Antonio Salieri: Truth or Fiction?
Not until the success of Peter Shafferís 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 Pushkinís little tragedy "Mozart and Salieri." The popularity of Peter Shafferís 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.
Returning to the matter of Salieriís
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. Salieriís father
greeted him kindly, while Antonio greeted him with noticeably less
enthusiasm. When Salieriís father asked him why he was so cold to the
organist, he responded, "I donít like him because he is a bad organist"
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 Salieriís career in Vienna where he would spend
the rest of his life.
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 boyís 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 Salieriís 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 Salieriís 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. Gassmannís 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 Salieriís 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 deí gelosi, a work
which up to this point was the most successful and established Salieriís
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 EntfŁhrung aus dem Serail.
The composer of this opera was none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
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 Salieriís 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
Throughout Salieriís 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.
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, Salieriís 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 Salieriís music
will be played again worldwide in all its glory and he will receive the
credit that he so rightfully deserves.
Copyright Chad Hille 2005 http://classyclassical.blogspot.com
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