Antonio Salieri has a birthday in August. Mozart’s rival spent most of his career in Vienna, but he was born on August 18, 1749, in Legnano, in the province of Verona in northern Italy. Each year in autumn, there’s a festival in Legnano dedicated to the music of the man made (in)famous through Miloš Forman’s film Amadeus.
English writer Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play — basis for the 1984 movie — advanced the idea that Salieri was a mediocre musician and envious schemer who poisoned Mozart. The theory goes back to Alexander Pushkin’s 1830 play, Mozart and Salieri. Pushkin was inspired by a rumor in Vienna. Mozart died under unclear circumstances in 1791.
Bob Asahina and Devorah Goldman did a program (Opens in a new window) for us on truth v. narrative. In the case of Salieri v. Mozart, narrative has trumped truth. In real life, the two men actually — gulp — got along with one another. They once collaborated on a piece. Salieri even promoted and conducted Mozart’s Seventh Symphony. It’s true, they were competitors. It’s also true that Wolfgang Amadeus was immature and insecure and that his ambitious father Leopold was given to conspiracy theories. In reality, Salieri seems to have been a fairly decent and honorable fellow. There is certainly no evidence that he poisoned Mozart.
Is it because Salieri has been cast as a villain in fictional accounts — Rimsky-Korsakov’s one-act opera Mozart and Salieri followed the Pushkin story line at the end of the 19th century — that his music has been largely ignored? He wrote beautiful music. His operas were especially popular in Vienna. He was also a respected teacher. Salieri taught Schubert, Beethoven, Liszt — and Mozart’s own son Franz Xaver.
Here’s (Opens in a new window) a Salieri piano concerto. Here’s (Opens in a new window) an overture. Here’s (Opens in a new window) Salieri’s Requiem. There’s much to appreciate. Here’s (Opens in a new window) an interesting 2019 pro-Salieri essay by Alex Ross in the New Yorker.
What’s more, Salieri had an anti-authoritarian spirit. He wrote an opera called Tarare, set in the Persian Gulf, that involves the overthrow of a despot. He was tolerant and open-minded by the standards of the time. Another one of his operas includes an interracial love duet. He had a sense of humor. At the end of his career, Salieri quipped that after 50 years in Austria he would still give learning German a proper go. After his attempts, Mark Twain concluded that a gifted person should be able to learn English in thirty hours, “French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.” Count me in as pro-Salieri.
Some fine music gets forgotten with time. Other work goes underappreciated. There are pieces that become overexposed. Of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Toronto critic (Opens in a new window) John Terauds says he’d be happy “to never hear it again.” That’s a bridge too far.
A century ago, in the autumn of 1822, Beethoven — who had fallen on hard times professionally — started work on his final symphony. He drew on previous compositions and various sketches. The process led to something. Once his Ninth Symphony was completed in 1824, he was determined to have the work premiered in Vienna. Like Mozart, Beethoven was concerned that the Italians were taking over the town.
Three times in the last week, I’ve watched a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It’s stunning — and beautiful to watch. It’s less than an hour and a half, the four movements, and completely absorbing. The camera work is so brilliant that you feel yourself on stage in the midst of the orchestra. Men and women at work.
For the premiere, Beethoven cast young talent in key roles. Henriette Sontag was an 18-year-old soprano. Caroline Unger was a 20-year-old alto. Caroline turned Beethoven around at the end of the performance to see the cheers of the audience. He was nearly deaf at this time of his life.
If you can, take in the Muti performance in one sitting and without multitasking. The one hour and twenty-one minutes will take you to another place. Watch it like a movie. Parts will give you goose bumps.
Keep following our work in politics and public policy — the mainstay of what we do! We remain full with material. I’ll share more on this front next week. For now and for a change this week, music only.
Composer John Tavener once said he liked any kind of music that offers a different way of thinking about things. Here’s a wonderful quote by the legendary teacher of composition, Nadia Boulanger:
Nothing is better than music; when it takes us out of time, it has done more for us than we have the right to hope for: it has broadened the limits of our sorrowful life, it has lit up the sweetness of our hours of happiness by effacing the pettinesses that diminish us, bringing us back pure and new to what was, what will be, what music has created for us.
Louis Armstrong has a birthday next month. He was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans. Armstrong said, “Never play anything the same way twice.”