: Gluck was commissioned to compose Les Danaïdes, a powerful tale of revenge and slaughter on a wedding night; the elderly, ill musician felt himself unequal to the task, and entrusted it to his protégé. Performed into the 1820s, it impressed the teenaged Berlioz. Tarare (1787) was another triumph, with a libretto by Beaumarchais. It is both a satire of absolute monarchism and almost entirely through-composed, 60 years before Wagner.
“Without possessing one of those creative geniuses that imprint a direction on the art of their time,” Fétis wrote, “his talent was certainly all the more remarkable in that he was able to modify its character and present it under various aspects.” Fétis singled out his writing for the voice – even when an enthusiast for Gluck’s declamatory style – and thought nobody knew better than he how to create a dramatic effect or return to an idea in his music.
By the mid-19th century, however, a black legend had sprung up around the Italian composer. He was the enemy of the deified Amadeus, who plotted against Mozart, then poisoned him.
“The salient feature of Salieri’s artistic physiognomy,” Clément (1878) wrote, “is all-consuming productivity. This musician had great successes during his lifetime, but posterity only knows fragments of correct craftsmanship, but denuded of feeling and warmth. Why such forgetfulness after so much vogue? Because for definite and lasting glory, the savoir-faire of a skillful man is not worth the naïve simplicity of a man of genius. Salieri may have fooled his contemporaries; he was able to eliminate the young talents who overshadowed him, and so conquer, by means foreign to his merit, a usurped reputation. What he could not do was to impress the character of immortality on works which he took so much care to secure momentary fortune.” (Almost identical sentiments were expressed about Meyerbeer and Wagner.)
True, Salieri, 32 years after Mozart’s death, tried to cut his throat; he apparently accused himself in his delirium of the crime. This story is based on a rumor spread by the hack librettist Calisto Bassi and by Beethoven’s secretary and biographer Anton Schindler.
Salieri denied the accusation; shortly before he died, he told the composer Ignaz Moscheles: “You know, of course, that I’m said to have poisoned Mozart. But I didn’t! Malice, nothing but malice! Tell the world, my dear Moscheles, that old Salieri said this to you on his deathbed.”
Mozart probably died from a streptococcal infection, food poisoning from rotten pork, or rheumatic fever. But legend loves a villain. Salieri – along with Jews and Masons, the other popular suspects – can probably be exonerated.
And the criticism largely repeats the Mozart myth, and calumnies Salieri. So we have the plotter, the poisoner, the Machiavelli, – all negative stereotypes of the Italian, circulating in a German-speaking country. The man himself, Fétis wrote, appears to have been amiable, benevolent, light-hearted, witty, and eccentric, with many friends among both artists and in the world at large, and a love of sweets, chattering in a mixture of Italian, German, and French – not the “little, dark, miserly, quaint, odd, rather vain (I judge), and envious Italian” Thayer (1863-64) described.
If anything, Mozart seems to have been envious of Salieri. We find him in 1781 telling his father “the only one who counts in [the emperor’s] eyes is Salieri”. Are any of Mozart’s operas unsuccessful? Salieri and the Italian “cabal”, with their underhand “tricks”. Mozart can’t get a court post, or teach piano to princesses? That fine Italian hand again. “Salieri and his tribe will move heaven and earth to put it down.”
Mozart was all too suspicious and hostile of other musicians; he “was by no means a good colleague,” Einstein (1946) admits, “astonished and even distressed to encounter in his letters … the most malicious reports about musical contemporaries”. Mozart slandered Jommelli, Michael Haydn, Beecké, Vogler, Schweitzer, Clementi, Fischer, and Hässler; and he seldom praised his musical influences: Gluck, whom he distrusted, Boccherini, Viotti, or Misliveczek.
But Salieri and Mozart were also colleagues, mutually respectful, even perhaps friends. They collaborated on a cantata for the recuperation of the soprano Nancy Storace. (Mozart later used Salieri’s melody for an aria in Così fan tutte, which the impresario Carl Rafferty told me was “Mozart recognizing quality in his colleague’s work, and paying a sweet homage”.) Salieri conducted Mozart’s masses and symphonies, and premiered the Clarinet Quintet and 40th Symphony in G Minor. Mozart took Salieri and his mistress to see The Magic Flute, which the Italian composer praised. (This has, of course, been reinterpreted as Mozart ‘buttering up’ an influential rival who blocked his promotion.)
In recent years, there’s been a move to rehabilitate Salieri – partly a response to Amadeus, which vilified him. More than a dozen of his operas have been performed, even recorded, with positive reviews. Cecilia Bartoli recorded an album of Salieri arias. In May 2019, Alex Ross wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker on this sympathetic, underrated composer.
Mozart was a greater composer, but not immeasurably greater. To call Salieri the ‘patron saint of mediocrities’, as Shaffer does in his play, sets the bar for mediocrity too high. Salieri’s operas are tuneful, excellently crafted, inventive in their orchestration, and sometimes startlingly progressive in outlook…
The classical-music world has fostered a kind of gated community of celebrity composers. Our star fixation produces the artistic equivalent of income inequality, in which vast resources fall into the hands of a few. That arrangement lands particularly hard on contemporary composers, who must compete with a group of semi-mythical figures who are worshipped as house gods. Salieri is better seen as the patron saint of musicians who prefer to live in a republic of like-minded souls rather than in an authoritarian regime where only certain voices count.
- Le donne letterate (1770)
- L’amore innocente (1770)
- Don Chischiotte alle nozze di Gamace (1771)
- La moda, ossia scompigli domestici (1771)
- Armida (1771) **
- La fiera di Venezia (1772) ***+
- Il barone di Rocca antica (1772)
- La secchia rapita (1772)
- La locandiera (1773)
- La calamità de’ cuori (1774)
- La finta scema (1775)
- Daliso e Delmita (1776)
- Europa riconosciuta (1778) ****
- La scuola de’ gelosi (1778) ****
- La partenza inaspettate (1779)
- Il talismano (1779, revised 1788; Acts 2 and 3 by Giacomo Rust)
- La dama pastorella (1780)
- Der Rauchfangkehrer, oder Die unentbehrlichen Verräther ihrer Herrschaften aus Eigennutz (1781)
- Semiramide (1782)
- Les Danaïdes (1784) *****
- Il ricco d’un giorno (1784)
- La grotta di Trofonio (1785)
- Prima la musica e poi le parole (1786)
- Les Horaces (1786) ***
- Tarare (1787) *****
- Axur, re d’Ormus (1788)
- Cublai gran kan de’ Tartari (composed 1788; first performed 1998)
- Il pastor fido (1789)
- La cifra (1789)
- Catilina (composed 1792; first performed 1994)
- Il mondo alla rovescia (1795)
- Eraclito e Democrito (1795)
- Palmira, regina di Persia (1795)
- Il moro (1796)
- I tre filosofi (composed 1797, but unperformed)
- Falstaff, ossia Le tre burle (1799)
- Cesare in Farmacusa (1800)
- L’Angiolina ossia Il matrimonio per Susurro (1800)
- Annibale in Capua (1801)
- La bella selvaggia (composed 1802, but unperformed)
- Die Neger (1804)