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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Salieri, Richard III, and artistic license...

True First Edition
Not long ago I wrote a post for Booktryst on the author of one of my favorite books, Josephine Tey.  Her book, Daughter of Time, is all about dispelling the myths about Richard III, the English king accused of kidnapping and murdering his nephews - the two princes held in the Tower of London, sons of Henry II and Elizabeth Woodville. Tey made such a convincing argument for Richard III's innocence, that he has been vindicated to pretty much all who are aware of the facts she presented in the book.

Richard III's vilification began with a history of him by Thomas More, a Tudor toady who was only eight years old when Richard III died.  The story was furthered by William Shakespeare, who was known to put his art before historical fact, and thus a heinous villain was born.

The same occurred more recently with a play from 1979 and film from 1984 called Amadeus by Peter Shaffer.  Repeating a century-old rumor, it featured the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, both important musicians of the 18th century.  Mozart profoundly influenced western music, composing over 600 works, many of them considered the acme of their forms.  He is the most popular and well-known of classical composers.

Playbill, 1981

Antonio Salieri, a Venetian-born composer, conductor, and teacher, was an established musician holding posts with the Hapsburg monarchy.  Director of the Italian opera by a Habsburg Court appointment for almost twenty years, he also wrote works for opera houses in Paris, Rome, and Venice.  During his lifetime his works were widely performed throughout Europe.  His students included Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, and Franz Schubert.

Theatrical Release poster

It is unclear if there was anything sour between Mozart and Salieri, although I have read that there are letters that the young Mozart wrote to his father complaining of Salieri (in fact all Italians in the biz) and apparently blaming him/them for his inability to establish himself successfully in Vienna.  However, it would be interesting to know if Mozart wrote letters complaining about any others; he could have been dumping on Dad or justifying himself to him.  There was a rivalry between the German and Italian factions of the music world that resulted in some rancor between the two groups.  Since good paid positions were rare and highly sought, competition was fierce, just like in any other time and in any other discipline.

Portrait of Mozart by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1780
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Actually, Salieri was a protege of two Germans - Gassmann and Gluck.  Even though he was born in Legnago in the Republic of Venice, he spent almost sixty years in Vienna, and was considered by many at the time to be a German composer.

Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibroad Mahler, 1825
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Salieri also promoted some of Mozart's work - he revived Figaro in 1788, and took three of Mozart's masses to the coronation festivities for Leopold II in 1790.  They even wrote a cantata for voice and piano together, but unfortunately this work has been lost.  Mozart's son, Franz Xavier Wolfgang Mozart, was a student of Salieri at one time.

The rivalry rumor began after Salieri's death in 1825.  Alexander Pushkin wrote a "little tragedy" entitled Mozart and Salieri, published in 1831.  This was a dramatic study of the sin of envy - Salieri's envy of Mozart.  This story was later adapted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov into an opera of the same name in 1898.

The rumor was further perpetuated by the Shaffer play and film.  In his version Salieri is so in awe of Mozart and so resentful that he renounces God for giving such gifts to a boorish and puerile man such as Mozart as depicted in Amadeus.

However, talented as Mozart was, there was no cause for Salieri to be envious of him.  Salieri was well-respected throughout Europe, and held important, well-paying positions, things that Mozart did not attain.  While Salieri enjoyed recognition during his lifetime, was a much sought-after teacher, and influenced contemporary Viennese music, Mozart's fame and acclaim came well after his death.

The play and movie also took liberties with Mozart's death.  The city of Vienna has kept weather records for centuries, and  those records show that on the day of his death - December 5, 1791 - the weather was calm and mild, not the horrible snowstorm shown in Amadeus.  Mozart's cause of death is now accepted to have been from rheumatic inflammatory fever.  Salieri did attend his funeral, according to an 1856 report.  Mozart was buried in a common grave which was the Viennese custom at the time   (Apparently the Great Plague necessitated some changes in burial customs due to the huge number of deaths and infectious bodies.)

The good thing that Amadeus, the latest of the attempts to vilify Salieri, did was to revive his music and his fame.  The Salieri Opera Festival, sponsored by the Fondazione Culturale Antonio Salieri, is an annual event in his native town of Legnago each autumn.  It is dedicated to not only honoring and rediscovering his work but also his contemporaries and their work.  In 1999 Il Teatro Salieri was inaugurated, a theater in Legnago re-named in his honor.

It took about 150 years for Salieri to come into his own again and his reputation restored, much less time than for Richard III, but it gives us pause to consider that all that is written is not true, not even if most people think so, and have thought so for a long time.


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