How good was he?

Iain Fenlon

  • Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera by John Rice
    Chicago, 648 pp, £66.50, April 1999, ISBN 0 226 71125 0

Shortly before his death in 1787, Gluck handed his last composition, a setting of the De profundis for voices and orchestra, to Antonio Salieri, who directed its first performance at Gluck’s funeral. Gluck’s gesture – a foreshadowing of the composition of Mozart’s Requiem – was the culmination of a process of spiritual adoption that had begun in Paris three years before. Since then Salieri had progressed from being merely the favourite pupil of Florian Gassman, who had brought him to Vienna twenty years earlier, to being Gluck’s anointed successor. This alone should encourage wariness of recent claims about Salieri and his feebleness as a composer: like much else in the Mozart-Salieri mythology, they lack both historical and musical justification.

Salieri’s apotheosis, conducted under the benevolent gaze of Emperor Joseph II, began in earnest with the curious history of Les Danaïdes, an opera to an Italian libretto which Gluck commissioned from Calzabigi and then had translated into French by François Du Roullet and Theodor Tschudi. Gluck did not set Les Danaïdes immediately, but in late 1782 proposed to write a new work for the Paris Opera using the libretto and to supervise the production himself. In the event illness prevented him from getting very far, and he suggested passing the task on to Salieri. The directors of the Opera, presumably feeling that they were being shortchanged, were reluctant to accept this. As so often in Salieri’s career, Joseph II’s intervention saved the day. In March 1783 he wrote to the Austrian Ambassador in Paris, Count Mercy-Argenteau:

The composer Salieri has just written an opera entitled L’Hypermnestre ou Les Danaïdes, and he did so almost under the dictée of Gluck. The little of it that I have heard on the keyboard seemed very good to me. Since Gluck will probably not be in a state to go to Paris himself, I ask you, my dear Count, to tell me if Salieri would do well to go there, and if you think that his work might be accepted there and performed, because, being employed by me and at the theatre here, he would not want to make this journey in a state of incertitude and to stay in Paris for no reason.

In a fine display of diplomacy, Mercy transformed Joseph’s calculatedly vague formulation to the effect that the piece had been written ‘sous la dictée de Gluck’ into the more positive (though inaccurate) statement that the first two acts had been composed by Gluck and the remainder by Salieri under the master’s eye. On this basis the work was accepted, and with it the legend that Gluck had written the lion’s share of the music. This fiction was still being maintained on the day of the première, when Gluck’s revelation that Salieri was the only composer involved appeared in the Journal de Paris. Far from having a negative effect, Gluck’s disclaimer served only to enhance the reputation of Les Danaïdes and its composer. As the reviewer of the Mercure de France put it, ‘This declaration cannot but add honour to the already well-known talents of M. Salieri. The great and true beauties so abundant in this opera and the evidence that they present of his very exact knowledge of our theatre must give us the greatest hopes for the productions that we have the right to expect from him.’

From Salieri’s point of view, Les Danaïdes was an unqualified success. On the title-page of the score, printed in Paris shortly after the first performance, Salieri’s name stands alone. Its prominent dedicatory letter, addressed to the Emperor’s sister, Marie Antoinette, ingeniously plays out a further trope on the ‘sous la dictée de Gluck’ theme, suggesting the older composer’s involvement, while making a direct bid for further patronage. The ploy worked. Encouraged by the work’s success, the directors of the Opera, perhaps with the encouragement of Marie Antoinette, commissioned two more operas from Salieri: the first, Les Horaces, failed and had to be withdrawn after a handful of performances; the second, Tarare (to a libretto by Beaumarchais), was a great success. As for Les Danaïdes, it was still being performed in the 1820s when it was heard by Berlioz, who in Hypermnestre’s aria ‘Foudre céleste’ discovered ‘all the features that I had attributed in my imagination to Gluck’s style on the basis of excerpts from his Orphée that I had found in my father’s library’. Later, in a typical Romantic declaration, Berlioz claimed that the experience had determined him to devote his life to music rather than medicine, ‘like a young man born to be a sailor who, having seen only the little boats on the lakes of his native mountains, found himself suddenly transported to a three-deck ship on the high seas’. It is no surprise that Berlioz’s full conversion took place after hearing a performance of Iphigénie en Tauride.

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