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Is It Time To Rehabilitate Antonio Salieri ?

   Poor Antonio Salieri (1750- 1825 ) has gotten a bum rap in music history . For so long , he's been seen a mediocre composer with a pathological  envy of the divinely gifted Mozart , and  there have been long-standing but totally bogus rumors that he may have been guilty of causing the untimely death of his supposed rival in 1791 by  poisoning him .

   The enormous popularity of Milos Forman's  film Amadeus , which came out 30 years ago and was based on the play of the same name by Peter Schaeffer , hasn't   exactly done much for Salieri's reputation . In fact ,  the film, while  highly entertaining , makes mincemeat  of the historical facts and  also paints a highly misleading  picture of  Mozart .

    So just who was Antonio Salieri ?   Far from being a non-entity , he was one of the best known and respected composers of the 18th and early 19th century .  He was a prominent composer, conductor and teacher who was a pupil of none other than the great  opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, whose 300 th anniversary comes this year .  He was highly connected within the classical music world  of  his day ,  friend of  the most powerful aristocrats of Europe and  many of the most important composers of his day .  He knew Mozart well and  the two were on good terms .  Does this sound like a  mediocrity ? 

    Salieri was born in the Veneto region of Italy , that is the mainland area of Italy surrounding  Venice ,  and showed  great promise as a composer in his youth .  But he moved to  Vienna and spent  the rest of his life there while making frequent  trips around Europe , and became fluent in German . 

    Salieri was one of the leading opera composers of his day and wrote numerous stage works which were widely performed in his lifetime but which have been completely forgotten until  recent revivals , but  also composed  symphonies, concertos ,  choral works such ass  Masses and  Requiem etc . 

    Somehow , rumors  began to circulate  after Mozart  died in 1791 that he had poisoned him , but there is not one shred of evidence for this absurd accusation .  The film Amadeus portrayed him as being insanely envious of Mozart and obsessed with  his inferiority to his rival , and  shows him as an old man  living in an insane asylum many years later   constantly brooding over Mozart . 

    Interestingly ,  Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov , famous for his exotic orchestral suite "Scheherezade " , wrote a brief one act opera with  small orchestra  called "Mozart and Salieri ".  The two are the only characters apart from a  non-singing or speaking role for a violinist .  Salieri has invited Mozart to his home for dinner ,  and sure enough , by the end , we find that  Salieri has  poisoned  Mozart . The opera has been recorded a few times and you can see it on youtube with  English subtitles .  It's certainly interesting but not at all typical of the other Rimsky-Korsakov operas , which deal with  Russian history and folklore .

     You can also  see and hear recordings of some of Salieri's music  on youtube .  A few years ago, I took out a DVD of  a performance of  Salieri's opera "Falstaff " from my library, based on Shakespeare's  "The Merry Wives of Windsor ".  Verdi's  final opera  "Falstaff ", also based on the play, is of course far better known, and one of the greatest comic operas ever written .

     But I found the Salieri opera highly enjoyable , and would definitely recommend the  DVD , which was filmed at  the opera festival  in Schwetzingen, Germany , which specializes in reviving  obscure operas ,about 20 years ago .  The music is witty and vivacious , not at all the work of  a mediocrity . 

    The renowned Italian mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli  is an enthusiast for Salieri's music and has recorded a number of  arias and  othervocal works by him , and  recordings of his music are no longer  scarce .  So forget  the  movie Amadeus , entertaining as it is,  and give the music of  Antonio Salieri a chance !   You won't regret it .

Posted: May 13 2014, 09:01 PM by the horn | with no comments
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