, a close friend and student of his. He asked Mosel to record the events of his life after his passing and to that end Salieri spent his twilight years gathering together as much material as possible. Mosel discovered however, that what Salieri had left was not a clear outline of significant events in his life but rather a collection of largely anecdotal material. Mosel was forced to start from scratch relying heavily on Salieri's letters. Much of what is known about Salieri today is the result of Mosel's efforts. Then in 1864 Alexander Wheelock Thayer
, author of the legendary Life of Beethoven, published a nineteen part series in Dwight's Music Journal of Boston on the life of Salieri. His work was based on Mosel's book as well as his own research conducted in Berlin and Vienna during the American Civil War. This repository of information was forgotten until 1989 when Theodore Albrecht edited the series into a book, Salieri, Rival of Mozart. And finally, in 1989 Volkmar Braunbehrens published Salieri: Ein Musiker im Schatten Mozarts, another extensive look at the life of Salieri. It was later translated as Maligned Master: The Real Story of Antonio Salieri by Eveline L. Kanes. The last two works cited above have formed the basis of this online biography.
Antonio Salieri took his first breath on August 18, 1750 in Legnago
The Salieri family adapted to their changing fortunes and made do with what remained.
Unfortunately for posterity, very little is known about Salieri's childhood and there is nothing in the historical record that provides any measure or indication of his musical prowess as a child. It is known that his singing voice was exceptional, he studied piano and violin at an early age and had an expressed passion for music. One of the few surviving glimpses of Salieri's childhood musical life, though seemingly trivial, alludes to his strong convictions regarding music and involves a story about a chance meeting with the town organist. Salieri and his father had passed the organist while walking one day. When Salieri's father asked him why he had not greeted the man with more respect young Antonio replied that the organist played poorly and without feeling.
In 1763 Salieri's mother died and shortly afterwards his father. As a result of those unfortunate circumstances, the parent less children were distributed among relatives and the thirteen year old Antonio was sent to live with an older brother, a monk in Padua. Rochlitz states that,
"He was accepted into one of Venice's [Padua] foremost monastery schools, where (since he entered as first soprano in the church choir) he received room, board and an education, as well as further instruction in music. He now resolved to dedicate his whole life to this art; and since his talent for it lay unmistakable, and since his love, zeal and diligence burned for it, no one objected to his doing so." 2Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Salieri, Rival of Mozart, Appendix E, pg. 171.
When Salieri was fifteen, he was taken under wing by Giovanni Mocenigo, a friend of the family, who took him to Venice. Salieri's life must have been a whirlwind of emotion during this time. He had lost his parents, was taken to live in a monastery and was now being uprooted again. Adding to his bewilderment was the fact that Mocenigo was a wealthy aristocrat and Salieri found himself living in a palace.
Florian Leopold Gassmann, La Betulia liberata, Overture ( Excerpt )
Gassmann held court appointments in Vienna as Court Ballet and Court Chamber Music Composer and would later serve as KapellmeisterKapellmeister - The director of music in an orchestra, a church, at court, etc.. He also spent a great deal of time traveling to and from Venice where he wrote an opera for every carnival season. He was in Venice at that time to perform a new opera of his and to look for talented individuals. Salieri's voice teacher arranged the introduction and Gassmann was so impressed with his singing and piano playing that he asked Mocenigo if he might take the boy with him to Vienna. Mocenigo agreed. What is intriguing here is that Salieri's seniors were so impressed with his musical skills that both of them were eager to provide him the best education possible.
. Joseph II was a well trained musician who played several instruments, sang masterfully and sight read scores with proficiency. His gatherings were frequently devoted to playing the operas being performed at court. Gassmann, as Court Chamber Music composer and a favorite of the Emperor attended these gatherings regularly.
When the meeting occurred, the Emperor received Salieri and asked him how he was. The nervous Salieri responded with the improper salutation 'Your Excellency', one which he was accustomed to in his native Italy, but quickly corrected himself with 'Your Majesty'. The Emperor chuckled at the boy's embarrassment and engaged him in a discussion about those circumstances that had brought him to Vienna. When the conversation was concluded, the Emperor unexpectedly assigned the boy a singing part in an opera he was studying that evening. Salieri's skill at sight reading the vocal part duly impressed the Emperor. He switched the boy to the piano to test him. Again, the Emperor was delighted with Salieri's skill and extended to him a permanent invitation to attend the nightly chamber music gatherings.
Gassmann felt the best way to teach an aspiring opera composer was to expose him to the behind the scenes world of opera production. Consequently, Salieri's time was divided between his studies and working at the court opera. Initially Salieri was put to work playing continuo but quickly progressed to conducting rehearsals. Seeing that the young man was eager to try his hand at composing, Gassmann had Salieri do rewrites of passages and eventually entire numbers. Before long, Gassmann was allowing Salieri to compose complete numbers. Salieri wrote an opera at this time, La Vestale, that appears to have been a self imposed exercise and is now lost. Thus was the life of the student Salieri for his first four years.
In January of 1768, almost two years after Salieri had arrived in Vienna, an Austrian family came to that city to call on the Emperor. The Mozart's
attended the Imperial Opera it is reasonable to assume that Salieri, seventeen at the time, would have been present in his capacity as continuo player. Salieri was still a student though and would not have been noticed by Mozart. On the other hand, Mozart's reputation had long preceded him.
Mozart was a child prodigy who had first performed in the court of Joseph II at the age of six. At seven
, he and his family had made a grand, three and a half year tour of Europe performing in Bavaria, the Rhine land, Brussels, Paris then London. Mozart's childhood musical triumphs were renowned throughout Europe but Mozart was eleven now and the charm was wearing thin.
Where the child Mozart had previously attracted large crowds to hear him play, those concerts with a few exceptions were now poorly attended. There was an under current of opinion in Vienna that Mozart's feats were trickery on the part of Leopold and that a young boy could not possibly compose music. Leopold's finances were stretched thin and it appeared as though he would have to return to Salzburg. Just when matters seemed bleakest, Joseph II asked Leopold if young Wolfgang might compose an opera for the Imperial stage. Leopold grasp the opportunity as a means of securing income and once again promoting his son's abilities.
Mozart had written three operas prior to this but they had been trifles. He was now being asked to produce a three hour opera. The young Mozart set to work, anxious to prove himself. The librettoLibretto - The story and words in an opera. was to be La Finta Semplice (The Feigned Simpleton) by Marco Coltellini.
Mozart, La Finta Semplice, KV 51, Overture ( Excerpt )
The hushed disapproval that had been heard when the Mozart's arrived was now growing. La Finta Semplice it seemed, was doomed to fail even before it was written. Within a few months, rehearsals began when the project began to unravel. The singers complained their parts were too difficult and the orchestra refused to take direction from a boy. Mozart was doing extensive rewrites when the impresarioImpresario - The agent, organizer or manager of an opera or concert company. canceled the piece altogether and refused to pay Leopold.
Leopold Mozart petitioned the court for reimbursement of his expenses but was refused. This trip would mark the beginning of a lifelong perception on Leopold's part that cabalsCabal - A group of conspirators. A clique, as in artistic, literary, or theatrical circles., at court and elsewhere, were intent on ruining his son. In truth, such mutinies are common in the world of theater and opera and are generally less than conspiratorial in their intent. Yet, Leopold would hold a grudge for Wolfgang's treatment to end of his days and regard all Italians as 'rascals'. In later life, Wolfgang too would come to suspect conspiracies against himself. Mozart departed Vienna after a one and a half year stay and except for a brief visit four years later, would not return for twelve years.
The opportunity for Salieri to write a complete opera came in 1770, four years after arriving in Vienna. There was a young dancer and would be poet in the court opera at that time by the name of Giovanni Boccherini, brother of famed composer Luigi Boccherini
. The aspiring young poet had written a libretto entitled La Donna Letterate which he was anxious to have set to music. The libretto had been intended for Gassmann but since he was away in Rome, one of Boccherini's friends persuaded him to present it to Salieri. He reasoned that since both of them were novices it would be easier for them to work together. Salieri was delighted at the opportunity and plunged headlong into the project all the while intending to allow Gassmann the opportunity to 'correct' it. Within four weeks the opera was two thirds finished when plans changed.
The court impresario had just brought out a new opera that failed miserably and he was desperate for a replacement. The young Boccherini, excited at the possibility, mentioned that he and Salieri had a nearly completed opera in the works. Salieri recalls how he was mystified when he was called into the presence of Kapellmeister Gluck
, the impresario and others. Boccherini had failed to mention to Salieri that he had pitched their project. The Kapellmeister asked Salieri to do a run through and he and the others assisted with some of the singing parts. When they were through, the much revered Gluck told the fledgling Salieri, "this work contains what is sufficient to give the public pleasure" and gave the young men the green light to go into rehearsal. La Donna Letterate premiered a few weeks later during Carnival in the Vienna Burgtheater
. On the morning of the first performance Salieri recalls he was so excited that he walked throughout Vienna looking at each of the playbills that had been posted. Salieri's first opera was a success and would go on to be performed again, three years later, in Prague. Gassmann had the opportunity to hear Salieri's first effort at one of the Emperor's nightly chamber music concerts when he returned from Rome. He was both pleased and impressed with the new opera.
La Donna Letterate was the first time Salieri had collected a fee and it marked the end of his apprenticeship. Prior to that the Emperor had given Salieri an annual gift of 360 Florins on every New Years but owing to his apprentice / master relationship he had turned all of that over to Gassmann.
Immediately after his first success Salieri wrote L'amore innocente which was also successful and was produced three times. This was followed by Don Chisciotte alle nozze di Gamace, a short piece which was not well received.
Don Chisciotte alle nozze di Gamace, Overture ( Excerpt )
Armida was the subject of Salieri's fourth opera, composed in 1771. The libretto, by Marco Coltellini, was based on the story of Rinaldo and Armida from Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered. In this piece Salieri embraced many of the opera reform ideas being advocated by Kapellmeister Gluck who was blazing the reform trail. In writing Armida, Coltellini and Salieri stripped the story of much of it's sub plots and kept the action moving. Of particular note is the overture where Salieri uses it to set the stage by musically describing action prior to the first scene; a new devise at that time.
Armida, Overture ( Excerpt )
Armida, Act II "E non degg'io sequirla!" ( Excerpt )
Armida had taken a bold step forward into the precepts of Gluck. Oddly though, Salieri immediately reverted to the more comfortable ground of convention producing fashionable pieces for the next fifteen years. Though many writers claimed Salieri to be Gluck's heir, in truth he would ultimately write very few operas in that vein. A pity since Salieri was at his best in that role. Armida was a great success and was being produced well into the next decade as the opera made it's way across Germany and into Copenhagen.
In 1772 Salieri would produce three operas. All were successful but the first of these, La fiera di Venezia, is regarded as one of his better efforts. Boccherini supplied the libretto once again and the opera conjured up images of life in Venice with scenes of a fair, a masquerade and romantic couples. It was produced more than thirty times throughout Europe during Salieri's life. Thayer mentions this opera was, "...the talk of old people in Vienna more than fifty years later". The other two works that year were Il barone di Rocca antica and La secchia rapita and achieved moderate success. Having gotten his operatic feet wet, Salieri embarked on a more ambitious project.
La fiera di Venezia, Act II "Vi sono sposa e amante" ( Excerpt )
La Locandiera was composed in 1773 and proved to be a break through piece for Salieri. It would demonstrate a growing tendency on Salieri's part to experiment with style and form. In this opera, libretto by Domenico Poggi after Goldoni, Salieri subordinates the music to the words thereby emphasizing dialog and requiring convincing acting. In spite of that, the opera contains many beautiful melodies. La Locandiera was highly successful, initially receiving thirty four performances at the court theater and was produced throughout Europe.
La Locandiera, Act I "Dall'amor Come Ogniun Dice" ( Excerpt )
La Locandiera, "Tutti Dicon Che La Moglie" ( Excerpt )
Written near the end of 1773 and premiered on New Year's Day of 1774 was La calamita de' cuori. Critics of the time disliked the poor libretto calling it "childish" and commented that Salieri's music, though at times pleasing, was too serious and didn't suit the scenario.
Also at the end of 1773 Mozart and his Father returned to Vienna for two months. Leopold is vague and secretive in his letters from this time but it appears he was investigating the possibility of a court appointment for Wolfgang. Except for a few modest concerts, their stay was low key and they departed in September.
, age 65, took over the position of Hofkapellmeister. The title of Court Composer, held by Bonno, was assumed by Salieri. Additionally, Salieri became Kapellmeister of the Court Opera. These positions not only assured Salieri was next in line for Hofkapellmeister, but the combined salaries permitted him to at last live independently and he took up residence at Heidenschuß No. 361 in Vienna. The exact circumstances of the second promotion, to the court opera, will be revealed later.
1775 would be the year that twenty four year old Salieri met and married the love of his life. The following account of Salieri's courtship is abridged from a lengthy narrative found in Salieri's effects.
In February of that year, Salieri had been asked to provide music lessons for a young Countess in the convent of St Lorenz. Salieri's lesson appointment was from 11:00 to 12:00 and on the first day he taught there, he happened to see his future wife. At the lunch hour the girls would pass through the music room on their way to the dining room and she was in the procession that day. Of her he says that she was "...of slender figure, somewhat taller than the others, about eighteen years old and dressed in rose-colored taffeta..." She made a strong impression on Salieri who watched her pass by the next two days but on the third day, she was absent from the group. Again, on the following day she did not appear with the other girls. Finally, on the third day of her absence, she passed through the room alone, after the others had gone. She paused and Salieri bowed to her respectfully as if to say he missed her and says he thought he detected in her glance a similar feeling. He continued to observe her pass through the music room on the days he taught there, all the while questioning himself as to whether she had reciprocal feelings or if he might be deceiving himself.
After two weeks of watching her pass through the music room, he finally had occasion to speak to her. On the second Sunday after first seeing her, he was late attending services at St. Stephan's cathedral
and found that the chapel was full. He eventually found a space at the end of a pew next to an elderly lady. Soon after seating himself, the woman rose to leave and following her was the young girl from the convent. He politely bowed to her and she returned his bow with grace. Salieri followed her from church and seeing that she was headed for the convent, took a shortcut so as meet her and her chaperone at the door of the convent. He greeted her in French and she responded in kind. After some idle chat, he learned that her name was Therese von Helfersdorfer. He also learned that the reason he had missed her for two days was that she had gone to the dining room early. When Salieri introduced himself she already knew who he was as the Countess had spoken highly of him. She told him her mother had passed away and she visited her father and two brothers at their home every Sunday. She would return to the convent after worship in the company of her servant. Salieri offered to escort her to the Convent on Sundays since he attended services at the same time. She smiled and agreed.
The next day, Salieri was preparing to leave for the convent for his lesson when a messenger informed him the Countess was ill and he would not be needed until further notice. He was crushed at the thought of not seeing his Therese. All that week no messenger arrived to say the Countess had recovered and he spent that week, to use his words' "...in the jaws of Purgatory." That Sunday Therese attended services and Salieri learned that the Countess had recovered and that he would resume the lessons on Monday. Then the would be suitor mustered every ounce of courage he could and announced that he loved her and asked if he might, "...hope for some little affection in return." To Salieri's astonishment and relief she responded that she had similar feelings. He grasp her hands and smothered them with kisses then asked to meet her father so that he might introduce himself and make his intentions known. She asked him to give her one week to prepare her father for the meeting but added that he was already aware of the reputation of Salieri the composer and was an admirer.
Then disaster; her father died during that week. Herr von Helfersdorfer had appointed a guardian before his passing, and it quickly came out that the guardian, Leopold Hofmann, planned to marry Therese himself. The young lovers were in shock and Therese made it known that Salieri was the man she wished to marry. Salieri then enlisted a man of respectable reputation to escort him and called on Hofmann to make a formal application for her hand in marriage. Hofmann said he would allow the union so long as Salieri could show that he was able to support a woman of her high calling. Salieri tallied the income from his court appointments, lessons and fees for his music and replied that he earned 700 ducats per year. Hofmann, who happened to be Kapellmeister at the very cathedral where the couple first spoke, knew how things worked at court. He quickly pointed out that of all of the sources that Salieri had cited, only 100 ducats per year could be relied upon and declined his permission. Salieri asked Hofmann to keep the matter to himself. Fortunately, he did not keep quiet.
Two days later the heart broken Salieri went to the Emperor's chamber for the regular chamber music gathering. The Emperor was deep in thought facing the wall and three others were present. One of the men suddenly announced that Salieri had attempted marry a beautiful orphan but the guardian was in fact a rival. The Emperor turned to Salieri and smiled, "Is this true?" Salieri recounted the story of his love which Joseph found very amusing. When the reason for the guardians disapproval came out the Emperor turned serious and said, "Well then, you must be patient."
On the next morning Salieri was summoned by the Director of Music who quickly announced "Congratulations Kapellmeister, the Emperor has raised your salary!" Salieri was shocked and over joyed. The conditions for the raise were that Salieri must ease the burden for the aging Kapellmeister Bonno and assume the duties of Kapellmeister of the court opera. Salieri rushed to the Imperial Palace to thank the Emperor who merely said, "Go to the guardian and let me know his answer." Hofmann, of course, could no longer object. On October 10, 1774 Antonio and Therese Salieri were wed.
The appointments Salieri held afforded security and a steady income but they had a less desirable side as well. The Kapellmeister of the opera was expected to produce what was required at the moment. Though Salieri had a voice and opinion in artistic considerations, when it came to matters like choice of librettos, he merely took what was given to him and set it to music. Others in his position might have objected to even beginning a project like La finta scema (his next opera) but Salieri's obedient nature and sense of duty to his employer would never permit him to do anything other than what was expected of him.
Salieri produced but one opera and two sacred works in 1775. The opera was La finta scema, set to a libretto by Giovanni De Gamerra. This piece was doomed to fail from the outset owing to a poor libretto (Gamerra was a hack) and to a changing climate at the court opera. Salieri's music however occasionally manages to rise above the flawed scenario.
La finta scema, "Se spiegar potessi appiento" ( Excerpt )
Throughout the period 1774 to 1778 Salieri wrote several large non-operatic pieces, no doubt in connection with his duties as court composer. These works were, for the most part, in the concerto form and included two concertos for piano, a triple concerto for violin, oboe and cello and a concerto for flute and oboe among others.
Piano Concerto in C major, Movement I ( Excerpt )
Around this time Emperor Joseph put into motion a plan that threw Viennese opera into a state of upheaval. The core of the Italian opera at the Hapsburg court was dismantled and it's members dismissed including the singers, orchestra and the ballet. Emperor Joseph II was carrying out a plan to establish a National German Theater. Where Vienna was once famous for the finest Italian opera in the world, he dreamed of transforming it into a mecca for German language art. His plan was carried out in steps with the promotion of German drama being his first goal. Anyone previously associated with Italian opera could do nothing but watch. It was during this chaos that Salieri premiered a new Italian opera.
Daliso e Delmita, Salieri's only opera 1776, was a disaster that quickly fell into obscurity. The premier was so poorly managed and riddled with mistakes that it made a comedy of the performance where none was intended. One scene takes place in an amphitheater which is painted on a backdrop. As the scenery was being prepared before the performance, an artist thinking the amphitheater seemed bare painted a multitude of people seated there. In the opening scene there are extras on stage that add to the effect of the painted crowds. At one point though, the extras leave and the protagonist sings, "Now that we're alone, oh my daughters." The audience, seeing the crowded amphitheater burst into laughter. In an other scene Daliso, who is wearing armor, attempts to lift the visor of his helmet only to it find stuck shut and struggles throughout the scene trying to pry it open. Again, uproarious laughter. The final error involved a backdrop with Athens painted in the distance. At the line, "See how Athens is celebrating in the glow of tens of thousands of torches" the stage hands missed their cue and the lights of Athens weren't visible until the curtain began to drop. At this point, Salieri himself had joined in the laughter.
It may seem ironic that Joseph would appoint Salieri to the court opera at the point in time when Italian opera was on the decline but Joseph had been planning this for some time and knew what he was doing. Joseph had resolved to disband the court opera before Salieri's appointment as Kapellmeister so that the appointment merely served to secure a livelihood for Salieri. This was, no doubt, in gratitude to Salieri's previous service to the throne.
Salieri wrote one other large piece in 1776, an oratorio entitled La Passione di Gesù Cristo (The Passion of Jesus Christ). It was written for the Pensions-Institut der Wiener Tonkünstler (Pension Institute of Vienna Musicians). The work was a success of that sort that composers cherish; it was liked by his colleagues. The Institute, who specialized in oratorios, was formed to aid the widows and orphans of Viennese musicians. It was comprised of Vienna's finest professional performers and assembled twice a year at Lent and Advent. The renowned poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio
had written the text which had been set to music by at least five other composers. Metastasio attended the first performance and told Salieri of all the previous settings of the text, his was the most expressive.
La Passione di Gesù Cristo, Final Chorus: Santa speme tu sei ministra ( Excerpt )
Throughout 1777 Joseph's plan for a German theater continued to unfold. Performances of German drama were now well attended and the emphasis shifted to German opera though the pieces performed were translations from French and Italian. By the end of that year Joseph formalized his requirements for German opera by insisting they be original; no translations or adaptations.
Salieri's pen was silent throughout 1777 and it is hard to imagine what was going through his mind in the midst of this revolution. His command of German was limited and he was uneasy with the thought of attempting an opera in that language. To the south, Italian opera was alive and well and promising prospects were enticing Salieri to turn his attention there. The city of Milan was just finishing a new opera house and had requested that Salieri write the inaugural piece. Requests from Venice and Rome for Salieri's services had also arrived in Vienna. The Emperor granted him leave to travel to Italy and in April 1778 Salieri departed the uncertainty of Hapsburg Vienna and headed for Milan.