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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

On the Fringe: Antonio Salieri

If I told you this music was written by Mozart or the young Beethoven, or even Schubert, there wouldn't be anything in it to immediately suggest I wasn't telling you the truth.

It is in fact a wind serenade written by Antonio Salieri, made famous (or perhaps infamous) by the play and movie Amadeus. Salieri is the man who supposedly hated Mozart, who some say even poisoned Mozart, and who was supposedly a bitter, mediocre and untalented hack.

It's all nonsense of course. Except for the bit about Salieri writing that music; that much is true. But as for hating Mozart, poisoning him and being a bitter, mediocre and untalented hack: forget it. Such things might make great plays and movies, but if all you know about Salieri is what you've seen in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus then you actually know very little about the real Salieri. Amadeus is a great play which was made into a stupendous movie, and F Murray Abraham gives an astounding performance as Salieri in the latter, but it's a Salieri of fiction. Welcome to an overview of the real Antonio Salieri, who has for too long been “on the fringe”.

Antonio Salieri was born in Legnano in the Veneto region of northern Italy on 18 August 1750. is father, Antonio senior, was active in local civic life and an agricultural merchant by profession. Young Antonio's earliest musical studies were undertaken locally, studying with his older brother Francesco and the local Cathedral organist, Giuseppe Simoni. When he was in his early teens both of his parents died and thus began an extraordinary series of events which took the young musician to the heart of European music-making.

After being orphaned, Salieri was taken to Padua to be cared for by a monk whose identity is now not known. He then came under the protection of the influential Venetian Mocenigo family, for reasons that are now obscure. He went to live in Venice when he was about 15 and continued his music studies there, initially with the organist and composer Giovanni Battista Pescetti and then, on Pescetti's death, with the opera singer Ferdinando Pacini. Thus right at the start of his musical training Salieri had exposure to the worlds of opera and church music, the fields in which he would later excel.

Through Pacini, Salieri met the Viennese opera composer Florian Leopold Gassmann, who had come to Venice in 1766 to supervise the performance of one of his operas. Gassmann was impressed with the teenage Salieri's talent and ambition and took him back to Vienna with him.

Balzer: Florian Leopold Gassmass (1775)

In Vienna, Gassmann oversaw and financed Salieri's continued musical training, and the young boy from the Veneto made the most of every opportunity. He was an excellent networker, hard-working and ambitious. He wrote the first of a number of comic operas when he was just 18. Three years later he wrote his first serious opera, Armida, which was a huge success when premiered in Vienna. This aria shows a natural affinity for melodic writing for both the solo oboe and the voice. [listen]

Armida attracted the attention of the music-loving Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II (who was also given a raw deal in Amadeus, I think). Joseph sought to help Salieri's future prospects and mentioned the young composer to his brothers Leopold (Grand Duke of Tuscany, later Joseph's successor as Emperor) and Ferdinand (Governor of Lombardy), and his sister, Marie Antoinette (who was about to become Queen of France). That's not a bad series of connections right there. Joseph even sent a copy of the score of Armida to Leopold.

Batoni: Emperor Joseph II (right) and his younger brother Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany (left) (1769)

Salieri wrote relatively little in the way of orchestral or chamber music. These genres, which feature so strongly in the output of better-known composers of the late 18th century, were not avenues in which he needed to write a great deal. There is only one symphony (the so-called "Name Day" symphony) in addition to symphonies compiled by others from his opera overtures. There are also a few concertos, mainly from this early part of his career, but like the symphonies they are not representative of his major work. An example is a delightful concerto for flute and oboe, dating from 1774. [listen]

Salieri continued to write Italian operas for performance in Vienna and rapidly developed a huge reputation for writing powerful and beautiful music dramas. In 1774 Gassmann died and Salieri, aged just 24, replaced him as the Court Chamber composer and Director of the Italian Opera in Vienna. In the same year he married Therese Helferstorfer, the daughter of a court treasury official.

In 1776 Joseph's reorganisation of the court theatres led to a greater emphasis on spoken drama, so Salieri started to compose operas for other European houses. Between 1778 and 1780 he wrote new operas for Milan, Venice and Rome. The opera for Milan was L'Europa riconosciuta (Europe Revealed). It was written for no less an occasion than the official opening of La Scala itself, a production for which Salieri had at his disposal some of the greatest singers of the day. He didn't disappoint and wrote an opera full of stunning fireworks and powerful dramatic scenes. [listen]

In 1780 Salieri received a commission from the Emperor to write a German-language opera for the new National Theatre in Vienna. The new work was premiered the following year, one of only two operas Salieri wrote in German. It was called Der Rauchfangkehrer (The Chimney-Sweep) and in the midst of its otherwise all-German music and dialogue it contained a few set pieces which were in Italian. One of these, Basta, vincesti, set a text by Pietro Metastasio which Mozart had set to music in Mannheim a few years before. It's not certain at all that Salieri knew Mozart's earlier setting; in fact it seems unlikely that he would. Metastasio's texts were standard fare for operas across Europe and this particular example had been set by many composers. Salieri's setting was written for Catarina Cavalieri, a soprano at the peak of her career in Vienna in the 1780s, who premiered roles by Salieri, Mozart and others. Cavalieri was Salieri's singing student and, according to some sources, his mistress as well. [listen]

The following year, 1782, Cavalieri created the role of Constanze in Mozart's own German opera for the Emperor, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). Mozart's opera rapidly eclipsed Salieri's but Salieri just kept on working and exploring new fields.

1782 saw Salieri take up a new challenge. He was asked to write an opera for Paris which Christoph Willibald Gluck had been originally asked to do but was unable to accept because of illness. Gluck had been a supporter of Salieri ever since the young man had come to Vienna; it would be appropriate to say that Salieri had been Gluck's protégé. Now Salieri continued and developed Gluck's operatic reforms, in Paris and Vienna.

The opera Salieri wrote for Paris - in French of course - was Les Danaïdes, and it was an immediate success at its premiere in 1784. It contains a ballet, as all French operas of the time were required to do, and this enabled Salieri to write some music designed to impress. [listen]

The success of Les Danaïdes led to further commissions from Paris. One of these, Tartare, was given in 1787 and saw one of the biggest successes of Salieri's career. Mozart had tried to break into the Parisian musical establishment some years before and had failed miserably, returning to Salzburg with his tail between his legs. Salieri's success in Paris was enormous. This is yet another reason why legends regarding Salieri's supposed jealousy of Mozart need to be finally put to rest.

The later 1780s saw Salieri dividing his time between writing operas for Paris and for Vienna. Joseph II reorganised the opera company in Vienna yet again in 1783, this time creating a company which specialised in Italian comic opera. The Emperor rather cannily commissioned operas from composers he not only admired but whom he knew would challenge each other to give of their best. Salieri's commissions for the new company were performed alongside new operas by Martin y Soler and Mozart. Salieri worked with Lorenzo Da Ponte (who wrote three librettos for Mozart: Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte) and the atmosphere must have been one of friendly, occasionally even stressful, competition. In fact, as the most important opera composer in Vienna at the time, it was Salieri who provided Mozart with the opportunities and resources he needed. (As a footnote, Count Franz Xaver Orsini-Rosenberg, shown in Amadeus as someone who detested Mozart to the point of ripping the ballet music out of the score of Figaro, was actually in real life impressed by and supportive of Mozart. He helped secure for Mozart the commission to write The Abduction from the Seraglio.)

Franz Xaver Orsini-Rosenberg (1783)

Lorenzo Da Ponte in fact had had very little experience in writing opera texts before being appointed Court Poet in Vienna, and his first libretto for Salieri required a great deal of re-writing before Salieri was happy with it. This opera, Il ricco d'un giorno (Rich for a Day), contains this show-stopper for the leading lady as she describes a particularly vivid dream. [listen]

Lorenzo da Ponte (early 19th century)

Salieri's great success from Paris, Tarare, was revised in an Italian version for Vienna. Its new title was Axur and it was first performed in Vienna in 1788. Salieri is shown conducting the ending of Axur in the film of Amadeus, and it's used as an example of his incompetence. Again, the facts are very different. Salieri scored a huge hit with Axur it was performed more than 100 times in Vienna over the next 15 years or so. Hardly cause for resentment on Salieri's part I would have thought.

1788 also saw the start of a major change of professional direction for Salieri. In that year he was appointed Hofkapellmeister, following the death of Giuseppe Bonno. In this post he was responsible for the sacred music for the court chapel. He held the position for 36 years, until he retired in 1824. His was the longest tenure in the history of the post.

From this point on Salieri's work in opera decreased as his work in sacred music and the administration of the court chapel increased. Sadly, at the time of making the radio program on which this post is based (2011) almost none of Salieri's sacred

music for the court chapel had been professionally recorded, or recorded well. There are large-scale orchestral masses and a large number of smaller works, including graduals, offertories, introits and psalm settings. The early Passion oratorio from 1776 is an example of his sacred music before taking up his new court appointment. [listen]

In recent years some of Salieri’s other sacred works have become available on YouTube. This wonderful Mass from 1788 is a good example. [listen]

The 1790s saw the world change in many ways for Antonio Salieri. Paris was closed off as an avenue for work because of the Revolution. In 1790 Joseph II died, and the new Emperor (his brother Leopold) had less interest in the theatre. And in 1791 Mozart died, removing one of the great stimulating influences on his work as a composer of opera. Salieri's work in opera continued but his later theatre works had mixed success. Palmira, Queen of Persia was first performed in Vienna in 1795 and was his last great operatic triumph. [listen]

Salieri's late operas include a version of Falstaff which dates from 1799 (preceding Verdi's ultimate masterpiece by nearly a century) and he wrote his last opera in 1804. By this time, though, his professional focus was very much the court chapel, which he had been directing since 1788. In addition to rehearsing and performing music for masses on a regular basis, he selected and trained singers, wrote sacred music and selected music by other composers for the court chapel services, appointed a new organ builder, oversaw the acquisition of instruments and kept the chapel music library in good order.

It goes without saying, I hope, that despite Amadeus Salieri had nothing whatsoever to do with Mozart's unfinished Requiem of 1791. In 1805 Salieri turned 55 and he composed his own Requiem Mass. Salieri's Requiem was written expressly for use at his own memorial service - whenever that might be - and it was typical of the man, who knew how to plan, organise and facilitate, that he should make such a provision. The fact that Salieri's only son died in 1805 may have also caused him to muse on his own mortality. [listen]

When he wrote his Requiem, though, Salieri still had many years to live. Sadness struck again with the death of his wife Therese in 1807, but life went on. Apart from his duties at the court chapel, he was very busy in Vienna's musical life in his later years. In 1815 he was in charge of planning and directing the musical events connected with the Congress of Vienna. In the same year he wrote an extraordinary orchestral work, a set of 26 variations on the folk song known as La folia. Salieri had little time for symphonies or other orchestral music when it was not connected with opera or sacred works; this set of variations seems to have been an exercise in orchestration. The result is fascinating and colourful and it’s a great piece for us to end on. [listen]

Mähler: Antonio Salieri (1815)

Salieri devoted a great deal of time to teaching after he retired from opera composition. He was famous as a trainer of coloratura sopranos and Catarina Cavalieri was only one of his singing students. Another was Therese Gassmann, the daughter of Florian Gassmann, the man who had brought Salieri to Vienna in the first place.

Another area of expertise for which Salieri's teaching skills were sought out was in the setting of Italian poetry to music. Beethoven, Schubert and the child prodigy Liszt were only three of the many composers who had lessons with him in text setting and vocal writing.

Salieri was also a respected conductor. Among his many performances, he directed one of the last performances of The Creation which Haydn heard (Haydn died in 1809), and also the first performances of Beethoven's first two piano concertos. He was also actively involved in supporting many charities.

Antonio Salieri retired in 1824, aged 73, and suffered from dementia for the last year and a half of his life. He was committed to care and died in Vienna on 7 May, 1825, at the age of 74. As he had hoped, his Requiem from 1805 was performed at a memorial service the following month.

Over the years I've come to the conclusion that Antonio Salieri's reputation is in dire need of rehabilitation. It is simply fashionable to malign the man, and this is done by people who blame him for not being Mozart (who was?) or because they believe the myths about him to be true. It is difficult to fight such prejudice when so little of his important music - the operas and sacred works - is recorded complete or performed live. And sadly, many well-meaning but poor quality recordings exist which don't help the cause. [This situation has improved since the radio version of this script was written in 2011.] Surely it must be on the basis of the music itself that judgements about a person's contribution to art should be made. Here's hoping things improve.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November. 2011.

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