Monday, July 5, 2010

People: Antonio Salieri: The real man, not the myth

It is unfortunate that the film Amadeus, based on the play by Peter Schaffer, has created so many unseemly myths regarding the person and character of Antonio Salieri. Actually, these myths weren't created by the film so much as brought back into light for the 20th century audience, as the myths originated with the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin in his dramatic poem, Mozart and Salieri. However much people like to demonize the poor man, history tells us that he was probably one of Mozart's greatest admirers. The difficulties experienced in their relationship were probably due to the overall mistrust of the Italians by the local German musicians, which was not at all undue or unfounded.

Emperor Joseph II did a great disservice to his fellow Germans by going with what was more fashionable when he changed his National Theater into one which played Italian Opera Buffa (Italian comic opera), exclusively. If the local composers and singers couldn't adjust to the new style, they fell from favor, especially when he hired a new crop of Italian singers, composers, and an Italian librettist (Lorenzo Da Ponte), as his court musicians. Local singers like the extremely popular Aloysia Weber Lange often became persona non grata and had it not been for the fact that the popular Viennese singer, Catarnia Cavelieri (who changed her name to create a new Italian image), began to study with Salieri (as well as became his mistress), she would have fallen by the wayside into the pile of German outcasts as well.

The following biographical information is from the Wikipedia article on Antonio Salieri:

Salieri was born August 18th, 1750 in Legnago, Italy. He studied the violin, the organ and the harpsichord in his childhood. He was orphaned early on and at the age of 15 he went to Venice under the patronage of the Mocenigo family. He studied the voice with Pacini and composition with Pescetti. In Venice he met composer and teacher Florian Leopold Gaßmann, who took him under his care and gave him a proper education. Eventually, they moved to Vienna. While attending concerts and musical gatherings with Gaßmann, Salieri became fast friends with the Emperor.

He slowly worked his way into the musical world and began to participate in varied and abundant musical gatherings for the Emperor. He continued his close friendship with the Emperor and performed him many favors, including daily music lessons. The Emperor also helped Salieri with the securing of a wife, whose father objected to Salieri due to the fact that the composer only made 100 ducats as court conductor. Hearing this, he raised Salieri's stipend to 300 ducats, and in return Salieri took over some of the duties of Kapellmeister Bonno, who was in his sixties and experienced poor health due to age and obesity.

Antonio was one of the "new school" opera composers and helped forge a new path for others to follow. In his career he composed over forty operas, most notably Tarare, Axur, re D'ormus, Les Danaides, Falstaff, La Grotta di Trofonio, Armida and La Locandiera. His large list of students includes musical greats such as Liszt and Beethoven.

He succeeded Bonno as Kapellmeister in 1788. He was President of the Tönkunstler Societät (a society of musicians' widows and orphans founded by Gaßmann in 1771) until 1818. He was also awarded a gold medal for civic valor on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his stay in Vienna.

The biographer Alexander Wheelock Thayer believes that Mozart's suspicions of Salieri could have originated with an incident in 1781 when Mozart applied to be the music teacher of the Princess of Württemberg. Salieri was selected instead, because of his reputation as a fine voice instructor. In the following year Mozart again failed to be selected as the Princess's piano teacher.

Later, when Mozart's forthcoming Le Nozze di Figaro was not well received by Emperor Joseph II, Mozart blamed Salieri. "Salieri and his tribe will move heaven and earth to put it down", Leopold Mozart wrote to his daughter Nannerl. But at the time of the premiere of Figaro, Salieri was busy with his new French opera Les Horaces and was too busy to be involved in the court politics surrounding Figaro. Thayer believes that the intrigues surrounding the failure of Figaro were instigated by the poet Giovanni Battista Casti against the Court Poet, Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the Figaro libretto. In addition, when 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 was to be performed. Obviously, Mozart was not pleased by this.

There is, however, far more evidence of a cooperative relationship between the two composers than one of real enmity. For example, Mozart's widow appointed Salieri to teach their son, Franz Xaver, and when Salieri was appointed Kapellmeister in 1788, he revived Figaro instead of bringing out a new opera of his own. In addition, when he went to the coronation festivities for Leopold II in 1790 he had no fewer than three Mozart masses in his luggage. In the late summer of 1785, Salieri and Mozart composed a cantata for voice and piano together, entitled Per la ricuperata salute di Ophelia, which celebrated the happy return to the stage of the famous singer Nancy Storace. This cantata has been lost, although it was published by Artaria in 1785. Mozart's Davide penitente K.469 (1785), his piano concerto in E flat major K.482 (1785), the clarinet quintet K.581 (1789) and the great symphony in G minor K.550 were all premiered at the suggestion of Salieri, who conducted a performance of the G minor symphony in 1791, the year of Mozart's death. In his last surviving letter from October 14th 1791, Mozart tells his wife that he collected Salieri and his [Salieri's] mistress in his carriage and drove them both to the opera, and about Salieri's attendance at his opera Die Zauberflöte K 620, writing enthusiastically: "He heard and saw with all his attention, and from the ouverture to the last choir there was no piece that didn't elicit a bravo or bello out of him..."

Salieri fathered eight children and by all accounts was a decent man. He died in a state of delirium in a mental asylum in Vienna in 1825 at the age of seventy-five. On his death bed he begged loyal pupil Beethoven to tell the world that he was innocent of the crime of Mozart's death. Oddly, Salieri confessed to the poisoning days earlier, but his physicians reported that Salieri was delusional and probably suffered from advanced syphilis.

...the only thing I love in vocal music is truth, that truth which the incomparable Gluck makes me feel so profoundly throughout and in every detail of his Tragedies, and which I have felt on hearing works of other genres by a few other composers; so I strive to bring truth to all those of my operas which deserve such care...
Antoino Salieri to Carl F. Cramer, Vienna 20 July 1784


Some of the myths created by the film are the following:

a. Mozart and Salieri were arch enemies.

b. Salieri was jealous of Mozart's talent.

c. Mozart had an affair with Catarina Cavallieri, (who was actually Salieri's mistress). It is far more likely that Mozart's affair was with Anna "Nancy" Storace, who was his original Susanna in Figaro.

d. Salieri tried to sabotage Figaro. (He wasn't even in Vienna when Figaro was being staged. He was in Paris staging Axur.)

e. He murdered Mozart.

f. Mozart was an immature, giggling, drunken, ninny.

g. Salieri kept Mozart from getting a post with the Emperor.

h. Salieri was present when Mozart died.

i. Salieri had a hand in the penning of Mozart's Requiem.

The following is the delightful Cavatina originally sung by Nancy Storace in Salieri's La Grotto di Trofonio.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The 18th Century: Meanwhile, back in the American colonies...

The plot of So Faithful a Heart takes place primarily in Vienna in the early to late 1780s. While Nancy was a British subject, born in London in October of 1765, she probably knew of and cared very little for the politics of the time. The American colonies were far across the Atlantic, and the problems and conflicts brewing over there were His Majesty, King George's concern. In July of 1776 she was only ten years old, and only starting to focus her energies on her singing career while her brother, Stephen, who was supposed to be studying composition at the music conservatory in Naples, was actually cavorting about, and getting into trouble in Italy with a Welsh painter.

Back in Salzburg, twenty-year-old Mozart was getting ready for a performance of his Haffner Serenade in D, which was commissioned by the prominent Haffner family of Salzburg. Employed at the time by Prince Archbishop Coloredo, of Salzburg, Mozart was pretty much hating his life. He was young, salty, well-traveled and ready to get out from underneath the thumbs of both the Archbishop and his father. Two years later, he would be in Paris with his sick mother, and on the 4th of July 1778, mourning her death and wondering how he was going to break the news to his father and sister, who were both back home in Salzburg. 

Neither Nancy Storace nor Mozart realized the implications of that 4th of July in 1776, and the impact that it would soon have upon them and the entire world, for good or for ill. Although both of them were a part of the generations of The Enlightenment, the concepts of liberty, equality, and freedom were still very distant and unrealized, especially for Mozart who was still enslaved within a theocratic feudal system. They would both live to see the American Revolution and for Mozart, only the beginnings of the French Revolution (which had dire consequences for his Austrian Princess, Maria Antonia, who was then, Queen Marie Antoinette of France), but it would still be generations beyond them before the full impact of it all would be felt.