Antonio Salieri

(18 August 1750 - 7 May 1825)

The Italian composer Antonio Salieri was one of the great opera composers of the Classical era. At the court of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II he helped redefine the Viennese musical scene, and there he taught many of the luminaries of the early Romantics including Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and Hummel.

Salieri was born in northern Italy, and received early tuition on both the violin and harpsichord from his older brother. After his parents’ deaths when Salieri was only fifteen, he moved to Venice to begin his formal education. Salieri’s stay there was not long, as he was discovered in 1766 by Florian Leopold Gassman, the imperial music director for the Viennese court. Gassman took the orphaned Salieri under his wing, bringing him back to Vienna to personally teach him composition and introducing him to Emperor Joseph II in the process.

The greatest musical diplomat.

By the age of eighteen, after several more years of intensive study, Salieri composed his first opera, although the work, La vestale, was unimpressive and his since been lost. The next year he completed his first surviving opera, Le donne letterate, which greatly impressed his friend, fellow composer and master of German opera, Christoph Willibald Gluck. This surviving opera, a highlight in the genre of opera buffa, or comic opera, was actually set to a libretto intended for his teacher and mentor Gassman, but Gassman’s temporary absence from Vienna provided an opportunity for Salieri to prove himself to his fellow composers as well as the Viennese nobility.

In 1771 Salieri completed his first serious opera Armida, which won extensive praise for its successful incorporation of elements of Parisian opera, the specialty of his friend Gluck. Armida precipitated Salieri’s rise to the upper echelon of European composers. After the death of his mentor, Gassman, in 1774 Salieri was chosen to replace him in the role of music director and chief composer for the court of Emperor Joseph II. Around the same time he was selected to lead Vienna’s Italian opera company. With these two appointments he became one of the most important and influential musicians in Europe.

Enlisting the help of Gluck to appeal to French audiences, Salieri completed Les Danaïdes in 1784, which was eagerly received in Paris. It was during this time that he began working extensively with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, who is perhaps best known for writing the libretti to many of Mozart’s greatest works, including Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. Da Ponte would also write the Italian libretto to what would become Salieri’s masterpiece, Axur, re d’Ormus (1787), which was itself a translated adaption from his original work Tarare, which featured a French libretto by Pierre Beaumarchais. Released in the same year as Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Tarare was actually the better-received of the two works in Vienna, and remains Salieri’s most enduring artistic achievement.

The death of Joseph II in 1790 left Salieri without his primary benefactor, and the embroilment of Paris in the French Civil War deprived him of one of his most successful markets. Salieri continued composing for the next several decades, but he found himself being gradually sidelined by changing musical tastes, and his inability to adapt to them. Although he was still in his prime, he stopped composing operas after 1804, not wanting to see himself become irrelevant in the genre. Instead, he turned his focus to writing instrumental and sacred music.

Salieri’s instrumental output is not large, but it nevertheless contains several concertos, the most famous of which was written for flute and oboe, and a symphony. Although his sacred catalogue is much more extensive, including four orchestral masses, a Requiem written for his own funeral and numerous psalms and hymns, much of it was unpublished and only composed for and performed on specific occasions, such as the ascension of Emperor Francis I to the Austrian throne in 1804. Salieri once said that his sacred music is “for God and my emperor,” and viewed its purpose as very different from his popular operas.

[My sacred music is] for God and my emperor.

Salieri’s legacy is not limited to his compositions. During his time in the musical capital of Vienna he came into contact with many of the leading artists of the younger generations, and he worked tirelessly to promote and mentor them. In his youth Ludwig van Beethoven went to him for counterpoint lessons, and later dedicated his Three Violin Sonatas to Salieri. He also gave lessons at various points to Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, all important figures in the transition from the Classical to the Romantic era. Just as his mentors Gluck and Gassman had advocated for him, Salieri was active in encouraging and sharing the music of his pupils.

One of the great misconceptions about Salieri concerns his rivalry with composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Rimsky-Korsakov opera Mozart et Salieri (1898) perpetuated an old tale that the two had been arch rivals, and that Salieri had even hastened Mozart’s death by using poison. This idea was glamorized even further and used as an essential plot device in the Peter Shaffer play, Amadeus, which was made into an extremely successful film four years later, casting Salieri as the villain.

Although the notion is entertaining and it was certainly true that the two were contemporaries in a similar line of work, there is no historical evidence to support actual jealousy or malice between the two. Salieri even went so far as to give music lessons to Mozart’s son, suggesting a much warmer relationship between the two great composers than is typically depicted. Indeed all accounts of Salieri suggest a compassionate man with a genuine interest in promoting the music of his peers, a man that was, according to his student Anselm Hüttenbrenner, “the greatest musical diplomat.”

Header image courtesy of BBC
Other images courtesy of Kunst Fuer Alle and El Norte de Castilla

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

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