Mozart and Salieri: Not Characters in a Movie

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Alain Gheerbrant, a Frenchman who explored the Amazon and wrote about his experiences there in The Impossible Adventure (1955), told an incidental story that bears on Mozart’s appeal.

Gheerbrant says that when he and his companions entered a certain village inhabited by Maquiritare Indians in northern Brazil, they had a lot of difficulty encouraging the locals to trust and interact with them. So the Frenchmen stayed in the village clearing, and began to play various records on their gramophone. Most of their available music had no effect – the villagers stayed in their huts. But they finally put on Mozart, and the villagers lost their reserve and came out to the clearing to have a better listen at these marvelous sounds.

Mozart’s appeal is, truly, transcultural. It may even prove interplanetary, if some alien species finds the Voyager. This leaves us, though, with the old tug-of-war between the universal and the particular. This universal music came to us of necessity from a very particular man, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, living and working in an extraordinary time and place, in the Vienna of the day of Emperor Joseph II.

Pushkin Wrote of Poison

Alexandr Pushkin

And to another genius whose work has broad transcultural appeal, to the Russian romanticist poet Alexandr Pushkin, we owe an alluring idea, a theme that has come to dominate the image of Mozart’s life and work in recent decades: the idea of an intense and possibly a fatal rivalry between Mozart and Antonio Salieri.

Pushkin wrote Mozart and Salieri, a short two-scene work, in 1830. He has his Salieri, who is planning to poison Mozart, describe his motivation thus: “Pray, o Heaven!/ Where, where is rightness? When the sacred gift,/ Immortal genius, comes not in reward/For fervent love, for total self-rejection,/ For work and for exertion and for prayers,/ But casts its light upon a madman’s head.”

There is no evidence as it happens that Salieri either poisoned or ever contemplated poisoning Mozart. Everybody who has looked into it seriously has rejected the idea. But this was an artistic conceit – as Dawkins would put it, a “meme” – with a big future.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov turned the Pushkin work into an opera, first performed in Moscow on December 7, 1898.

Four score years later, British dramatist Peter Shaffer picked up on Pushkin’s theme in his own play, Amadeus. One element that Shaffer added to Pushkin’s conception was a naïve conception of Mozart’s compositional methods. In Shaffer’s play, and in the movie later based on it, Salieri expresses astonishment that Mozart never scratched out a note – that his first draft was also a perfect final draft, because Mozart was simply transcribing a fully worked-out melody from his head to the page.

This is simply untrue. David Cairns, in his book, “Mozart and His Operas,” explains that surviving manuscripts show “many crossings-out, false starts, afterthoughts, revisions, sketches. We catch him in the act of composing….”

Quality versus Mediocrity

Portrait of Salieri by Joseph Willibrod Mähler.

Portrait of Salieri by Joseph Willibrod Mähler.

As to quality-versus-mediocrity: yes, of course, Salieri was not the musical equal of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. That is hardly a shameful fact: it is true of the whole world. It surely does not establish that Salieri was a talentless hack. He made important contributions: notably, he would in time tutor both Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert. (The movie shows Salieri working as a music tutor only briefly, and then it is not one of the geniuses he did teach but a pampered high-born lady with whom we see him – and she chiefly wants to hear the latest gossip about this fellow Mozart.)

Beyond his tutoring though: what about Salieri’s own music? My own bet is that it would not be the best tool with which to lure strangers out of their huts into an Amazonian clearing, but it has its admirers. One of them, John A. Rice, reconstructs from documents of the time a charming story of the collaboration of Salieri with Christoph Willibald Gluck on a French opera – on what would, in 1784, become Les Danaïdes. Salieri, at the keyboard, sang one of the arias for this opera. Gluck wasn’t happy with one passage, but could not decide quite what was wrong and he asked Salieri to repeat that aria. Finally, on the fourth run-through, Gluck shouted, “Now I have it! This passage smells of music,” by which he apparently meant that it had been introduced for aesthetic effect, and Gluck wanted it tied more tightly to the dramatic context.

Gluck was an old man at the time, an elder statesman of both the Viennese and the Parisian musical worlds, and his collaboration with Salieri on such a project itself shows the high regard in which the latter was already held. Musicologist Edward Dent said that the finished opera has “a certain Italian elegance of outline which is Salieri’s [and] moments of intense dramatic effect and power.”

A Question of Influence

The plot of Les Danaïde ends with the title characters (the daughters of Danaüs) consigned to Hades, where they see that their father has arrived ahead of them. Old Danaüs is chained to a rock, and a vulture picks at his entrails. This provides a neat twist to our study of Mozart and Salieri. For Salieri was one of the two composers behind an opera staged in 1784 that ends with the lead characters condemned to an eternity of suffering – and many listeners have found that the motifs of this opera, especially of that finale, bear a striking resemblance to motifs Mozart employed at the end of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s great masterpiece, first performed in Prague in 1787.

This is not to suggest any fault on Mozart’s part. Musicians and artists in general must hold themselves open to each other’s influence. But given Salieri’s role as the heavy in the developing Pushkin/Shaffer legend about Mozart, it is fitting to think that the real Salieri may have made an important contribution to the real Mozart’s dramatic development.

The success of Salieri (and Gluck’s generosity in giving the younger man the credit) led to further commissions, and in 1787 the curtain opened at the Paris Opera on Salieri’s most successful work, Tarare, a five act opera. The main body of Tarare portrays a struggle between the General and the King of a distant land but it begins with a prologue, in which the audience heard from allegorical characters named “Nature” and the “Genius of Fire,” discussing in enigmatic terms the significance of the events about to unfold.

Dent has written Salieri’s music in this prologue “has brought out the atmosphere of mystery very effectively.” But perhaps you will prefer to decide that for yourself.

Click on the movie to watch more Saleri’s video’s

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