Entertainment Music

Monday 20 January 2020

In Mozart's shadow: the story of Antonio Salieri

Antonio Salieri
Antonio Salieri

George Hamilton

To say that Antonio Salieri has had a bad press would be putting it mildly. Popular culture has cast him as the villain of the piece in the early demise of Mozart.

Alexander Pushkin, the father of modern Russian literature, was at it a mere five years after Salieri's passing in 1825, casting the Italian as a jealous rival who poisoned the younger man.

Rimsky-Korsakov would later turn this tale into an opera, first staged in 1898, perpetuating the myth.

The 20th century offered another couple of high-profile interpretations. Peter Schaffer's 1979 play Amadeus, and the subsequent Oscar-winning movie by Milos Forman that was based upon it, both reworked the same script.

A version of it even turned up in The Simpsons.

It's hard to square this image with the friend of the Irish tenor Michael Kelly, based in Vienna at the time.

In his autobiography, published in 1826, Kelly recalls an evening in the park.

Salieri, who was working on a commission from the Grand Opera House in Paris, was regaling his friend with one of the arias, while they were having a small refreshment on the river bank.

As Salieri sang, Kelly noticed a wild boar heading their way. There was nothing for it but to high tail it out of there, leaving behind them, much to Kelly's regret, "a flagon of excellent Rhenish wine".

The story provoked much subsequent laughter, but that was no surprise. "Salieri," wrote Kelly, "would make a joke of any thing for he was a very pleasant man, and much esteemed at Vienna."

Kelly concluded: "I considered myself in high luck to be noticed by him."

Hardly a man to bear a grudge so serious that he'd do away with a rival.

Antonio Salieri was born in 1750 in Legnano near Milan, and there's an Irish connection here too, for it was on a racecourse close by that Fionnuala McCormack, twice the European Cross Country champion, won the first of her medals in the event, taking the Under-23 silver medal in 2006.

Orphaned at 13, a brief spell at school in a monastery confirmed a considerable musical talent. His education continued in Venice, where he was spotted by a future Kapellmeister at the Viennese court and a move to the Austrian capital followed.

On the death of his patron, Salieri, just turning 24, was promoted to court composer, and music director of the opera, which was right up his street, for this was his chosen discipline.

He would play an important role in the development of the art form.

A measure of his success was that he was the composer commissioned to provide the music for the original opening of the La Scala opera house in Milan in 1778.

His opera - Europa Riconosciuta - taking its title of Europa Revealed from the princess of Greek myth from whom a continent took its name, was a difficult one to stage, not least because of the demands made on the singers.

It disappeared from the repertoire following that premiere, but when La Scala reopened after extensive renovations in 2004, Salieri's Europa was chosen to grace the occasion.

Mozart's early death, at the age of just 35, created a focus on the lost genius that meant Salieri's music struggled for recognition.

As a composer, he had collaborated with Mozart. As a teacher, as well as Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt, he mentored Franz Xaver, Mozart's youngest son. None of this suggests vindictive jealousy.

Volkmar Braunbehrens, a German scholar, called his 1989 biography of Salieri Ein Musiker im Schatten Mozarts - A Musician in Mozart's Shadow. The English translation took the title Maligned Master. That hits the nail on the head.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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