He was falsely cast as Mozart’s murderer and music’s sorest loser. Now he’s getting a fresh hearing.
On a chilly, wet day in late November, I visited the Central Cemetery, in Vienna, where several of the most familiar figures in musical history lie buried. In a musicians’ grove at the heart of the complex, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms rest in close proximity, with a monument to Mozart standing nearby. According to statistics compiled by the website Bachtrack, works by those four gentlemen appear in roughly a third of concerts presented around the world in a typical year. Beethoven, whose two-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday arrives next year, will supply a fifth of Carnegie Hall’s 2019-20 season.
When I entered the cemetery, I turned left, disregarding Beethoven and company. Along the perimeter wall, I passed an array of lesser-known but not uninteresting figures: Simon Sechter, who gave a counterpoint lesson to Schubert; Theodor Puschmann, an alienist best remembered for having accused Wagner of being an erotomaniac; Carl Czerny, the composer of piano exercises that have tortured generations of students; and Eusebius Mandyczewski, a magnificently named colleague of Brahms. Amid these miscellaneous worthies, resting beneath a noble but unpretentious obelisk, is the composer Antonio Salieri, Kapellmeister to the emperor of Austria.
I had brought a rose, thinking that the grave might be a neglected and cheerless place. Salieri is one of history’s all-time losers—a bystander run over by a Mack truck of malicious gossip. Shortly before he died, in 1825, a story that he had poisoned Mozart went around Vienna. In 1830, Alexander Pushkin used that rumor as the basis for his play “Mozart and Salieri,” casting the former as a doltish genius and the latter as a jealous schemer. Later in the nineteenth century, Rimsky-Korsakov turned Pushkin’s play into a witty short opera. In 1979, the British playwright Peter Shaffer wrote “Amadeus,” a sophisticated variation on Pushkin’s concept, which became a mainstay of the modern stage. Five years after that, Miloš Forman made a flamboyant film out of Shaffer’s material, with F. Murray Abraham playing Salieri as a suave, pursed-lipped malefactor.
Two centuries of calumny have created sympathy for the musical devil: I found Salieri’s grave festooned with bouquets. These were evidence that the man and his music are enjoying a modest comeback. Of his forty-odd operas, more than a dozen have been revived, and artists such as Riccardo Muti, Cecilia Bartoli, and Christophe Rousset have pleaded his case. I was in Vienna to attend Rousset’s performance of Salieri’s French opera “Tarare” at the Theater an der Wien. A German-language biography of Salieri, by the composer and musicologist Timo Jouko Herrmann, was published earlier this year. In 2015, Herrmann discovered the score of a cantata, “Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia,” with one section composed by Salieri and another by Mozart. The find made clear what scholars have long known: that the two were more colleagues than rivals, and that their relationship was complicated mainly by Mozart’s tendency to see plots arrayed against him.
As brilliant as Abraham’s performance in “Amadeus” is, the Salieri of stage and screen is a fictional being. The real man was a more or less benevolent character who energetically involved himself in the musical life of Vienna and taught dozens of composers, including Beethoven and Schubert. Having been plucked from orphanhood by a generous mentor, he usually gave composition lessons for free. To be sure, he was a well-connected man who used his power to advance his cause. Beethoven once earned his wrath by presenting a concert on the same night as Salieri’s annual Christmastime benefit for widows and orphans. Yet this formidable operator had a nimble wit and enjoyed jokes at his own expense. Amid the procession of megalomaniacs, misanthropes, and basket cases who make up the classical pantheon, he seems to have been one of the more likable fellows.
Above all, his music is worth hearing. Mozart was a greater composer, but not immeasurably greater. To call Salieri the “patron saint of mediocrities,” as Shaffer does in his play, sets the bar for mediocrity too high. Salieri’s operas are tuneful, excellently crafted, inventive in their orchestration, and sometimes startlingly progressive in outlook. “Tarare,” which has a libretto by Pierre Beaumarchais, dares to show the overthrow of a despot. “Il Mondo Alla Rovescia” (“The World Upside Down”) reverses gender roles. “Die Neger,” his final opera, includes an interracial love duet. Although Salieri’s work is outwardly conservative, it tugs in unexpected directions, perhaps because he had an unusually open mind about what could happen on an opera stage.
The classical-music world has fostered a kind of gated community of celebrity composers. Our star fixation produces the artistic equivalent of income inequality, in which vast resources fall into the hands of a few. That arrangement lands particularly hard on contemporary composers, who must compete with a group of semi-mythical figures who are worshipped as house gods. Salieri is better seen as the patron saint of musicians who prefer to live in a republic of like-minded souls rather than in an authoritarian regime where only certain voices count. With that in mind, I left my cheap rose on Salieri’s grave.
In old age, Salieri apologized for his incomplete command of German. “I have only been in Germany for over fifty years,” he said. “How could I have learned the language already?” He spent most of his life in Vienna, and had as much right as any of the Big Four did to a spot in the musicians’ grove. Indeed, he was in the city for much longer than any of them. He was born in 1750, six years before Mozart, in Legnago, near Verona. His parents died when he was in his early teens, but he had the good fortune to attract the attention of Florian Gassmann, a visiting composer from the Viennese court. In 1766, Gassmann brought his protégé to Vienna and looked after his musical education. Salieri was soon playing for the Emperor Joseph II, who had assumed the throne the previous year.
“Amadeus” serves Joseph no better than it does Salieri, portraying the ruler as a dithering dimwit. He was, in fact, a keenly musical man who acted as a full-time artistic administrator, attending to composers, librettists, singers, and budgets as if there were nothing more important to occupy his time. Vienna’s move to the center of European musical life had much to do with Joseph’s determination to attract talented artists—and, when necessary, to set them in competition with one another.
Joseph was also one of the more enlightened monarchs of the day, noted for his rejection of regal pomp, his expansion of popular education, his integration of Jews into Austrian society, and his cultivation of a modern state bureaucracy. An edict that he issued in 1782, suggesting that “all our subjects, without distinction of nation and religion . . . should enjoy a legally guaranteed freedom,” was nearly as radical as anything propounded in France or America. But Joseph was autocratic in his methods, as the historian Pieter Judson observes, in his 2016 book, “The Habsburg Empire.” Salieri seems to have been a loyal Josephinian, liberal in his views but unquestioning toward authority.