“Salieri and all his supporters will again try to move heaven and earth to ruin his opera.” So wrote Leopold Mozart to his daughter, Nannerl, in 1786, concerning his son’s “Figaro.” Outside of chatter in the family circle, evidence for Salieri’s supposed machinations against Mozart is scant. The story is unpersuasive in large measure because Salieri was in Paris for much of the time he was supposed to have been scheming in Vienna. Furthermore, he had a professional interest in supporting the kind of Italian opera that Mozart was producing. In Vienna, the genre was in danger of being pushed aside by singspiels. Joseph periodically made German opera a priority, more for political reasons than for aesthetic ones, and it was not Salieri’s forte.
Mozart could never understand why his creations sometimes failed to attract the admiration he knew they deserved, and he looked for conspiratorial explanations. A typical missive to his father, from Paris, reads, “I think that something is going on behind the scenes, and that doubtless here too I have enemies.” In fact, Mozart was not above scheming himself. Salieri must have had the sense that an ambitious up-and-comer was breathing down his neck. Timo Jouko Herrmann raises the possibility that Mozart undertook his own Beaumarchais adaptation—“Figaro”—after learning of Salieri’s intention to compose “Tarare.” The terrifying harmonies of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” suggest the influence of Salieri’s supernatural comedy, “La Grotta di Trofonio,” whose infernal magician sounds remarkably like Mozart’s Commendatore. Da Ponte originally wrote his “Così Fan Tutte” libretto for Salieri, who began working on it and then set it aside. Mozart’s acquisition of the project strained relations between the two composers, although who did what to whom remains unclear.
A plot was indeed afoot against Mozart, but Salieri was not the ringleader. Ian Woodfield’s new book, “Cabals & Satires: Mozart’s Comic Operas in Vienna,” identifies the true operatic villain of Josephine Vienna: Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, a second-tier composer whose posthumous reputation rests mainly on his concertos for underserved instruments (oboe, viola, double-bass). Woodfield makes a convincing case that Dittersdorf organized a press campaign against Mozart’s allegedly artificial and overcomplicated creations. Furthermore, Dittersdorf went to the trouble of writing a German-language satirical opera entitled “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which the character of Cherubino becomes a caricature of Mozart: immature, flighty, vain, addicted to dancing. He is even called a bardasso, a catamite.
Whatever tensions arose between Mozart and Salieri, things never got that bad. Herrmann’s discovery of the “Ofelia” cantata—a brief setting of a poem by Da Ponte, composed sequentially by Mozart, Salieri, and a forgotten person named Cornetti—puts the supposed enmity between the two composers in perspective. Although it is no proof of close friendship, it serves as a reminder that Mozart and Salieri were in constant contact as they moved in Joseph’s orbit.
In the last decade of Salieri’s operatic career, from 1795 to 1804, his standing slipped further. A setting of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” titled “Falstaff,” proved a success, and still gives delight today, but “Il Mondo Alla Rovescia,” the comedy of inverted gender roles, discomfited the Viennese public. The libretto, by Caterino Mazzolà, is an adventurous variation on the standard conceit of a topsy-turvy world. A count and a marquise are captives on an exotic island where warrior women rule over demure men. The Count is subjected to an objectifying gaze: “I feel like an owl caught in daylight. / They’re all around me, staring.” When a European force comes to rescue the prisoners, a battle ensues, ending in a ceasefire. The Count, having fallen in love with a female soldier (la Colonella), chooses to remain on the island. A recording on the Dynamic label, derived from a 2009 revival, in Verona, reveals a warmhearted score, rich in mischief. When the women exclaim over the Count’s “fine figure,” “noble bearing,” and “lovely lips,” Salieri’s orchestra weaves gracefully fluttering figures around him.
Also unappetizing to Viennese tastes was “Die Neger,” Salieri’s final opera. The librettist was Georg Friedrich Treitschke, who contributed to Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” The setting is an English colony in the Caribbean, where the evil Lord Bedford has driven out the kindly Lord Falkland. As the latter plans his revenge, he disguises himself with blackface and falls in with Bedford’s servants. This plot point helps to explain why “Die Neger” has yet to be revived in the modern era; another problem is the title. (Neger was once equivalent to the English word “Negro,” but it sounds offensive in modern German.) But the principal black character, a servant named John, escapes the stereotypes of the day. Remarkably, he wins the love of a white maid named Betty, with whom he shares an elegant, playful love duet in quick waltz tempo, preceded by the following dialogue:
John: Close your eyes for a moment.
Betty: (Does so.)
John: (Kisses her.) Now does it taste better from a white man?
Betty: No! — — I don’t know!
John: Oh, you innocent little dove!
Betty: Good John, now there is nothing in the way of our fortune.
John: What have I always said? One must hope. With hope one goes farthest. Hope gives healthy blood.
Betty: And healthy blood brings bliss and cheer. Cheer and bliss should never leave us.
Herrmann infers that the interracial kiss caused unease, since it disappeared from a subsequent revival of the opera. “Die Neger” was last performed in 1806.
Salieri had addressed racially charged material before. For a 1790 revival of “Tarare” in Paris, Beaumarchais wrote a new closing tableau, “The Coronation of Tarare,” which reflected Revolutionary values. Salieri agreed to set the text—a risky venture, given that Emperor Leopold’s sister was under house arrest in Paris. In a “Scene of Negroes,” enslaved people from Africa are presented to Tarare, who says, “Our laws will avenge this injury.” The slaves then celebrate, singing in garbled French and dancing to the Revolutionary song “Ça Ira.” According to Beaumarchais, several “very young Americans” hissed at that scene, in protest of the apparent antislavery message.
The music that Salieri wrote for this tacked-on pageant wins no awards for cultural sensitivity, indulging in the sort of mildly exotic rhythmic repetition that passed for “African” on the opera stage. (Rousset omitted it from his “Tarare” revival, probably for the best.) Still, the spectacle of people of color winning freedom was novel. A repertory that has canonized the racist caricature of Monostatos in “The Magic Flute” and the misogyny of “Così” can surely find at least a modest place for Salieri’s creations.
Salieri suffered heavy personal losses as he grew older. His only son, Alois, who was also a gifted composer, died, of gangrene, in 1805. His wife, Theresia, the daughter of a wealthy bank official, died in 1807; one of Salieri’s reminiscences is a touchingly long-winded account of their courtship. For the remainder of his career, he wrote sacred music, taught composition and singing, conducted concerts for the Tonkünstler Society, and went for long walks around the city, enjoying the shade of favorite trees. In 1819, when Carl Zelter, a close friend of Goethe’s, visited Salieri, he marvelled at the old man’s youthful energy and his “ironic and humorous” spirit. Salieri told Zelter that he had composed a requiem shortly after Theresia’s death, expecting that he would soon join her. Since Salieri’s death “has not yet happened,” Zelter wrote to Goethe, “he has now composed a much shorter one, and says: that is good enough for him.”
Beethoven received guidance from Salieri in vocal writing. Singers who have struggled with the gruelling parts in “Fidelio” and the Ninth Symphony might wish that these lessons had been more effective. The spat between the two men flared in December, 1808: Salieri threatened to expel Tonkünstler Society musicians who had skipped his widows-and-orphans event in order to play in Beethoven’s “Academy” concert, a four-hour affair that featured the premières of the Fourth Piano Concerto and of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Salieri’s response was harsh, although, as the musicologist Volkmar Braunbehrens notes, it might be asked why Beethoven felt compelled to schedule his concert on a night that for many years had been given over to Salieri’s benefit.
Relations between the two were soon patched up. The following year, the pianist and composer Ignaz Moscheles visited Salieri’s home and saw a message scrawled in large letters: “the pupil beethoven was here!” At the première of Beethoven’s propagandistic battle piece, “Wellington’s Victory,” in 1813, Salieri joined an all-star lineup of fellow-composers in the percussion section.
There is no doubt that Salieri preached traditional musical values to his students. The teen-age Schubert, in an 1816 diary entry, remarks on how Salieri inspired his pupils to avoid “the eccentricity which combines and confuses the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive.” This seems to be a warning against the gathering vogue of Beethoven. Schubert would embrace that vogue, yet he remained fond of his teacher, who had first taken notice of him when he was a choirboy. Salieri said of Schubert, “He can do everything: he composes operas, songs, quartets, symphonies, whatever one wants.” The Italianate lyricism that is threaded through Schubert’s daring harmonic designs pays tribute to Salieri’s regime.
In the early eighteen-twenties, Salieri’s health and mind began to fail. Gossip spread across Vienna that he had confessed to having poisoned Mozart, and had attempted suicide. The story shows up in Beethoven’s conversation books—as his deafness increased, his interlocutors scribbled comments on paper—and the notion apparently caused the great man some distress. But two medical orderlies who had attended to Salieri testified that he had said nothing of the kind. On one of his clearer days, he assured Moscheles that the rumors were false: “Tell the world that old Salieri, who will soon die, told you so.” The funeral was conducted with due ceremony. The long requiem, not the short one, was played.
Where did the poison story come from, and how did it become attached to Salieri? Mozart himself may have been the one to set it in motion. On his deathbed, he supposedly said, “Surely I have been given poison! I cannot let go of this thought.” He probably did not suspect Salieri, who no longer agitated him, but suspicions smoldered in the family circle. Mozart’s paranoia thus reached beyond the grave.
The early nineteenth century saw the rise of nationalism in German-speaking countries. Salieri was typecast as a foreign interloper, an Italian intrigant—a pattern already visible in Leopold Mozart’s letters to his son. Herrmann perceptively points out the role that nationalism played in the marginalization of Salieri’s reputation: “The cosmopolitan composer, fluent in Italian, German and French and artistically significant in all three linguistic areas, could not be fully absorbed in any European nation. With the emergence of nation-states, the historical Salieri gradually became a homeless figure, and his great artistic and social merits eventually fell into oblivion.” A similar fate would befall Salieri’s pupil Giacomo Meyerbeer, another pan-European artist, who receded from view after achieving global fame, in the mid-nineteenth century.
The folktale of Mozart and Salieri has even deeper roots. It is a variation on the mythic duality of Abel and Cain, or of the Prodigal Son and his brother: the favored son versus the dutiful one, the rule-breaker versus the conformist. That polarity drew the attention of Pushkin, who has his humorless, embittered Salieri say:
Where, where is rightness? when the sacred gift,
Immortal genius, comes not in reward
For fervent love, for total self-rejection,
For work and for exertion and for prayers,
But casts its light upon a madman’s head,
An idle loafer’s brow . . . O Mozart, Mozart!
And so Salieri drops poison in Mozart’s glass of wine. Shaffer’s “Amadeus” adopts the same dynamic, although there the elderly, half-demented Salieri merely believes that he has killed Mozart—a self-accusatory metaphor for his poisonous intent.
Above all, the myth of the murderous Salieri assists in the deification of the genius, who cannot be brought down except by the intervention of a diabolical force. Mozart’s death becomes a kind of Passion, in which Salieri plays the role of Judas or Pontius Pilate, delivering the Son of God—“Amadeus” means “lover of God”—to the sacrifice from which he will rise again, in the religious rite of the concert hall.
The danger of the word “genius” is that it implies an almost biological category—an innately superior being, a superhero. It is probably no accident that the category of “genius,” an obsession of the nineteenth century, coincided with the emergence of the pseudoscience of race, which held that certain peoples were genetically fitter than others. At the same time, “genius” easily becomes a branding term used to streamline the selling of cultural goods. The perils of the term become clear when the authorship of a work is uncertain. In 1987, the musicologist John Spitzer published an amusing and edifying article about the Sinfonia Concertante for Winds, K. 297b, which was long thought to be by Mozart. In its heyday, the Sinfonia was said to be “truly Mozartean” and as “monumental as a palace courtyard.” Once uncertainty about the attribution set in, the piece was called “cheap and repetitive.” The notes themselves had not changed.
This is not to say that the greatness of Mozart—or of Monteverdi, whose melting duet “Pur ti miro” may actually be by Francesco Sacrati; or of Bach, whose Halloweenish Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is probably by someone else—is a fiction. Rather, it’s that the dividing line separating “genius” from the rest of humanity is blurrier than we might expect. The Sinfonia Concertante is a lovely but somewhat inert piece. Whether it’s one of Mozart’s lesser creations or another composer’s finest hour is unclear. The revelation of “Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia,” the omnibus work to which both Mozart and Salieri contributed, is that one would be hard pressed to choose between their offerings. Neither piece is remotely memorable.
In “Il Mondo Alla Rovescia,” the Count is sent to the temple of the Chaste Pigeons, a kind of rehab for misbehaving men. The music that accompanies the entrance of the High Pigeon and his followers is a luminous pastiche of the Divine Mozart, with an unmistakable quotation from the “Gran Partita” Serenade. The villain of “Amadeus” hails that work as the “voice of God.” The real Salieri takes things a little less seriously. If we listen closely, we may hear him laughing at us across the centuries.