Opera + Classical Music Features

Why I Love… Salieri

Continuing the series on our writers’ musical passions, Sam Smith explains his admiration for a composer who is still too often maligned

Antonio Salieri

Antonio Salieri (Painted by Joseph Willibrord Mähler)

Although it is nearly two hundred years since he died, the name Antonio Salieri still tends to conjure images of a mediocre talent and jealous murderer. Nothing has been more responsible for generating this perception than Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus, and the eponymous 1984 film adaptation directed by Miloš Forman. Shaffer, however, was always clear that he was presenting a virtual fiction, although it must be admitted that, while Amadeus did not paint an accurate picture of Salieri’s abilities, it did help to raise his profile.

There is ultimately no evidence to suggest that Salieri poisoned Mozart, although the rumour he had done so began even before he died in 1825, thirty-four years after his alleged rival. The idea was subsequently seized on in Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri (1830), which Rimsky-Korsakov later adapted into an eponymous opera (1897). In reality, although Mozart and Salieri did compete for positions and sometimes resources for their works in the first half of the 1780s, in the second when Mozart was better established in Vienna there is nothing to suggest there was any animosity at all. It seems they were on good terms, with any rivalry by this point being respectful in the sense that both saw in the other the only composer in the city in the same league as themselves. In fact, Salieri’s admiration of Mozart is proved by the fact that he ventured to Emanuel Schikaneder’s Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden to attend the opening night of Die Zauberflöte, and is reported to have followed every aria with a ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Bello!’.

There are three reasons why I love Salieri, who was Kapellmeister of the Imperial Chapel in Vienna from 1788 to 1824, and the first is the very fact that his works have rarity value. I have heard all of Mozart’s major operas more times than I care to remember, but, because Salieri’s are so rarely performed, if I ever attend one I am almost certainly hearing it live for the first time. Much as I enjoy Così fan tutte, it cannot feel as fresh to me now as Salieri’s La scuola de’ gelosi (1778) did on the one occasion I got to hear it. There is nothing quite like experiencing a work of genius for the first time, and since there are still many of Salieri’s operas of which I have not had the opportunity to attend a performance, I have that experience to look forward to many times yet.

However, the act of being bowled over by a piece cannot derive simply from the fact that it is unfamiliar. It must be remarkable in its own right, and the second reason I love Salieri is because much of his output is. As soon as we move away from making comparisons with Mozart, we can see that he was a first rate composer in his own right. For example, the second theme in the first movement of his Symphony in D major ‘Il giorno onomastico’ (The Name Day) of 1775 introduces a melody that I believe to be one of the most beautiful in the entire symphonic repertoire. In the Larghetto that follows there is a sustained string line from the violas and cellos that is accompanied by pizzicato double basses and a series of (mainly) four note motifs from the violins. Not only is it astonishing in its own right, but it may have inspired some of the violin patterns to be heard in Schubert’s work, as he was later to be taught by Salieri.

This leads onto my third reason, which is that Salieri’s influence extended far and wide. Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt were all pupils, as was Mozart’s own son Franz Xaver (so it seems clear Mozart’s wife Constanze did not see him as a foe). His Parisian opera Tarare (1787), with a libretto by Beaumarchais, advanced the notion of reform opera, with its approach to synthesising poetry and music actually anticipating the ideals of Wagner. The film version of Amadeus shows the close of a performance of Axur, re d’Ormus (the Italian language version of Tarare created a year later with a libretto by Da Ponte), but is deliberately presented to look as prosaic as possible in comparison with Mozart’s masterpieces. This, however, seems rather unfair for an opera that in Vienna at the time was to prove more popular than Don Giovanni.

Salieri’s specific influence on Mozart cannot be overstated and is best illustrated by considering his comedy, La grotta di Trofonio, written in 1785 when he was at the height of his powers. With a libretto by Giambattista Casti, it was the first opera buffa to be published in full score and while Le nozze di Figaro, which premiered six months later, enjoyed just nine performances during its initial run, Trofonio ran for twenty-six. Since both operas featured many of the same singers, some of the star names in Vienna at the time, we have a level playing field from which to judge their relative popularity.

“There is nothing quite like experiencing a work of genius for the first time…”

La grotta di Trofonio was produced before any of the Mozart / Da Ponte collaborations, so whenever we hear similarities to Mozart in the music, it was Salieri who was influencing that composer and not the other way around. The beautiful trio that immediately follows the Overture and features two sisters and an older man sounds like a forerunner to ‘Soave sia il vento’ in Così fan tutte. The appearance of the magician Trofonio about half an hour in introduces music that is strikingly similar to that given to the Commendatore when he appears in the final scene of Don Giovanni. Similarly, there is a supple line in the Overture that feels like one to be found in the Overture to Le nozze di Figaro.

It would certainly seem that Mozart worked from Trofonio’s music to develop something even better for the Commendatore, but this in no way diminishes Salieri’s achievement. I am sure that without La grotta di Trofonio as inspiration, Mozart could have written equally outstanding music for his character, but I very much doubt he would have produced specifically what he did. The supple line in the Overture to Le nozze di Figaro also feels just a tad superior to its ‘predecessor’, while it must be admitted that the three chords that begin La grotta di Trofonio, though they may be striking, do not match the brilliance of the opening to Figaro.

This may actually sum up Salieri’s abilities in that the best of his music was only a notch down on the best of Mozart’s, but the average standard of it fell more significantly short of that set by the younger composer. However, our knowledge of Mozart’s operas remains incomplete if we do not know Salieri’s as well. Without awareness of them we are restricted to seeing how Mozart developed his own writing from one opera to the next, without understanding the influence of others upon it.

As far as I am aware, only two of Salieri’s operas are obtainable on DVD. These are Tarare and Falstaff (1799), which are both available on the Arthaus Musik label. In addition, a CD entitled Antonio Salieri on the Campion label features, among other things, his Symphony in D major La Veneziana’ and Symphony in D major Il giorno onomastico’. In 2003 Cecilia Bartoli recorded an album of some of his greatest arias, which is still available on the Decca label. The first of these, ‘Son qual lacera tartana’ from La secchia tapita (1772), sounds just a little like ‘Der Hölle Rache’, written by Mozart nearly twenty years later. Several CDs have also come out in the last year including Salieri: Strictly Private, featuring the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra, which was released on the Hänssler label in April 2020.

However, despite some revival in interest in recent decades, Salieri’s music still does not get much of an airing in the United Kingdom. Bampton Classical Opera has presented several of his operas over the years, but the composer has never once featured at the Royal Opera House, English National Opera or BBC Proms in the Albert Hall, which begs the question, why? The main historical problem is that Salieri retired from the stage in 1804, meaning he spent the last twenty years of his life writing religious music, which makes up a large proportion of his overall output. When an artist falls out of favour even during his own lifetime, it is always difficult for his work to make a comeback after his death. Today, however, I still suspect many companies fear that whatever they presented by the composer, too many people would emerge simply dismissing what they had heard as being ‘not as good as Mozart’.

For this reason, I would like to make two proposals. The first is for British companies to work towards presenting Salieri’s pieces in 2025, which will mark the bicentenary of his death. That way, they will have a particular reason for performing them, and it would be good if the Proms could fit at least one of his operas and a few of his orchestral and religious works into their schedule.

The second proposal is more unorthodox, but could be both informative and fun. The next time that a house presents Le nozze di Figaro, and both the Royal Opera and English National Opera currently have good productions, stage Salieri’s La scuola de’ gelosi on alternate nights on exactly the same set. This is partly because both end with night time scenes of confusion and mistaken identity in a garden, so this would allow clear comparisons to be drawn between the works. More importantly, because a director would be working the presentation of Salieri’s opera around a set designed for a different purpose, they would have a justification for presenting something that might feel just slightly inferior, while keeping costs down by not creating an entirely new production. Salieri’s creations should on merit be a lot better known than they are, and we can certainly hope that as 2025 approaches he starts to receive the recognition he deserves.

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Why I Love… Salieri