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Mozart vs. Salieri with James Jacobs

On November 22, 2019, Classical WETA host James Jacobs gave a presentation exploring the historic rivalry of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. This talk was part of our Folger Friday series. Listen to the recorded talk or read the transcript below.


Let’s start with a little test. I’m going to play the first 30 seconds or so of two different pieces. One of them is by Mozart; one of them is by Salieri. Let’s just see if you can tell me who wrote each one; and if you know either one of these pieces, please recuse yourself. Here’s the first piece…

[CLIP of Prima la Musica – Sinfonia]

…and here’s the second piece:

[CLIP of Der Schauspieldirektor – Overture]

Show of hands: who thinks the first piece was by Mozart and the second piece was by Salieri? Who thinks the first piece was by Salieri and the second piece was by Mozart? Okay, recusers, how many people recognized the first piece? How many people recognized the second piece?

What those two pieces have in common is that they both show the composers at their most light-hearted. They’re both overtures to what you could characterize as operatic sitcoms; workplace comedies, if you will. In fact, both of those operas are the length of a sitcom, about 25 minutes long, and they’re both about the making of opera itself, complete with self-absorbed opera singers and self-absorbed producers and self-absorbed librettists and even self-absorbed composers, all trying to get their way in a room full of strong egos. The structure of both operas alternates between scenes of witty dialogue, funny ensemble numbers, and arias that are just serious enough that we can appreciate their artistry non-ironically. You could say they’re like those old MGM backstage musicals without the love stories, or a sitcom like “The Office” with singing. Anyway, the first piece we heard was from an Italian opera called Prima la Musica, e poi e parole – first the music, and then the words – and the second was from a German opera called Der Schauspieldirektor or The Impresario. And now you can probably guess that the first one was by the Italian composer Antonio Salieri and the second was by the Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Now as you heard, the style of the two works is pretty similar. There was a lingua franca for orchestral comedy music in the 1780s and both composers were fluent in it – as well they should be; for both of those operas were premiered at exactly the same time in the same room at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, apparently a very big room, since there’s no reports that anyone at one end of the room could hear what was going on at the other end. The entire idea for this event came out of the fertile mind of Emperor Joseph II.

Portrait of Emperor Joseph II by Carl von Sales.

A few words about Joseph, since he’s a character in this play: he was the brother of Marie Antoinette; he eliminated censorship of the press; he enacted criminal justice reform and severely curtailed use of the death penalty; he instituted universal elementary education and literacy programs for all regardless of economic status or religious affiliation, ordered that classes be conducted in German instead of Latin (which had been the norm), and provided scholarships to poor students to pursue higher education. He was a Catholic who gave autonomy to Protestants, Jews and Muslims and protected them from discrimination and persecution. He attempted to create something like universal health care by creating a large hospital in Vienna that was free to all.

If he was a liberal at home, however, he was a hawk on the battlefield, and he kept trying to colonize and expand the Hapsburg empire by aligning with Russia instead of his European neighbors. (Ahem.) He also did not brook dissent at home; he was like one of those bosses who institute a lot of very reasonable, liberal-sounding policies and thinks that gives him the right to not listen to anyone or put up with anyone disagreeing with him. (I think we’ve all had bosses like that.) And his enlightened reforms and policies gave little consideration to local cultures and institutions; for example, that policy of teaching in German instead of Latin sounds good until you remember that Hungary was part of his empire and he made no room for the Hungarian language in his mandated curriculum. That large free hospital sounds good until you learn that he ignored his own experts in building it and they had no effective methods for managing sanitation and the hospital ended up spreading more diseases than it healed with the result that the death rate actually went up. He was considered by many to be a despot, and while some people benefited from his policies the suffering of many others increased. It’s telling that, back in the 1930s, both Roosevelt and Hitler, unbeknownst to one another, considered Joseph to be a role model; FDR because Joseph’s reforms could be seen as a kind of progenitor to the New Deal, and Hitler because of the way he centralized absolute power and gave a facade of populism and reform to measures whose real agenda was to create a massive homogeneous German-speaking culture with, in Joseph’s own words, “universal German values”; and his socialistic measures were a way of creating a strong economy while quelling dissent. In any case, none of this worked out very well for Joseph and just before he died in 1790 after his ten-year reign, he requested that his epitaph read: “Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook.” This talk and the play running on this stage is all about men obsessed with the idea of failure and who died thinking that they failed.

In any case, one of the many areas in which Joseph wanted absolute control was over the arts, and again, he tended to be very despotic about his “enlightened” policies. In 1786, he commissioned both Salieri and Mozart to write half hour comic operas about opera itself, the two operas we just heard excerpts from. The two composers had developed a warm and mutually supportive working relationship; in fact, in the previous year, they wrote a cantata together, which was just discovered three years ago.

“Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia,” sheet music, 1785. Property of the Czech Museum of Music.

It’s neither composers’ best work, but it tells us that they considered one another to be peers. And what the opera project tells us is that Joseph felt that Salieri and Mozart were on an equal artistic plane, and that by giving them the same assignment, the results of which were to be performed side by side, he was setting them up for inevitable comparison and the creation of camps of fans who favored one composer over another. In other words, the person ultimately responsible for creating the myth of a rivalry between Salieri and Mozart was the real Emperor Joseph II. It was Joseph, after all, who created the professional environment that forced them to compete for aristocratic pupils and commissions and performance opportunities. If, in the course of the play, you see that Mozart always seems to get the short end of the stick, I think it’s only fair to point out in the Emperor’s defense that Salieri had been working for Joseph for fifteen years before Mozart arrived in Vienna in 1781, so it’s not unreasonable that Salieri was in a much more senior position at court. And I should also point out that Joseph assumed that both he and Mozart had more time to establish a relationship and develop a suitable position for the younger composer; as we’re about to find out, neither of them had time.

Let’s establish these ages. Salieri was only six years older than Mozart. This is important to know as you watch the play, since Salieri is implied to be a much older man. So when we first meet Mozart in the play he’s 25 and Salieri is 31; and it was five years later that Joseph set up that event with their dueling comic operas I mentioned earlier, and it was later that same year, in 1786 when Mozart was 30, that he wrote The Marriage of Figaro. Four years later, in 1790, Joseph died at the age of 48, and the following year, in 1791, Mozart wrote The Magic Flute and the Requiem before dying in December of that year at the age of 35.

Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815.

But let’s get back to Salieri. He was born on August 18, 1750 and died May 7, 1825. Let’s put this in the context of music history. Salieri was born exactly three weeks after the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, and he died exactly a year to the day after the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This is astonishing to contemplate as you consider the development of music that took place during that time, and Salieri played a major role in that development. When Salieri was a child, Handel was still conducting his annual benefit performances of Messiah. Beethoven revered Handel as an ancient master and quoted from his Messiah in his own Missa Solemnis, which he wrote just before his ninth symphony. In fact, Beethoven had been one of Salieri’s pupils. Now, Beethoven, if you know anything about him, you know that he did not suffer fools. Beethoven was not the best pupil, and he had a very difficult time during his lessons with Haydn. So think about how extraordinary it was that it was as an adult that Beethoven sought out Salieri to teach him lessons in how to write for the voice. This was when Beethoven had already composed his first two symphonies and was already being recognized as the heir to Mozart’s title as the greatest living musician. Beethoven was fully aware of his own worth – and he knew that the only man capable of telling him something he didn’t know was Salieri. Around this same time, Salieri heard a seven-year-old rural schoolmaster’s son audition for the Vienna Choir Boys and was so impressed that he recommended he get a scholarship and later taught him free composition lessons, and this is why the world has heard of Franz Schubert. Later on, he took on a talented ten-year-old pupil named Franz Liszt. In his memoirs, Hector Berlioz said that it was seeing a Salieri opera when he was seventeen that convinced him to give up medicine and devote his life to music. Giuseppe Verdi made it clear that the operas of Salieri were as influential to him as the operas of Rossini. One of Brahms’s first major orchestral works was his variations on a theme by Haydn, which he modeled on Salieri’s variations on La Folia, the first stand-alone set of variations ever written for orchestra. And Salieri conducted an annual concert to benefit widows and orphans, and constantly drew attention to the welfare of struggling musicians.

Unfinished portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Joseph Lange, 1789.

What I’m trying to tell you is that Antonio Salieri was a giant in the realm of music. The real Emperor Joseph was completely justified in giving the real Antonio Salieri pride of place in his court.  And Mozart completely accepted and understood that. Now, did that stop Mozart from writing letters to his father Leopold in which he complained that Salieri and his “Italian cabal” was preventing his operas from being produced? No, it did not. Nor did it stop him from speculating on his deathbed that he may have been poisoned. Musicians….they’ve got issues. No matter how great they are, they can be petty and paranoid, and Mozart’s father was also a musician who had his own issues, and he instilled them in Mozart, who added a few of his own, and…so on. But Salieri also had issues. Before I start talking about their supposed rivalry I should emphasize that in reality Salieri was very supportive of Mozart, and after his death he did whatever he could to assist Mozart’s widow Constanze and he even took on Mozart’s son as a pupil. And no, he did not try to seduce Constanze – you’re about to see that in the play and it didn’t happen. You’re about to see a lot of things that didn’t happen but the myths you’re going to see are almost as old as the truths. And while the myth of their rivalry was instigated by Joseph’s power games with his employees and Mozart’s frustration and paranoia, the main person responsible for creating these myths was in fact Salieri himself. After Mozart’s death something happened to him – he evidently did feel some sort of guilt, perhaps a kind of survivor’s guilt, imagining that he could have done something to save Mozart from his fate. The conspiracy theories surrounding Mozart’s death started almost immediately, and by the turn of the 19th century we start to see the first written evidence that Salieri was being implicated – and the only explanation is that these rumors may have come from Salieri himself. It’s not this play’s fault that you think Salieri poisoned Mozart. These rumors became serious enough that a composer who was a cousin of Mozart’s wife, Carl Maria von Weber, refused to join a society in which Salieri was a member. Later on, Rossini joked about the rumor when he visited Salieri. And as is referenced in the play, there was gossip about these rumors in Beethoven’s house. The only good thing about Beethoven being deaf is that he had to have conversations by passing around a book to all his guests, and those conversation books have survived, so we have this very illuminating record of what Beethoven talked about in his home; let’s just say that as profound and ennobling as Beethoven’s music is, what he talked about with his guests was not always on such an exalted level. (In fact, if you’re a fan of Beethoven’s music, do yourself a favor and don’t read those conversation books. Really – just enjoy the music.) Anyway, the quotes from Beethoven’s Conversation Books that you hear in the play are in fact accurate, and they are valuable in tracking the course of the myth that led to the play Amadeus.

In 1804, Salieri wrote a requiem for himself, when he was 54 and still in perfect health, which even at the time was considered a very odd thing to do, and as it turned out he still had 21 years of life left to live. His doing this seemed to echo Mozart’s belief that he wrote his requiem for his own death, a delusion that Salieri knew about, and his writing this work seemed like a kind of exorcism of his demons surrounding Mozart’s death. Here’s a bit of Salieri’s requiem.

[CLIP of Salieri’s Requiem in C minor]

If you didn’t know who wrote that, would you call that music “mediocre?” If you turned on WETA while that piece was on, would you turn it off or would you be going to our website to be seeing what piece this was? and once you did that, and if all you knew about Salieri was the movie, would that cause you to reconsider what you thought you knew about the quality of Salieri’s music?

We’ll get back to Mozart’s requiem in a bit, but first we have to go to where this play begins, which is all about something that definitely happened in real life – which is that, one night, in the throes of dementia that he struggled with in his final years, Antonio Salieri cried out that he poisoned Mozart. But then he recanted it, and he said other things, and it was never really clarified because it couldn’t be. But the damage was done, and the myth was born, and as I mentioned, Salieri’s deranged confession became the talk of Vienna, and soon, all of Europe, including Russia. It was only six years after Salieri’s death, in 1831, that the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play in verse called Mozart and Salieri. Here’s a brief excerpt from Salieri’s opening monologue in Pushkin’s play:

By arduous, ever-earnest constancy
At last in the infinity of art
I reached a high degree. Now glory smiled
Upon me finally; in people’s hearts
I found strings consonant to my creations.
I was content; at peace I took delight
In my own work, success and glory — also
In works and in successes of my friends,
My gentle comrades in the wondrous art.
No, never did I know the sting of envy!
Who’d say that proud Salieri would in life
Be a repellent envier, a serpent
Trampled by people, gnawing sand and dust
In impotence? No one! And now — I’ll say it —
I am an envier. I envy; sorely,
Profoundly now I envy. — Pray, o Heaven!
Where, where is rightness? when the sacred gift,
Immortal genius, comes not in reward
For fervent love, for total self-rejection,
For work and for exertion and for prayers,
But casts its light upon a madman’s head,
An idle loafer’s brow… O Mozart, Mozart!

So already just six years after Salieri’s death, he has already become a mythic literary archetype like Faust or Orpheus, a symbol of a skilled artisan that knows that his work will die with him because he lacks the spark of immortal genius, a realization that drives him to murderous envy. Pushkin never claimed that he was writing truth, and there were still many people alive who knew the real Salieri, but his characterization caught on because it fit in with Mozart’s legacy, which was as much about him as the suffering artist who died in poverty as much as it was about his actual music.

So now let’s take that myth to its absurd conclusion.

Sixty-six years after Pushkin wrote his play, the composer Rimsky-Korsakov turned it into a brief opera. We’ll now see a clip of that opera, from a Soviet film made in the early sixties. The opera takes its libretto directly from Pushkin’s poem. This is the scene in which the historical libel is revealed in all its glory. The scene begins with a reference to a playwright both composers had worked with, Beaumarchais, and the rumor that he had poisoned someone.

Mozart
Ah, is it right, Salieri,
That Beaumarchais could really poison someone?

Salieri
I doubt he did: too laughable a fellow
For such a serious craft.

Mozart
He was a genius,
Like you and me. While genius and evildoing
Are incompatibles. Is that not right?

Salieri
You think so?
     (Throws the poison into Mozart’s glass.)
Well, now drink.

Mozart
Here is a health
To you, my friend, and to the candid union
That ties together Mozart and Salieri,
Two sons of harmony.

Salieri
But wait, hold on,
Hold on, hold on!.. You drank it!.. Without me?

Mozart
(throws his napkin on the table)
That’s it, I’m full.
(He goes to the piano.)
And now, Salieri, listen:
My Requiem.
     (He plays.)
You weep?

Salieri
Such tears as these
I shed for the first time. It hurts, yet soothes,
As if I had fulfilled a heavy duty,
As if at last the healing knife had chopped
A suffering member off. These tears, o Mozart!..
Pay no respect to them; continue, hurry
To fill my soul with those celestial sounds…

 Mozart
If only all so quickly felt the power
Of harmony! But no, in that event
The world could not exist; all would abandon
The basic needs of ordinary life
And give themselves to unencumbered art.
We’re few, the fortune’s chosen, happy idlers,
Despising the repellent cares of use,
True votaries of one and only beauty.
Is that not right? But now I’m feeling sick
And kind of heavy. I should go and sleep.
Farewell then!

Salieri
See you later.

[VIDEO CLIP of Mozart and Salieri]

So let’s talk about Mozart’s requiem – and this is one of those instances in which the truth really is stranger than any fiction. There was a count named Walsegg who liked to anonymously commission works from great composers and then perform them under his own name, pretending that he wrote them. When his wife died he planned to continue this practice by commissioning a requiem from Mozart, and he did it by sending a masked messenger, cloaked in gray, to Mozart’s house with a purse full of money, asking that he write a requiem, and that there would be another purse for him once the work was completed. It is also true that Mozart was beginning to fall ill, and in his delerium he imagined that the messenger was a servant of the Grim Reaper, ordering Mozart to write a requiem for himself. At that time he had a pupil named Franz Xaver Sussmayer who had handwriting remarkably similar to Mozart’s own, and during his final days Mozart was reduced to dictating the score to Sussmayer that he was too weak to write. Sussmayer was practically living with them by this time, and this sparked another rumor, which is that he was having an affair with Constanze while Mozart was dying. (Who’s going to make that movie?) In the end Mozart did not complete his Requiem, and the version we know today was partly composed by Sussmayer. We’ll now hear the very spot where Mozart ends and Sussmayer begins.

Here are the first eight bars of the Lacrimosa:

[CLIP of Mozart’s Requiem – Lacrimosa]

Now here is where Sussmayer begins, and he composed the rest of the movement.

[CLIP continues]

Many people consider that passage to be the emotional climax of the entire work – and it’s not by Mozart. And, if you study the score closely, you realize that it really couldn’t have been by Mozart; there’s some sloppy voice-leading and orchestration that Mozart would never have allowed, and besides, we know from his sketches that he was actually planning on concluding this section with a fugue, and he even left a subject for that fugue on a piece of paper that Sussmayer apparently never saw or knew about. All Sussmayer knew is that he had a job to do, to complete the Requiem so Mozart’s wife and children could collect Count Walsegg’s money. And he did it; he rose to the occasion by rising to his own level of greatness. Sussmayer never wrote anything else as great as that, but he wrote enough for us to know that it was indeed his work.

I’ve always found that incredibly moving, and part of the beauty of this work for me has always been the mingling of the music of the genius Mozart with that of regular-guy Sussmayer. I discovered Mozart’s requiem and heard the story of its composition when I was eleven, around the same time that I was reading The Lord of the Rings, and for me, Sussmayerfinishing that movement we just heard was like Sam Gamgee taking over the quest when Frodo fell ill; a way of showing us that we all had our own chance to be heroes, and that all of us have an indispensable role to play in human history with exactly the skills we each have, genius or no.

I first saw Amadeus in 1981, when I was privileged to see Ian McKellen and Tim Curry do this play on Broadway. And then like everyone else I saw the movie a bunch of times, and six years ago I did a similar sort of talk for a production in Boston. And I have to admit that all those times the play has always struck me as a bit cartoonish. But it seems that life has gotten a bit more cartoonish in the last thirty years. Back in the 1980s, it just seemed absurd that a man who is painfully aware both of his own mediocrity and the fact that he owes his exalted position in society purely to political connections would then use his power to try to get revenge on those he knows deserves power more than he does. I mean, who does that?

—But really what it’s about is what I was talking about before concerning musicians and their issues. Musicians create a plane of beauty and order that by its very nature is ephemeral. It’s so alluring, even addictive; you spend your life creating that plane for yourself and for the listener, creating this perfect aural universe, and then, inevitably, it ends, and you have to go back to a plane of existence that can’t compare at all. That disconnect can be profoundly damaging, and it damaged both Mozart and Salieri – and Joseph, for that matter. To quote the man for whom this building was created, “Music oft hath such a charm,/To make bad good, and good provoke to harm.” (In fact, even the title of the play that quotation is taken from expresses that same dichotomy in musical terms: Measure for Measure.)

But what we can take solace in is that while each one of these men died thinking that they failed, they didn’t fail at all. Mozart not only succeeded as a musician, of course, but he also ended up doing right by his family – it’s because of him that we’ve all heard of his father Leopold, and his legacy paid off for his wife and children, who ended up leading a fine comfortable existence after his death. Salieri may not be as great a composer as Mozart, but he was a pretty good one, and he helped enable several truly great composers to do their best work – including, ironically, Mozart. And as for Joseph, say what you want about him, but he created the conditions in which Mozart could write the Marriage of Figaro, and they may not have been perfect conditions, but they did the job. None of them failed. And while none of us can possibly live our lives as a piece of music, at least we can make room for music in our lives, and during those precious moments the whole notion of success and failure is irrelevant, as is the whole notion of genius and mediocrity.

I’ll let the myth-maker Pushkin have the last word, with the first words he puts into the mouth of Salieri:

Some people say: there is no right on earth.
Not in the heavens, neither! This to me
Appears as clear as any simple scale.
I came into this world in love with art.
Yet on a childhood day, when in the heights
Of our old church the lofty pipes resounded,
I listened, and was lost in listening.

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