Did Salieri plot Mozart's demise to the point of actually poisoning him? Or is it just as fanciful as all those serpents and magic bells in the younger composer's opera The Magic Flute?
Antonio Salieri was a hugely influential composer of opera and a much in-demand teacher who taught Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt. The chances are, however, that you've only ever heard of Salieri because he happened to be the arch-rival of the irrepressible Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Or was he?
The rise of the poisoning tale
Mozart's rivalry with Salieri could have originated with an incident in 1781, when Mozart applied to be the music teacher of Princess Elisabeth of Württemberg, and Salieri was selected instead because of his reputation as a singing teacher. In the following year Mozart once again failed to be selected as the Princess' piano teacher.
In addition, when Lorenzo Da Ponte was in Prague preparing the production of Mozart's setting of his Don Giovanni, the poet was ordered back to Vienna for a royal wedding for which Salieri's Axur, re d'Ormus would be performed. Obviously, Mozart was not pleased by this.
Within six years of Salieri's death, the Russian writer Pushkin wrote a play, Mozart and Salieri , which portrayed the danger of envy. In 1898, Rimsky-Korsakov turned Pushkin's play into an opera. In both, it's suggested that Salieri's jealousy of Mozart led him to poison the younger composer.
However, even with Mozart and Salieri's rivalry for certain jobs, there is very little evidence that the relationship between the two composers was at all acrimonious beyond this, especially after 1785 or so, when Mozart had become established in Vienna. Rather, they appeared to usually see each other as friends and colleagues, and supported each other's work. In several of Mozart’s letters, there is evidence that the Italians (supposedly lead by Salieri) in Emperor Joseph’s court did get in the way of several attempts to advance Mozart's career, and some of these are portrayed in the film Amadeus. There is, however, no clear proof that Salieri hated Mozart or plotted against him or planned his death, although those ideas made for a much more exciting story.
Where the film rings true is in its portrayal of Mozart's uncanny improvisational ability, his computer memory and instant recall, his effortless skill at composition - "without setting down his billiard cue" - his talent for languages and his genius for musical and verbal mimicry. That the divine Mozart could also curse like a sailor, improvise obscene verses and even talk backwards was also true though its doubtful Salieri and his faction would have been as offended by Mozart's language as he is in the film. The late 18th century was not noted for its delicacy of language. However - all quibbles aside - this moving and hugely entertaining film is still an excellent introduction to Mozart, his music and his world.
A long-lost composition co-written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri has been rediscovered in the Czech National Museum in Prague. German musicologist and composer Timo Jouko Herrmann found the piece last month while doing research on Antonio Salieri in the collection of the Czech Museum of Music. It’s a libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Venetian priest and poet who wrote the librettos for three of Mozarts most beloved operas — Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte — and published by printer to the Imperial court in Vienna Joseph von Kurzböck. Very unusually for a libretto, this one includes the sheet music in a simple piano arrangement. Mozart and Salieri’s names do not appear anywhere in the pamphlet, only their initials in the musical notation identifying which measures were written by which composer. There is also a third composer credited, one Cornetti, who is unknown under that name.
The piece is entitled Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia (“For the recovered health of Ophelia”) and was written in 1785. The Ophelia in question was Nancy Storace, an English coloratura soprano who was friends with and muse to both Mozart and Salieri.
Nancy was a musical prodigy from a very young age. She gave her first public performance when she was eight years old and debuted at London’s Haymarket Theatre the next year. Her older brother Stephen was also a child prodigy, taught by his father to play violin so expertly that by the age of 10 he was performing the most complex, difficult pieces of the time.
Nancy traveled to Venice to take voice lessons from composer Antonio Sacchini and began getting professional gigs, rapidly rising from minor parts to leads and becoming something of a sensation. While still a teenager in 1782 she performed the role of Dorina in the Milan premiere of Giuseppe Sarti’s opera Fra I Due Litiganti Il Terzo Gode, a part that Sarti wrote specifically for her, to great acclaim.
When in 1783 Austrian Emperor Joseph II decided to put together a company dedicated to performances of Italian opera buffa (comic opera), he snapped up the 18-year-old Nancy Storace for his prima donna.
The opera that Nancy premiered was Antonio Salieri's La scuola de gelosi (The School of Jealousy), in which she took the role of the Countess Bandiera. The plot of the opera involves love intrigues, attempted seductions and provocations to jealousy between members of the three different social strata: the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the working class, which was typical for plots in the early to late 1780s.
Mozart had first seen Nancy when she made her Viennese debut in Salieri’s La Scuola De’ Gelosi. He immediately fell in love with her as an artist and, it was rumored, their relationship actually went much deeper. Certainly Nancy and Stephen became part of Mozart’s circle and were often at his house, while he frequently had dinner with them and their mother.
The role of Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro was written for and first performed by her. it is possible that her lively acting style was the inspiration for the central character of Susanna.
When she was about to leave Vienna, Storace performed in a farewell concert on 23 February 1787. For this occasion Mozart wrote the concert recitative and aria "Ch'io mi scordi di te?
The rediscovery of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia underscores that Mozart and Salieri were on good terms in 1785, even though a few years earlier Mozart had written in letters to his father of his frustration with the Italian cabal at the Viennese court. He thought Salieri, Da Ponte and other Italians who had the ear of the Emperor were blocking his ascent, but by 1785 Mozart was well-established and was working closely with said Italians. Salieri would go out of his way to express approval of Mozart’s work, even directing performances of several of his compositions.
|Vasiliy Shkafer as Mozart and Fyodor Shalyapin as Salieri|
(Russian Private Opera, 1898)
Nonetheless, decades after Mozart’s premature death rumors were rife that Salieri had poisoned his rival. The rumor was immortalized in art when, six years after Salieri’s 1825 death, revered Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a verse drama Mozart and Salieri that posited Salieri as the bitterly jealous poisoner of the greater man. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov set the play to music in the opera Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer based his 1979 play Amadeus on Pushkin’s drama. That in turn was adapted for film in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name directed by Miloš Forman. So now when people think of Mozart and Salieri they think of a rivalry unto the death, when in fact the two men were on quite good terms.
And now, possibly for the first time and certainly for the first time in centuries, here is Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia by Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri, played on the harpsichord by Lukas Vendl.