In February 1776 the opera house in Milan had burned down.
The replacement was being built on the site of the former church of Santa Maria della Scala and the new opera house came to be known as Teatro alla Scala or simply La Scala
Salieri had been asked to write the inaugural piece for the opening of La Scala but the offer had originally gone to former Hofkapellmeister Gluck, now retired. Due to a busy schedule Gluck had to turn down the commission but strongly recommended Salieri. The libretto, written by Mattia Verazi, was called Europa riconosciuta
(Europa Revealed) and tells the story of the actions Europa, former lover of Zeus, in a time of upheaval. The premiere took place on August 3, 1778 and was an enormous success. Once again Salieri was having to compensate for the literary shortcomings of a shabby libretto but manages to rise above that with some memorable music. Another criticism of the opera involves the use castratos for the leading male roles though at the time that practice was common. The programmatic overture depicts a storm at sea that causes Asterio and his wife Europa to ship wreck on the coast of Tyre.
Europa riconosciuta, though very successful at the time, wasn't heard from again for over two centuries when in 2004 it was performed as the inaugural piece for the reopening of La Scala after a three year remodeling project.
From Milan Salieri made his way to his former home of Venice. There he was commissioned to write La scuola de' gelosi (The School of Jealousy) to a libretto by Caterino Mazzolà. The story tells of various acts of seduction and jealousy between people of three different social classes. It was premiered in December, 1778 and would ultimately become one of Salieri's greatest successes being produced over sixty times during the next 3 decades. It was heard from Portugal to Russia and Italy to the Baltic.
La scuola de' gelosi, "Ah sia gia de' miei sospiri" ( Excerpt )
His business finished, Salieri returned to Vienna in January of 1779 where his wife had delivered a new daughter. Joseph's plan to institute a German opera was still in effect but things were going slow. But for one composer, Ignaz Umlauff, original German operas were not being submitted and translations of French pieces were being used. Shortly after Salieri's arrival, Milan and Venice once again requested Salieri's services and the Emperor granted him leave.
The first stop on his second Italian journey was in Venice were he conducted a new production of La fiera di Venezia. He then moved on to Milan where things seemed to be a repeat of his first visit as he was being asked to write an inaugural piece for a new opera house to be called Alla Cannobiana. Three operas were planned for the opening of the theater; another new production of La fiera di Venezia and two new operas. One of the new pieces was to be written by Salieri and the other by an aspiring composer, Giacomo Rust. When Salieri arrived in Milan he found that things weren't going so well. The construction of the opera house was behind schedule and the librettist Goldini, who was living in Paris, had suffered a heart attack. Goldini had already provided the first of two acts but rest of the opera was in question. Other considerations would make the mounting of three operas impossible so it was decided forego the piece by Rust.
Giacomo Rust (sometimes spelled Russ) was a former Kapellmeister of Salzburg. He had been counting on the Milan commission and was very disappointed when learned he would not be needed. Salieri, feeling the man's defeat, proposed that Rust compose the music for the second act while he would write the first. It was agreed and Il Talismano was a success. Ten years later Salieri would revise this opera and expand it into three acts.
Il Talismano, Overture ( Excerpt )
Salieri traveled to Venice where a commission awaited him but found that the impresario there had died. The librettist Mazzolà had previously sent him the libretto which he had already begun to work on but ultimately abandoned.
In late 1779 Salieri found himself in Rome where he wrote two short intermezzi (La partenza inaspettate and La dama pastorella) before receiving an invitation to go to Naples where Joseph's sister was the Queen. He was being asked to oversee a new production of La scuola de' gelosi and to write a new opera, Semiramide. He would need an extension to his leave of absence which he promptly drafted and sent to Vienna. On the other end, Salieri would fall prey to a Machiavellian parasite by the name of Count Orsini-Rosenberg. The Count was Joseph's chief chamberlain and head of the court theater in Vienna. As chamberlain, he would of course screen the Emperor's correspondence. He later stated that he put Salieri's request in his desk and forgot about it, only mentioning it later in the vaguest terms and failed to elaborate on the circumstances of the request i.e. the Emperor's sister had requested Salieri's services. The terse response read thus:
"In reply to the petition addressed to his Majesty for leave to remain still longer in Italy, his Supreme Highness makes it my duty to write you, saying that you are your own master to remain there as long as you please or think for your good; indeed, that if you find yourself better off there than here, you may remain there forever. I am pained to be unable to make you any pleasanter reply and remain, etc. etc." 3Alexander Thayer, Salieri, Rival of Mozart, pg. 68.
Salieri was in disbelief and shock. Fearing for his job he asked Count Lamberg in the Neapolitan court to find a way to cancel his obligation and proceeded immediately to Vienna traveling day and night.
Upon returning to Vienna in April of 1780, Salieri went home to his family then proceeded to the royal court. Being an insider he had the privilege of going directly to the Emperor's chamber but chose to wait in the corridor with the daily petitioners. The Emperor entered the corridor and spoke with several petitioners when he caught sight of Salieri and gave him a hearty welcome home and said that he hadn't expected him to return so soon. When he asked Salieri how his journey had been, he replied that he was sorry for his error and had returned as quickly as he could. Joseph told him that wasn't necessary and asked him to join him while he ate his dinner. It is likely that Joseph figured out Orsini-Rosenberg's role in those events as Salieri recounted everything in detail but the Emperor never commented on it and the matter was never discussed again. Instead, the Emperor instructed Salieri to go to a performance of his National SingspielSingspiel - A German opera, esp. of the 18th century, using spoken dialogue and singing..
When the Emperor and Salieri next met, Joseph asked him what he thought of the National Singspiel. Salieri said he found it very enjoyable to which the Emperor responded, "Good. You shall write a German opera." This was exactly what Salieri had been dreading. When he protested to the Emperor that his German was too poor to write a good singspiel the Emperor commented that it would serve as a lesson to better learn German and that he would have Orsini-Rosenberg find a suitable text. When Salieri received that text he was under the impression that it was merely an exercise. He never dreamed it would be actually be staged.
Der Rauchfangkehrer, "Wenn dem Adler das Gefieder" ( Excerpt )
The libretto for the singspiel that Salieri was to write is attributed to a Dr. Leopold von Auenbrugger though he never claimed to have written it and he may have been an intermediary. On the surface, Der Rauchfangkehrer, as it was called, appears to be a simple trifle and concerns the antics of a chimney sweep. In looking closer we see that the protagonist Volpino is an Italian with a poor command of the German language. The plot also involves an opera within an opera that Volpino is directing. It would almost seem the story was an affront to Salieri except that some of the arias convey the opinion that Italian is the preferred language for opera though the singer, a German woman, sings poorly in Italian. Clearly someone had crafted either an invective of German opera in general or a parody of the court opera.
Whatever the motivation behind the libretto, it is fascinating in the context of it's place in time and alludes to divisions in the court opera. Near the end of that year the Empress Maria Theresia
of Salzburg to perform his music for the festivities celebrating the accession of Joseph II to the Austrian throne. The Archbishop and Mozart quarreled from the moment Mozart arrived. After his recent successes and acclaim abroad, the composer resented being treated like a servant. The Archbishop, for his part, disliked Mozart's cavalier attitude. Mozart requested to be dismissed. Colloredo refused. The quarrel continued for some weeks when finally, Mozart was discharged from the Archbishop's service. Ironically, on the very night of Mozart's final confrontation with the Archbishop, he attended a performance of Salieri's Der Rauchfangkehrer. He told his father in a letter he was so upset about the incident with the Archbishop that in the middle of the first act he had to go home and lie down.
Mozart remained in Vienna after his dismissal working as a freelance composer and initially enjoyed some success performing his piano concerti. Making a fresh start in Vienna was rough though and Mozart was in dire need of money so he applied for a court position to teach piano to the Princess Elizabeth of Württenberg. This was to be the first instance wherein Salieri and Mozart would be considered rivals though the rivalry consisted of merely competing for the same job and as Braunbehrens points out, did not likely generate any "personal animosity". Joseph's choice was clear. On one hand there was Salieri, an appointee of the court who had already proven himself as a capable teacher and whose students included accomplished performers such as Madame Catarina Cavalieri
. One the other hand, Mozart who had just arrived in Vienna and had but a few undistinguished students. Additionally, there were political considerations. The Princess, though fourteen, was the promised bride of Archduke Franz who, because of his bloodline, would one day be Holy Roman Emperor. A court appointee was therefore politically expedient. The position went to Salieri.
Prior to his hasty departure from Naples, Salieri had managed to complete a few numbers on Semiramide. When he received an offer from Munich to write an opera in 1782 he simply resumed work on that piece. The libretto was by Metastasio and was so popular with the public that no fewer than seven composers had set it to music prior to Salieri. The successful premiere took place in Munich during carnival.
The Emperor's grand plan for German opera was not working as he would have liked. The only original German opera that could claim any degree of success was Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) which premiered on July 16, 1782. Though it was a huge success, it couldn't save the German Theater.
In late 1782 the pace began to pick up as the court was preparing for the reinstatement of Italian opera. Salieri, as Kapellmeister, opened the season with a new production of La scuola de' gelosi with newly added numbers and it enjoyed the same remarkable success it had in Italy.
Digressing briefly from the subject at hand, the role of Christoph Willibald Gluck in the reformation of opera cannot be overlooked nor can his role in influencing the life of Salieri. It has been mentioned previously how Gluck had been instrumental in getting Salieri's first opera La Donna Letterate performed and later recommended him to write the inaugural piece for La Scala.
Gluck was one of those artists who exert such a profound impression on their art that the effects are felt for generations. His desire for change and reform was the direct result of, and in opposition to another great artist, the librettist Pietro Metastasio, born as Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi. Metastasian opera had dominated the eighteenth century and emphasized absolutist monarchism, morality and all that is good in man while avoiding anything dark; this possibly due to his brief training as an abbé. His verse was often set to music with highly ornamented vocal passages requiring only the most accomplished virtuoso singers and relied heavily on the use of castrati. Gluck sought to create vocal parts that more closely resembled natural speech and to infuse the music with a character that revealed the psychology driving the action on the stage. The doctrines of Gluck followed a natural progression into the 19th century to Berlioz then Weber and Wagner.
Salieri's fourth opera, Armida, had been written with Gluck's reform principles in mind and had been embraced by many forward thinking opera goers. Inexplicably though, his subsequent operas reverted to a more conventional style and by the early 1780s one can sense that Salieri's operas lacked any originality. That is, until Les Danaïdes . And Gluck would have a significant role in it's creation and premiere in Paris.
Gluck had found a receptive audience for his reforms in Paris, gracing the stages there with six of his 'new' works. In 1778 Gluck had gone to Paris to rehearse one of his operas and while there received a proposal for another opera in his new style. Calzabigi, who Gluck had worked with before, had written a libretto on the Hypermestra legend and gave Gluck a copy for his consideration. Gluck was too busy to give it much attention. After the premiere of his newest piece Echo et Narcisse was a total disaster, he became embittered and departed Paris for good.
Gluck had given little thought to the Hypermestra libretto when in late 1780 he was sent a French version of the story, prepared by Marius François Du Roullet and Louis Théodore Baron de Tschudinow and now entitled Les Danaïdes. It appeared that he might consider setting Les Danaïdes when in June of 1781 he suffered a paralyzing stroke that affected the right side of his body so that he could no longer write.
Undaunted, Gluck decided to have Salieri secretly write the opera while he secured a sizable commission for it's production. Gluck carried out negotiations with Paris while Salieri wrote, all the while intending to reveal the truth at the last possible moment. During negotiations Gluck began to feed the negotiators morsels of the truth so that by April of 1783 the French were led to believe that Gluck had written the first two acts and that Salieri, under Gluck's supervision, had written the other three. Furthermore, the French were told that Gluck's poor health would not permit him to travel and that Salieri would bring Les Danaïdes to Paris. As a consolation, Gluck offered the piece for 12,000 livres vice his original price of 20,000 livres.
The premiere date was set for spring of 1784 and Salieri arrived in Paris in January to finalize the contract and begin preparations. With so many parties involved in the negotiations the details had got out and the rumor mill went work. As the premiere neared, the public believed that Gluck had written the first two acts and Salieri the rest. The rumors also served to create an unprecedented anticipation. The premiere, on April 26, 1784, was attended by every notable in Paris including Queen Marie Antoinette, one of Salieri's strongest supporters. Opening night was a sensation and the next morning the papers spoke of how superb the music was and how seamless was the joint effort. Gluck had intended that Roullet, one of the librettists, publish the truth on opening day but Roullet withheld that information until the sixth performance. Following the news that Salieri was the sole composer of Les Danaïdes
, Salieri published a statement in the Parisian papers affirming that he was the composer and expressing his gratitude to Gluck for allowing him to benefit from his fame.
Les Danaïdes, Act I, "Descend du ciel" ( Excerpt )
Les Danaïdes, Act I, "Jouissez du destin propice" ( Excerpt )
Les Danaïdes, Act II, "Ou sommes-nous? O ciel!" ( Excerpt )
Les Danaïdes, Act V, "Pere barbare arrache-moi" ( Excerpt )
Les Danaïdes, Act V, Finale, "Rendons graces aux Dieux de leur bonte supreme" ( Excerpt )
When the revenues from Les Danaïdes were tallied, which included a gift of 3,000 livres from Marie Antoinette, Salieri walked away with 12,000 livres, equivelent to 3,000 florins or about 650 ducats. It should be recalled that Salieri's total annual salary was 300 ducats. Paris had made him rich.
Salieri returned to Vienna in July of 1784 and resumed a project that he had begun before the Paris trip. The librettist of this latest work of Salieri's was completely unknown then. His name was Lorenzo da Ponte
. The fledgling librettist had presented himself to Salieri two years earlier with a letter of introduction from Caterino Mazzolà, librettist for La scuola de' gelosi. Salieri in turn introduced him to Joseph who greeted him with open arms. Despite his never having written a libretto, Joseph accepted him into the court opera. After immersing himself in the study of popular librettos, da Ponte produced his first effort, Il ricco d'un giorno.
Da Ponte and Salieri were both shocked that December when the opera failed miserably. It was withdrawn after six performances, never to be heard again. There was considerable animosity and finger pointing between the two men and Da Ponte accused the librettist Casti of participation in a cabal against him. On one point they did agree, that the sudden last minute loss of the lead soprano, Nancy Storace, was the main reason it failed. She had lost her voice and the replacement singer was not up to the part. Salieri vowed never to work with da Ponte again. Fortunately for both men, Salieri didn't keep his word.
Il ricco d'un giorno, Overture ( Excerpt )
In 1785 Salieri and Mozart joined forces with Alessandro Cornetti in writing a cantata to a text by da Ponte called Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia. It was written on the occasion of the recovery of Nancy Storace, mentioned above. Both composers valued the abilities of Storace knowing how important she was to their future work. She would, in fact, sing the role of Susanna in Mozart's upcoming Figaro and the role of Ofelia in Salieri's Prima la musica e poi le parole.
This joint effort by Mozart and Salieri to create a cantata is intriguing especially in the context of a supposed rivalry. Since there are no surviving copies of this piece, it is unclear who wrote what yet the incident clearly suggests a congenial relationship at least at this particular point in time.
After the disaster of Il ricco d'un giorno the resounding success of Salieri's next work, La grotta di Trofonio, would more than compensate. Mosel provides his own account of Trofonio,
"....a work which has it's place not only among the very best but among the very best of it's class and deserves the title of classic; it is right to add that none could remember any opera up to that time which had been received with such tumultuous, universal and lasting applause as this...." 4Alexander Thayer, Salieri, Rival of Mozart, pg. 82.
Early writers on the subject of the supposed animosity between Salieri and Mozart, sought to use the premieres of Figaro and Trofonio as an example of the harsh rivalry between the two composers. Drawn from the recollections of Irish singer Michael Kelly, these accounts tell of how three operas, Figaro, Trofonio and one by Righini were ready for performance at the same time and that a bitter contest ensued as to who would premiere first. In truth, La grotta di Trofonio was premiered in October of 1785 when Mozart was just starting to write Figaro.
La grotta di Trofonio was another unprecedented success when it premiered on October 12, 1785. The libretto was by Giovanni Casti and concerns a magician named Trofonio who lives in a grotto and casts spells on two seemingly mismatched couples. Salieri said of Tronfonio, "This music, in a style as unusual as the poem demands, gained remarkable applause and was the first opera buffa to be engraved in score." The publishing of the score mentioned by Salieri was by Artaria of Vienna. La grotta di Trofonio would be produced over thirty times during the next decade.
La grotta di Trofonio, Act I, "Mie care figlioule" ( Excerpt )
La grotta di Trofonio, Act I, "Orsù già compresi" ( Excerpt )
La grotta di Trofonio, Act I, "Il diletto che in petto mi sento" ( Excerpt )
La grotta di Trofonio, Act II, "Spiriti invisibili che ite per l'aere?" ( Excerpt )
La grotta di Trofonio, Act II "Trofonio, Trofonio, filosofo greco - Coro di Spiriti?" ( Excerpt )
Emperor Joseph staged an entertainment in February of 1786 for the benefit of the Governors General of the Austrian Netherlands, the Arch Duchess Maria Christine and Duke Albert of Saxony-Teschen. That entertainment might be described as an 18th century equivalent of a 'media event'. It was held in the Orangery
at Schönbrunn Palace and involved two short operatic pieces in direct competition; one by Mozart and the other by Salieri. The librettos of both pieces parodied the day to day business and problems of staging operas. Mozart's piece, a singspiel, was called Der Schauspieldirektor (The Theater Director) with a libretto by Gottlieb Stephanie. Mozart wrote an overture and four pieces sung at end of the play. Salieri was given a libretto by Casti, Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the Music, Then the Text) and was an hour long miniature opera. The event was attended by a large party of Vienna's elite and at the conclusion, the Emperor rewarded the composers for their relative achievements. Salieri received 100 ducats, the normal fee for an opera, and Mozart received 50 ducats. The earliest Mozart writers seized on this event as an example of Joseph's favoritism toward Salieri. The Emperor did indeed prefer Salieri's style but not to the exclusion of Mozart. In fact, Joseph was very partial to Mozart. In viewing this incident in perspective, it should be considered that Salieri composed an entire opera whereas Mozart wrote an overture and four numbers. Salieri's contribution, in the Emperor's eye, simply reflected a much greater effort.
Neither of the composers ever commented on this "spectacle" nor does it appear to have generated any animosity. One can speculate that they both took it all in stride though it is more likely they were relieved to be free of the business since both were very busy with other projects at that time.
We now arrive at the time of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, an unparalleled masterpiece in the annals of opera and one that Salieri was rumored to have sabotaged. It should be simple enough to point out that Salieri was likely in Paris at the time and therefore unable to participate in a 'cabal' but the matter is too complex not to address more fully.
The court opera at that time was host to numerous factions, each serving their own interests. The recollections of those involved have often been used to illustrate one point or another but should be viewed with caution as they are often less than objective. As for the 'Italian cabal' that many writers make reference to, there is no evidence of Salieri's involvement in this clique. In fact, were he to align himself with the Italians Salieri would have risked his good standing with Joseph.
Of the intrigues and rivalries at the Viennese court few were as bitter and heated as that between librettists Giovanni Battista Casti and Lorenzo da Ponte. Both men coveted the appointment of court dramatist, then vacant due to the recent death of Metastasio. As Casti and da Ponte maneuvered to obtain the desired posting, Casti became aligned with Count Orsini-Rosenburg while Joseph favored da Ponte. Much of the bitterness hurled at Figaro originated from the Casti/Orsini-Rosenburg faction and was aimed at da Ponte, not Mozart. Unfortunately, Mozart was paranoid by nature (having been raised as such by Leopold Mozart's example) and did not see it that way. Salieri, for his part, tread the middle ground and worked with da Ponte and Casti. Despite his previous disagreement with da Ponte, Salieri later worked with him on three other operas.
Because of Salieri's neutrality and the fact that he had pressing business in Paris, any involvement on his part in an attempt to derail Figaro did not likely happen. Thayer makes the point, citing Mosel, that Salieri received the second Paris invitation in Spring of 1786 and departed immediately thereafter. With Figaro premiering on May 1, according to Thayer, Salieri was not in Vienna. Braunbehrens speculates that Salieri remained in Vienna for the Figaro opening and the birth of his sixth child, departing for Paris in early July. In either case Salieri was not present for most or all of Figaro's first run which ended in mid November. It should also be mentioned that Figaro was not withdrawn because of any intrigue but was replaced by Martin's Una cosa rara which caused such a sensation that Figaro was discontinued. Additionally, Salieri was very busy prior to the Figaro premiere writing two operas for the up coming Paris trip. He simply did not have the time or inclination to participate in a petty cabal when his own interests were at stake.
No direct evidence of Salieri's involvement in the efforts against Figaro has ever been established. The classic historical arguments have been shown to be thin and lacking substance. Only the actions of Orsini-Rosenburg have been demonstrated. Moreover, one of Salieri's first actions upon his appointment to Hofkapellmeister, two years later, was to rivive Figaro where it ran for twenty nine performances.