Salieri is one of history’s all-time losers—a bystander run over by a Mack truck of malicious gossip. Shortly before he died, in 1825, a story that he had poisoned Mozart went around Vienna. In 1830, Alexander Pushkin used that rumor as the basis for his play “Mozart and Salieri,” casting the former as a doltish genius and the latter as a jealous schemer. Later in the nineteenth century, Rimsky-Korsakov turned Pushkin’s play into a witty short opera. In 1979, the British playwright Peter Shaffer wrote “Amadeus,” a sophisticated variation on Pushkin’s concept, which became a mainstay of the modern stage. Five years after that, Miloš Forman made a flamboyant film out of Shaffer’s material, with F. Murray Abraham playing Salieri as a suave, pursed-lipped malefactor.
Two centuries of calumny have created sympathy for the musical devil: I found Salieri’s grave festooned with bouquets. These were evidence that the man and his music are enjoying a modest comeback. Of his forty-odd operas, more than a dozen have been revived, and artists such as Riccardo Muti, Cecilia Bartoli, and Christophe Rousset have pleaded his case. I was in Vienna to attend Rousset’s performance of Salieri’s French opera “Tarare” at the Theater an der Wien. A German-language biography of Salieri, by the composer and musicologist Timo Jouko Herrmann, was published earlier this year. In 2015, Herrmann discovered the score of a cantata, “Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia,” with one section composed by Salieri and another by Mozart. The find made clear what scholars have long known: that the two were more colleagues than rivals, and that their relationship was complicated mainly by Mozart’s tendency to see plots arrayed against him.
As brilliant as Abraham’s performance in “Amadeus” is, the Salieri of stage and screen is a fictional being. The real man was a more or less benevolent character who energetically involved himself in the musical life of Vienna and taught dozens of composers, including Beethoven and Schubert. Having been plucked from orphanhood by a generous mentor, he usually gave composition lessons for free. To be sure, he was a well-connected man who used his power to advance his cause. Beethoven once earned his wrath by presenting a concert on the same night as Salieri’s annual Christmastime benefit for widows and orphans. Yet this formidable operator had a nimble wit and enjoyed jokes at his own expense. Amid the procession of megalomaniacs, misanthropes, and basket cases who make up the classical pantheon, he seems to have been one of the more likable fellows.
Above all, his music is worth hearing. Mozart was a greater composer, but not immeasurably greater. To call Salieri the “patron saint of mediocrities,” as Shaffer does in his play, sets the bar for mediocrity too high. Salieri’s operas are tuneful, excellently crafted, inventive in their orchestration, and sometimes startlingly progressive in outlook. “Tarare,” which has a libretto by Pierre Beaumarchais, dares to show the overthrow of a despot. “Il Mondo Alla Rovescia” (“The World Upside Down”) reverses gender roles. “Die Neger,” his final opera, includes an interracial love duet. Although Salieri’s work is outwardly conservative, it tugs in unexpected directions, perhaps because he had an unusually open mind about what could happen on an opera stage.
As with any historical film, Amadeus utilizes a goodish dollop of artistic license in order to jazz up the story—some of the looseness trivial, some of it pretty severe. The liberties taken by the film in regard to Salieri, though, were damned near defamatory. Salieri was an entirely conciliatory, avuncular fellow: a man of good humor, friendly, considerate and decent. He was an adept player of the political games in Emperor Joseph’s court, but not malicious about it. Joseph also bore scant resemblance to his portrayal in Amadeus:
“Amadeus” serves Joseph no better than it does Salieri, portraying the ruler as a dithering dimwit. He was, in fact, a keenly musical man who acted as a full-time artistic administrator, attending to composers, librettists, singers, and budgets as if there were nothing more important to occupy his time. Vienna’s move to the center of European musical life had much to do with Joseph’s determination to attract talented artists—and, when necessary, to set them in competition with one another.
Amadeus has also been panned for its overly simplistic portrayal of Mozart himself as little more than an abrasive, self-indulgent, egotistical brat. Nonetheless, despite its occasionally-egregious rejiggering of historical fact, the movie remains one my very favorites.
Strangely, the instance of Amadeus playing fast and loose with history that most struck me was the scene wherein the scheming Salieri, in a moment of unguarded honesty, admits to Mozart that “…you are the greatest composer known to me.” That was actually said of Mozart by the great Franz Joseph Haydn, not directly to Wolfgang but in a letter to his father Leopold. To wit:
I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.
I have no earthly idea why that one stuck with me the way it has, but it has. Anyways, this New Yorker rehabilitation of Salieri’s unjustly tarnished escutcheon is an intriguing read, for any of you out there who might be classical-music fanciers.
Update! Dang it, almost forgot to mention the juiciest apocryphal Mozart-Salieri legend of them all, the very core of the plot of Forman’s Amadeus:
Finally, let’s look at the Requiem. Was the commission conceived by Salieri as a way to drive Mozart mad? No. Was it some malicious plot to make Mozart believe he was writing a requiem for himself? No. Was it commissioned by an anonymous messenger? Yes, and that is where we need to begin.
Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach was a music lover and wealthy landowner from Lower Austria. On February 14, 1791, his young wife died. He came up an idea. He would commission Mozart to write a requiem mass that he would pass off as his own. It would be performed on the anniversary of his wife’s death. Walsegg-Stuppach asked a neighbor to be an anonymous messenger and contact the composer. The neighbor was Turkish. The foreign accent may have confused Mozart.
Even after Mozart’s death, the Walsegg-Stuppach persisted with his deception. He copied the music (which had been completed by Mozart’s students) into his own handwriting. On December 11, 1793, he conducted it. It was entitled, “Requiem, composto del Conte Walsegg”!
Meanwhile, back to the New Yorker for the reality:
In mid-November, 1791, Mozart fell ill with fever and swelling, caused by an unknown malady. (Two candidates are strep infection and kidney failure.) Salieri evidently visited Mozart’s bedside a few days before the end, which came on December 5th, and he joined the funeral procession. He probably conducted the première of the tremendous Requiem that Mozart left unfinished at his death.
Ironic, no? Sometimes, truth really IS stranger than fiction. Or every bit as entertaining, at least.