18 August 2017

Antonio Salieri - composer

Maestro of Vienna haunted by Mozart rumours

Antonio Salieri was director of Italian opera in the Habsburg court of Joseph II
Antonio Salieri was director of Italian opera
in the Habsburg court of Joseph II
Antonio Salieri, the Italian composer who in his later years was dogged by rumours that he had murdered Mozart, was born on this day in 1750 in Legnago, in the Veneto.

Salieri was director of Italian opera for the Habsburg court in Vienna from 1774 to 1792 and German-born Mozart believed for many years that “cabals of Italians” were deliberately putting obstacles in the way of his progress, preventing him from staging his operas and blocking his path to prestigious appointments.

In letters to his father, Mozart said that “the only one who counts in (the emperor’s eyes) is Salieri” and voiced his suspicions that Salieri and Lorenzo Da Ponte, the poet and librettist, were in league against him.

Some years after Mozart died in 1791 at the age of just 35, with the cause of death never definitively established, it emerged that the young composer - responsible for some of music’s greatest symphonies, concertos and operas - had told friends in the final weeks of his life that he feared he had been poisoned and suspected again that his Italian rivals were behind it. Salieri was immediately the prime suspect.

Despite being put forward as truth in works of literature such as Pushkin’s Little Tragedy and hardly discouraged by the portrayal of Salieri in the film Amadeus, it is largely accepted now that the story is a myth and that the two composers enjoyed a relatively cordial and mutually respectful relationship.

Mozart felt the Italians in Vienna wanted to block the progress of his career
Mozart felt the Italians in Vienna wanted
to block the progress of his career
Yet Salieri had to live with the rumours during his lifetime. Rossini apparently teased him about it and Mozart’s father-in-law pointedly shunned him. When he became old and mentally frail, Salieri began to believe he must be guilty and while in a deranged state he supposedly confessed to the murder.

Salieri began his musical studies at home in Legnago, taught by his older brother Francesco, and by the organist of the Legnago Cathedral, Giuseppe Simoni. When he was about 13, both his parents died. He was looked after by another brother, a monk in Padua, before for unknown reasons becoming the ward of a Venetian nobleman, Giovanni Mocenigo.

While living in Venice, Salieri’s continuing musical studies brought him to the attention of the composer Florian Leopold Gassmann, who was so impressed with his protégé's talents that he took him to Vienna, where he personally directed and paid for the remainder of Salieri's musical education.

There, influenced by Gassman and Christoph Gluck, he was introduced to the emperor, Joseph II, who invited him to join in chamber music sessions. His appointment in 1774 as court composer and conductor of the Italian opera made him one of the most influential musicians in Europe.

He became a pivotal figure in the development of late 18th-century opera, helping to establish many of the features of the genre. He dominated Italian-language opera in Vienna and his works were performed across Europe. In all he wrote 37 operas, enjoying great success with many from Armida in 1771 to Cesare in Farmacusa in 1800.

Although he wrote no new operas after 1804, he remained a much sought-after teacher. Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven, and Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver Mozart, were among his pupils.

By the time of his death in 1825, his music was already disappearing from the repertoire but has enjoyed a revival in the last decade or so.

In 2004, the renovated La Scala in Milan reopened its doors with L'Europa riconosciutaEurope revealed - the work Salieri had written for its first performance in 1778.

The soprano Cecilia Bartoli recorded an album devoted to his arias, while recordings have been made of Salieri overtures and some complete operas.

The Teatro Salieri in Legnago
The Teatro Salieri in Legnago
Travel tip:

Legnago is a town in the Veneto about halfway between Verona and Ferrara, straddling the Adige river. It was formerly a centre for textile production although most of the factories have now closed. Legnago has had an important military role since the early Middle Ages. In the 19th century it was one of the Quadrilatero fortresses, the main strongpoint of the Austrian Lombardy-Venetia puppet state during the Italian Wars of Independence.  Legnago's theatre, constructed in the early 20th century, is called Teatro Salieri.

The Palazzi Mocenigo complex on the Grand Canal
The Palazzi Mocenigo complex on the Grand Canal
Travel tip:

The history of the Mocenigo family in Venice, who held influence from the 14th to the 19th centuries, is preserved in a complex of palaces on the Grand Canal roughly opposite the San Tomà vaporetto (water bus) stop, named the Palazzi Mocenigo.   The English poet Lord Byron stayed there in the early 19th century. Seven of the Mocenigo family were doges. Another Palazzo Mocenigo, in the San Stae area of Santa Croce, is a museum of textiles, costumes and perfume.

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