Mozart Vs Salieri
It is probably important to highlight the fact that had it not been for the award-winning play and subsequent film, by Peter Schafer titled ‘Amadeus’, the whole debacle regarding these two musicians would never have arisen. And, before we leap to the conclusion that Schafer was doing little more than muddying the waters between fact and fiction, he openly admitted that ‘Amadeus’ was not a documentary, but more closely inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s work titled ‘Mozart and Salieri’.
The Pushkin work comes from four plays called ‘The Little Tragedies’, published in 1832 and inspired by the many conspiracies that surrounded the early death of Mozart.
One of the key elements that emerge from the Schafer play is the representation of Salieri as a court musician. In the play, Mozart ridicules Salieri’s musical abilities, humiliates him, and becomes a vicious thorn in the composer’s side. This, in turn, leads to Salieri murdering Mozart out of sheer jealousy and rage. It is quite understandable then, that the rivalry between these two composers has a tone set already that is hard to dispel without further exploration. Even the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov composed an opera in 1898 all about this rumor of Salieri poisoning Mozart.
History tends to favor the victors and when considering Mozart and Salieri, it is Mozart who we know more about as it is his career that overshadowed almost every other working composer of the time. Not a large amount of information has survived to give us a detailed picture of Salieri. What we do know is that Salieri was already a well-respected and established composer in Vienna when the young, ambitious Mozart settled there in 1781. Salieri was born in Legnago, Venice in 1750 and died in Vienna in 1825. Records indicate that he was friends with Haydn most of his life and tutored the young Beethoven, Schubert, and Franz Liszt. Beethoven later dedicated his Three Violin Sonatas, Op.12 to his friend and mentor.
Salieri was known as a composer of opera. It is interesting to note that his composition ‘Tarare’ (1787), was given more credence and interest by the audience of the time that Mozart’s ‘Don Giovani’, yet Mozart himself records in his letters Salieri’s supportive comments about ‘The Magic Flute’.
His output was extensive and also included concertos, sacred works alongside many other additional compositions that were greatly favored in his day. Some of his later operatic works had a distinct leaning towards the political left and included satirical elements that meant they were not deemed suitable for public performance. Sadly, Salieri’s work does not enjoy the exposure that it used to but the 20th Century has seen a revival of many of his existing pieces including a beautiful recording by Cecilia Bartoli on the Decca label (‘The Salieri Album’; 2003).
The twenty-five-year-old Mozart arrived in Vienna accompanied by his already formidable reputation. Mozart was allegedly not an easy-going character and often found compromising with people in authority challenging. Establishing himself in Vienna was proving to be one of those challenges and Mozart wrote to his father Leopold complaining that the Italian composers were being favored over composers like him from foreign countries. Salieri was indeed a firm favorite of Emperor Joseph II, who patronized most of Salieri’s operas. Mozart was aware of this and it is this favoritism that he singles out in his letters to Leopold.
For him as an Austrian composer, seeing Italian composers receiving all the praise and opportunities must have been hard and certainly could have been the source of animosity between the two men, even if it were kept behind closed doors. Another difficulty in the relationship between Mozart and Salieri was the connection to the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. With Salieri’s recommendation, Da Ponte became the librettist to the Italian Theatre in Vienna, placing him at the creative center of Europe.
On learning that Da Ponte collaborated with Salieri Mozart was greatly displeased and swore not to work with him on any future operas. This turned out to be a bit of a storm in a teacup as the poet and the composer worked on ‘Don Giovanni’ (1787),
‘The Marriage of Figaro’ (1786)
and ‘Cosi fan Tutte’ (1790).
Interestingly, Salieri had been offered the libretto to ‘Cosi fan Tutte’ by Da Ponte but rejected it feeling that it was not worth his time to create an opera from. When Salieri heard what Mozart had created from his leftovers, you can imagine he may have felt slightly aggrieved.
Alongside Salieri’s reputation as a formidable composer, he was much sort after as a teacher. A further conflict of interest arose around 1781 when both composers had applied to be the piano tutor to The Princess Elizabeth of Wüttemburg. Salieri was awarded the post losing Mozart the opportunity to be in closer proximity to the people of power, influence, and money. Unfortunately, the following year Mozart’s second application for the post was also turned down showing that even an exceptional talent such as Mozart did not always get the recognition he deserved.
For Salieri, the aspiring Mozart was not a hated rival and according to many accounts, the two composers classified each other as friends and colleagues. Salieri was supportive of Mozart’s work and taught Mozart’s son Franz Xavier. This seems unlikely to have happened if they had not already established a solid friendship. Both composers were prolific and celebrated with an understandable battle for musical supremacy but as a very real means of survival rather than a tussle of egos.
Following Mozart’s death, Salieri continued to champion Mozart’s work, often conducting his operas. As time passed Mozart’s popularity only increased while Salieri’s diminished, and this must have hurt. Salieri outlived Mozart by many years which must also have rubbed salt into the wound and in the last two decades of his life ceased composing almost completely.
By 1823, Salieri was in very poor physical and mental health. He was confined to hospital surfacing only on rare occasions into lucidity. In between times, Salieri is supposed to have confessed to poisoning Mozart even though this was in all probability just the babble of a broken mind. What this did though for many was underline the conspiracy that Mozart himself had claimed on his deathbed, that the Italian syndicate had poisoned him, and sparked a debate that has raged for decades afterward.