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Antonio Salieri

[sahl yer' E] Mozart's rival and killer?

Antonio Salieri

Antonio Salieri was born into a family of prosperous merchants in Legnano, Lombardy, Italy, on August 18, 1750. He studied harsichord and violin from an early age, and by 1765 his musical talents had become so well known that Giovanni Mocenigo, a family friend, arranged for him to study with Giovanni Pescetti and Ferdinando Pacini in Venice. There, he was noticed by composer Florian Leopold Gassman, who introduced him to the court of Emperor Joseph II.

By 1768, Salieri had composed his first opera, La vestale, probably not a success and now lost. His first surviving opera, Le donne letterate, was good enough to have impressed his new friend, Christoph Willibald Gluck. Armida followed in 1771 and achieved wide critical success, assuring Salieri recognition in the highest Viennese musical circles. Salieri's first popular success came with La fiera de Venezia, which premiered in Vienna in 1772.

The majority of Salieri's instrumental works also date from this time. Written for mostly unknown occasions and artists, the most important of these works are a concerto for oboe, violin and cello in D major (1770); two concertos for pianoforte, one in C major and one in B flat major (both 1773); a concerto for organ in C Major in two movements (also 1773); and a flute and oboe concerto in C major (1774).

Upon the death of Gassman in 1774, Salieri was appointed to succeed him as Kammerkomponist (court composer); he also became conductor of Vienna's Italian opera company. During the next three years Salieri was primarily concerned with rehearsing and conducting the opera company and teaching. His most important compositions during this period were a symphony in D major, performed in the summer of 1776, and the oratorio La passione di Ges¨ Cristo, performed during Advent of 1776. Salieri did collaborate with Giovanni de Gamerra, the court appointed theater poet, on several operas, but their efforts did not result in any popular successes.

After the Italian opera company folded in 1777, Emperor Joseph II chose to focus the court's efforts on a new National Theater which would promote German language plays and musical productions that reflected Austrian-German values, traditions and outlook. Having never mastered the German language, Salieri asked for, and was granted, permission to seek commissions elsewhere. He went on to score triumphs in Milan (L'Europa riconosciuta; 1778) and in Venice (La scuola de' gelosi; 1778). Returning to Vienna in 1781, in response to a request by Joseph II, he wrote Der Rauchfangkehrer, his only known contribution to the Emperor's German theater program. He then went to Paris, where he enjoyed great success with the operas Les Dana´des (1784) and Tarare (1787).

Salieri returned to Vienna for good in 1788, and was appointed Kapellmeister (music director) of the Imperial Chapel that same year. Responsible for conducting the music and musical school connected with the chapel, he produced few original works from this time. His Italian adaptation of Tarare, Axur (completed in 1792), would prove to be his greatest international success, and marked the height of his popularity and his influence. The death of Joseph II in 1790 left Salieri without a patron, and he was retired as director of the Italian opera in 1792. He continued to write new operas per imperial contract until 1804, when he voluntarily withdrew from the stage. Of his late works for the stage only two works gained wide popular esteem during his life, Palmira, regina di Persia (1795) and Cesare in Farmacusa (1800). His opera based on William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff ossia Le tre burle (1799) enjoyed little success during his lifetime but has since become quite popular. His last opera was a German language singspiel Die Neger (1804), which was a complete failure.

Although he retired from operatic composition, Salieri continued his position as Kapellmeister until 1824, during which time he composed two complete sets of vespers, many graduals, offertories, and four orchestral masses. He also became a well respected teacher, with Ludwig van Beethoven, Carl Czerny, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Frank Schubert, and Franz Liszt being just some of his students.

Ill health and dementia plagued Salieri for the last year-and-a-half of his life, and he died in Vienna on May 7, 1825.

Relationship with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Salieri's relationship with Mozart has been the subject of controversy since the early 1780's, when Mozart complained to his father that Italian composers (especially Salieri) had too much influence in the Austrian court. By the time Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus premiered in 1979, however, the popular story had been transformed into one in which it was Salieri who was jealous of Mozart. That popular view was further encouraged by the movie of the same name in 1984, in which Salieri hints that he was also responsible for Mozart's untimely death.

The true relationship between Salieri and Mozart was far less controversial, however, as the two had come to respect each other as colleagues by the mid-1780's, even if they didn't necessarily see each other as friends. Salieri not only respected Mozart's talent, he also promoted it and regularly programmed masses that were written by Mozart. Salieri even taught Mozart's son, Franz Xaver, and was a pallbearer at Mozart's funeral.


Music Academy Online
Salieri Online

See Also

Ludwig van Beethoven

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The Robinson Library >> Composers and Songwriters

This page was last updated on 08/17/2018.