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.

As John Rice argues here, a number of arias in les Danaïdes are written in a simple and affective melodic style reminiscent of parts of Orfeo and La Rencontre imprévue, and several of their contemporaries thought of the two composers in the same breath. Salieri told Ignaz von Mosel an anecdote which portrays the pair working together on Salieri’s score in cosy artistic concord. Salieri’s good friend during his last years, Mosel, a composer and librarian, patiently documented Salieri’s recollections, studied his scores and read his correspondence in order to put together the first biography of the composer, published four years after Salieri’s death. Mosel is always to be taken seriously, since his evidence comes from direct experience. On the other hand, he was a fierce apologist, bent on restoring Salieri’s reputation at a time when even his best-known music was rapidly passing from fashion. A more objective view of the gestation of Les Danaïdes, and of the relationship between Gluck and Salieri, is that of Joseph Martin Kraus, a young composer who encountered Gluck in Vienna in the winter and spring of 1782-83. According to Kraus, who does not seem to have had any reasons for partiality, Salieri worked on the opera as an amanuensis until Gluck abandoned it. He then took over the job, but ‘Gluck thinks that the music would be too close to his own ideas, which Salieri often had the opportunity to hear,’ for it to be thought of as Salieri’s own. He did not have enough trust in the young man’s ability, however, to allow the music to be passed off under his own name. It seems to have been reasonably common, particularly in the theatre, to farm some of the work of composition out to pupils or composers bought in from elsewhere. The practice stretches back to Monteverdi and the opening of the first public opera houses in Venice in the 1630s. Writing about Michael Kelly, a minor Irish composer and singer who was also an importer of wines, Sheridan suggested that his shop sign should read ‘composer of wines and importer of music’. Notions of the composer’s inviolable authority belong to later centuries, and various forms of rewriting, ghosting and substitution remained commonplace, particularly in Italy, until Verdi’s time.

The ambiguities and obfuscations that surrounded the authorship of Les Danaïdes were skilfully deployed by Salieri to further his own career. With Gluck’s public benediction allied to Joseph’s firm support, Salieri’s career could hardly fail to take off. But, quite apart from his powerful supporters, Salieri had considerable talent, and with Les Danaïdes had scored a distinct public success. Despite an almost unremittingly hostile press among 20th-century critics, there is no doubting the opera’s successful command of the tragédie lyrique manner. In exploiting the dramatic possibilities that the Paris Opera offered, Salieri was not only responding to the model set by Gluck: he established a personal language with a blend of aria, chorus and recitative which provided a basis for his future work. He didn’t so much reject Italian opera buffa in favour of the French tradition, with its large orchestras, prominent choruses and extensive ballet sequences, as gradually add French elements to the Italian base. One of the most attractive features of Rice’s book is that it explores the complexity of Salieri’s language, and makes clear the unexpected range of styles, forms and traditions on which it draws. It is a powerful and refreshing antidote to the image of Salieri as a man of few gifts, humbled and resentful under the weight of Mozart’s genius.

With the success of Tarare, first performed in the summer of 1787, Salieri might reasonably have expected to receive a steady flow of commissions from the Paris Opera. He was also well placed to inherit Gluck’s mantle, much as Joseph II had predicted. All such calculations were thrown off balance by the French Revolution. Instead of a career divided between Paris and Vienna, Salieri returned to Vienna in the summer of 1787 – for good, as it turned out. Within months he had composed a new opera, Axur re d’Ormus, to a libretto by Da Ponte, Vienna’s only remaining Italian librettist. First performed in the Burgtheater in January the following year, it celebrated the marriage of the future emperor, Archduke Francis, as well as consolidating anti-Turkish sentiment at a time when war against the Ottoman Empire seemed inevitable. As Rice convincingly shows, much of the libretto and a good deal of the music comes from the already popular Tarare; that, together with its political resonance, helps to account for its success. Salieri’s friend Mosel thought it ‘the most excellent of all serious Italian operas – even including Mozart’s la clemenza di Tito’. Axur was immensely popular in the 1780s and 1790s, not only in Vienna (where it was given in court theatres more than a hundred times), but also in Paris, Lisbon, Moscow and even Rio de Janeiro. The young E.T.A. Hoffmann, who attended a performance in Königsberg, wrote that the music, ‘as always with Salieri, is outstanding: its wealth of ideas and its perfection of declamation put it on the same level as Mozart’s’. Da Ponte claimed to be unable to decide whether Axur or Don Giovanni was the finer work from either a musical or a literary standpoint. In Warsaw its libretto was translated and the work chosen to open what was effectively the first season of grand opera in Polish. More to the point, Axur became the Emperor’s favourite opera, and seems to have developed an almost iconic significance for the monarchy.

Joseph had promoted Salieri’s career in the opera house from the start, or at least from the moment his work began to attract attention. The first signs of his active interest in ‘Gassman’s student Salieri, this young man whom you know and whose scores are very successful’, came in 1772, in a letter to his brother Leopold. His belief in Salieri’s talent seems never to have faltered, lasting until the Emperor’s death in 1790. Marie Antoinette, who was a powerful influence on the affairs of the Paris Opera, was clearly important in the promotion of Salieri’s first French opera, but as Joseph’s private letters to Count Mercy reveal, the Emperor’s role was critical. (More than anything else, Rice’s discovery of these letters helps us to gauge Salieri’s real standing.) From a gently enthusiastic view of Les Danaïdes (‘the little of it that I have heard on the keyboard seemed very good to me’), Joseph finally arrived at the astonishing notion that only Salieri could replace Gluck: ‘I believe that if there is no cabal this young man, who has already written some very good Italian scores and who is moreover a student of Gluck, by whom he is highly esteemed, will alone be capable of replacing him one day.’ After the success of Axur, Salieri’s position in Vienna must have seemed unassailable. Only a few days after declaring war on the Turks, Joseph gave instructions that Giuseppe Bonno, who had occupied the post of Hofkapellmeister for 15 years, be stood down on full salary. He was succeeded, as had long been expected, by Salieri.

If no longer Joseph’s eternal ‘young man’, he was still only 38 years old. He had become a major figure in Vienna’s musical life since his return from Paris and his appointment merely confirmed his natural position in the court bureaucracy as senior to Mozart in both service and years. In any case, the composition of operas was not the only or even the most important aspect of the job. Latterly, Bonno had been responsible mainly for church music at court, though the musicians at his disposition had gradually dwindled in number and competence. All that was to change with the appointment of Salieri, whose arrival was in turn accompanied by Joseph’s last overhaul of court music before the Turkish wars became his main preoccupation. For much of 1788 the Emperor was absent from Vienna, and for a good part of the following year he was in poor health as a result of an illness contracted at the front. After this he never again played much part in the organisation and activities of the Hofkapelle. Salieri more than adequately filled the breach, applying himself to administration, teaching and composition. He remained in the post for the remaining 25 years of his life.

Salieri’s successful career as Hofkapellmeister was to some extent due to his efficiency. It is more difficult to see his promotion as a just reward for his abilities as a composer, but that is in part because it is so hard to imagine what it would have been like to listen to his music at the time it was written. It’s quite difficult to hear Salieri’s music at all now and on the rare occasions it is recorded or performed, it is always the overtures to the operas rather than the works themselves that attract conductors and programme planners. While it would be absurd to claim that Salieri’s operas are in the same league as Mozart’s, perceived weaknesses of dramatic purpose or slightness of invention can often be attributed to the rhetorical conventions of the late 18th century. In common with much mediocre operatic music of the period, Salieri’s is often written to accompany stage action, filling space and marking time, and this has musical consequences that not even Mozart always managed to avoid. Salieri’s operas appealed to educated dilettantes of the kind who believed, for example, that Cimarosa (who was in Vienna from 1791 to 1793) was the most important composer of Italian opera between Mozart and Verdi. Stendhal’s Life of Haydn, outrageously plagiarised from Giuseppe Capani’s Le Haydine of 1812, gives a clear sense of what was in favour with this audience at a slightly later date, when the Neapolitan school was in the ascendant. It shows what appealed not to concert soloists or impresarios, but to a cultivated amateur with a strong appetite for music and, above all, opera. Mozart, dead for twenty years, is remembered for Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro but little else; more recent heroes include Cimarosa, Sacchini and Vinci. A few decades earlier Salieri would have been on the list; in 1788 the monthly Bibliothek de Grazien had placed him alongside Mozart, Haydn and Gluck, and three years later Stephen Storace filched chunks of his music (together with pieces by Mozart and Paisiello) for The Siege of Belgrade, one of the most popular of his dialogue operas. However insipid and one-dimensional we may find much of Salieri’s music, there is no doubting its contemporary appeal.

Little was recorded about Salieri himself before his friend Mosel got to work. Michael Kelly evidently found him engaging; Lorenzo da Ponte thought him pompous. Into this void all manner of fictions have been poured, from Pushkin to Shaffer’s Amadeus with Rimsky-Korsakov in between. In fact, Mozart’s alleged obsessive dislike of Salieri seems to have amounted to no more than a fairly standard distrust of Italians. This was a common attitude in the opera business, above all in Vienna. In 1782 Joseph II disbanded his Singspiel company after just six years in which opera in German had briefly replaced the opera buffa long preferred by the nobility. Now the Italians were back, by official decree, a reversal that caused, among other things, Mozart’s long search for a new Italian libretto, a process which culminated three years later, after a number of false starts, in The Marriage of Figaro, with a libretto by Da Ponte. Joseph’s decision only intensified anti-Italian feeling. Carl von Dittersdorf, a moderately able composer who wrote a number of Singspiels for Vienna in the mid-1780s (as well as one Italian opera that failed), wrote scathingly of the tenacious grip of aristocratic taste, and remarked that it seemed there was nothing good ‘that has not been wafted to us by a foreign breeze’, an unambiguous reference to winds from a southerly direction. In using the Italian network to his advantage, Salieri was behaving in an entirely rational and conventional way.

As part of Joseph’s final reorganisation of court music Mozart became Kammermusikus in December 1787. Six years younger than Salieri, and fifteen years his junior in Imperial service, Mozart had always been impatient to get on. The theatrically useful if historically unjustifiable Shafferian image of Mozart as a supremely gifted infantile lout is largely crafted out of a fairly free reading of his private letters, an unhelpful guide to his public manner whatever it might reveal of his private fantasies. It is true, however, that he could be difficult and that this counted against him. Michael Kelly, who arrived at the Imperial court as a singer in 1783, remembered Mozart being ‘as touchy as gun-powder’; Salieri, by contrast, ‘would make a joke of anything, for he was a very pleasant man, and much esteemed in Vienna’. Mozart’s sister Maria Anna (Nannerl) maintained that ‘except for his music he remained a child ... this is the main aspect of the dark side of his character.’ This ‘dark side’ was made much worse by illness, particularly by the repeated streptococcal infections which, together with the collapse of his immune system, may have caused his death. If, as has been suggested, he was suffering from a serious form of Schonlein-Henoch syndrome as early as 1784 that might explain his paranoia, which became even more evident during the final phase of chronic renal failure associated with the illness. Hence the preoccupation with the Requiem, with his own death and with the idea (recounted to the English publisher Vincent Novello and his wife Mary in 1829 by Mozart’s widow Costanze) that he had been poisoned.

Less than a year after arriving in Vienna he had become convinced, as he wrote to his father Leopold, that the Emperor ‘cares for no one but Salieri’. Imperial approval of Mozart in fact came quickly, and resulted in the commission of Die Entführung. Thereafter, except for Salieri no one received more commissions from Joseph than Mozart. Mozart’s suspicion of Italians was partly on account of their clannishness, something that could easily turn into talk of cabals, particularly at a court where Italian musicians had long dominated. Cabals, in any case, were a permanent feature of the operatic scene, and only to be expected. In a deft piece of detective-work Rice (together with Bruce Alan Brown, a fellow musicologist) has uncovered two numbers of Da Ponte’s La scuola degli amanti among Salieri’s autographs in the National Library in Vienna. This is important because it confirms Costanze’s remark to the Novellos that Salieri’s enmity arose from Mozart’s setting of Così fan tutte, which Salieri himself had begun but then abandoned. It is plausible that, in making a success of a libretto which Salieri had put aside, Mozart caused some resentment, but this is a slim basis on which to construct a theory of growing bitterness and envy culminating two years later in murder. Mozart’s remarks about Salieri, nearly always laconic or disappointed, did not alter in tone after Così. Salieri, who rarely commented on the music of his contemporaries, said little about Mozart’s. He is thought to have been among the handful of mourners present when Mozart was buried in a mass grave on 7 December 1791. But of poison there is not a trace to be found.