Rehabilitating Antonio Salieri

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Just for the fun of it, I here propose to rehabilitate Maestro Antonio Salieri, who has had possibly the worst press any decent composer has ever had to suffer in the history of Western music. I intend to do it here because it’s the least noticed of the various sections of this realm and I’d like to see how long it takes people to notice this slight return.

I intend to do the debunking of the slanders of which he has been a victim by going through the movie Amadeus, which is where most people get their ideas of him, scene by scene and pointing out the flaws. Those who wish to know how Mozart is misrepresented in it can damn well go read a book about him.

I would like to point out here that I still love that movie; it’s brilliant. But the misrepresentation that goes on in that thing – not merely of the character but even of the events in the life of Salieri – verges on the criminal. About the only things they got right in it was his bit about the ‘ten minutes of ghastly scales’ (but I’ll be getting to that) and how much he liked sweets.


Accusing himself of Mozart's death

So, let us begin. It is quite true that when he was old and going senile, Antonio Salieri attempted to cut his throat. However, we have a signed attestation from his two nurses, who never left him alone (there was always one in attendance, I presume after the suicide attempt) that he never once said anything that could be thought of as accusing himself of Mozart’s death.

His father

Next, let us rehabilitate the memory of his father. The movie presents him as the typical horrible misunderstanding dad who doesn’t see music as acceptable. This, however, is supposed to be the same father who arranged for Antonio’s elder brother Francesco to study violin with Tartini, and Antonio to study with his brother after? Ridiculous.

His studies

Anyhow, the father was ruined, and the younger son went to study music with someone whose name I forget who taught him the basics but wouldn’t let him compose until he had learnt all he was supposed to. Being a true composer, he didn’t obey, but composed at night and accepted the rebukes he got for it. He also pestered his poor teacher to have some of his compositions performed on occasion (some things don’t change), which the teacher refused.

It was during this time that he went through a wonderful little episode that he loved to reminisce about in his older age: his teacher was employed on the musical staff of a theatre, the manager of which was a tight-fisted berk. So tight-fisted that when the spinet they used fell so out-of-tune that it could not be repaired, he refused to replace it. All the musicians moaned and groaned and couldn’t get the manager to do anything about it. So one day, young Antonio finds himself alone in a room with the spinet. Taken of a sudden urge, he opens the cover, gets up on a chair, and jumps in, with the result you can imagine. Then, polishing his halo, he extirpates himself, closes the top and goes out of the room, unseen. (Must have been a solid spinet, as it appears he didn’t actually break through the bottom.) A few hours later, the spinet must be moved downstairs into the theatre for a rehearsal; arriving there, it is discovered; great discussions follow on what could have happened, Antonio keeps his mouth shut, his teacher and the other musicians decide not to look much for the cause but bless their good fortune, and the manager is forced to buy a new instrument.

As court composer

In any case, he rose, and did indeed become the court composer. It is true he was a political animal (though the film’s way of showing this in the scene where Joseph decides whether or not to commission an opera from Mozart is clumsy in the extreme). It should be noted that Joseph most probably did have a musical ear – he was the fourth in a line of Austrian emperors who listened to, played, and often composed music.

Involvement in cabals against Mozart

It is possible that he did take part in cabals against Mozart; however, that accusation is unproven and rests mainly on a letter or two by Leopold Mozart. However, the question must be asked: why on earth should he? This man was lauded as the greatest composer living; why should he be jealous of a little rival who didn’t manage all that well once he grew up? It should be noted that Salieri was never really heard to speak badly of Mozart’s music until late in his life (more on that later). Note the scene where we get to see the finale of his Axur: why should he be so disappointed when he was just so decorated? The movie does a fair job of making it believable, but… but… but…

It has, of course, been proven that Salieri had absolutely nothing to do with the Requiem. Also, for that matter, that when he went to see the Magic Flute, it was with Mozart and the singer Cavallieri (whom we see in the film – the ditz who’s had by Mozart) and that he cried bravo after every number. He resigned his position at court after Joseph died and Leopold took the throne and systematically undid everything that Joseph did, on principle. He lived an overlong life afterwards and taught, among others, Hummel, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt.

His character

This was a man who, like his pupil Beethoven, loved walks in nature – the difference being that he liked the classical gardens. He had his favourite trees in Vienna and was devastated when they fell down. He was an absolute teetotaller, though his love of sweets was excessive; he was a politician, yes; but also a man of rather even temper, and, in fact, a downright nice guy.

The preferred example to prove this, which nicely has a touch of Mozart in it as well: one day, after Salieri had retired, a musician came to Vienna, visiting the Kapellmeister of a certain church. During Mass, he heard an absolutely wonderful Offertorio, and mentioned to the Kapellmeister at the end of the ceremony how much he had enjoyed it. The next day, sitting in his room, he heard a knock on his door, and a small man who spoke in an atrocious mix of languages (Italian, German…) came in and said, ‘I understand that you rather enjoyed the Offertorio at Mass yesterday.’ Receiving an affirmative answer, he handed the visitor a sheaf of papers: ‘Here, take this.’ It was a fresh copy of the Offertorio in question, with inscribed on it, ‘In memory of Palm Sunday in Vienna [in whatever year it was], from me Antonio Salieri’. He copied out a whole section of a Mass just because a perfect stranger said he liked it. Pompous, yes, but…

Anyhow, they sat down and talked about music for hours. (About his mixing of languages and atrocious German, he often said, including on this occasion: ‘Of course I don't speak German well! How could I, I’ve only had fifty years in which to try and learn it.’ Something of a wit, this man.) One of the subjects touched on was Mozart. Salieri’s opinions ran something as follows: that the symphonies were brilliant, that the string quartets were some of the greatest music ever written, that the Requiem surpassed everything, and that the piano concerti were brilliant pieces but shouldn’t be used by the virtuosi of today because of all the changes in the making of pianos since he wrote them. The original instrument fad is older than we think. I don’t recall that they mentioned the operas.

As a musician

Brilliant – listen to that finale in the movie and try and tell me he wasn’t. It’s spoilt by the fact that it’s almost immediately followed by the penultimate scene of Don Giovanni, which is even more brilliant, but still. He was of the old school that knew theory so well that they didn’t even have to think of it. So were a great number of composers then. Yet when Gluck was commissioned to write a new opera for the Paris Opera House and decided he was too old to, it was Salieri he suggested as a replacement, and who did replace him.

The result was Les Danaïdes, which was first performed under Gluck’s name so that the Parisian public would come. He also wrote his most famous work, Tarare, for Paris; yet when he was requested to bring it back to Vienna and have it done in Italian, though he at first intended to merely fit an Italian translation to the music, he soon began to almost completely recompose it and rename it Axur so that it would fit the music better. This lead to an amusing moment at one of Emperor Joseph’s musical evenings: they wanted to hear the new version, but they only had the vocal score, and they wanted some of the musicians to play. So one of them said, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter, we’ve got the original parts from the French ones he, we can play from them.’ Didn’t work, shall we say. Now: how many composers would bother doing that?

At Gluck’s death, he was almost unconditionally acclaimed as the greatest living composer, and though the list of greatest living composers is always risky in posterity’s view, the public isn’t always completely idiotic. He was to the day of his death known as the greatest teacher on how to set words to music, which is why so many people struggled to study under him. As a teacher, he never used a book, and never told his students what to write; he merely revised what they brought in and criticised it almost note by note. (According to his rules, of course, but that’s pardonable.)

He was an operatic composer in the tradition of Gluck’s reform of opera: that is to say, fitting the music to the text, no silly cadenzas, etc. It would be fascinating to know what that other great idolater of Gluck, Berlioz, would have thought of Salieri’s music. Berlioz, of course, accused Mozart of simply ruining lovely arias – one of Donna Anna’s in Don Giovanni in especial – by the addition of a cadenza at the end, and I believe Salieri thought that as well. To quote a student of his, ‘A jolly Agnus Dei or a pompous Kyrie were anathema’ to him – another Berliozean complaint. Metastasio, hearing Salieri’s setting of his Passione dell nostro Signor Gesu, said it was the most effective setting of any words of his he had ever heard.

Speaking ill of Mozart

Salieri never talked against Mozart’s music until the last few years of his life – and let us remember he died only two years before Beethoven. And it is true that when he did then, he could attack it quite viciously. However, let us remember that at the time, he – the greatest living composer – was being forgotten, and Mozart not merely remembered (though not remembered in the way he is now) but also imitated. And what was being imitated, especially in the Italian school of opera, were all the features he liked least about Mozart’s music – like those ghastly cadenzas.


In short, after that long rant: everyone should, after watching Amadeus, have to read Thayer’s biography of Salieri (which is where I got most of this information), if only as a lesson in why you shouldn’t believe everything you see on the screen, no matter how wonderful it may be.