Examining the Unfounded Notion of Salieri’s Involvement in Mozart’s Death

Bythu lita

Dec 20, 2023

Total darkness. We hear an old man’s voice, distinct and in distress. He uses a mixture of English and occasionally Italian. “Mozart! Mozart! Mozart. Forgive me!” Antonio Salieri says. “Forgive your assassin! Mozart!”

So begins Amadeus, the 1984 movie adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 stage play. The film went on to win eight Oscars, including the awards for best picture, best actor (for F. Murray Abraham, who played Salieri) and best director (for Milos Forman).

Murder mystery: F. Murray Abraham, left,  and Tom Hulce compare notes  in Amadeus.
Murder mystery: F. Murray Abraham, left, and Tom Hulce compare notes in Amadeus.CREDIT:TAMARA DEAN

Amadeus was founded on a cracking premise: a murder mystery, in costume, with a soundtrack to kill for. But did Salieri really murder his fellow composer?

First of all, the facts. Mozart died in 1791 at the age of 35. The cause of death was almost certainly a virulent cocktail of microbes – maybe streptococcus, maybe rheumatic fever – which was doing the rounds of 18th century Vienna. At the time of his death he was working on a Requiem, a mass for the dead, commissioned by Franz van Walsegg to commemorate the anniversary of his wife’s death. Van Walsegg commissioned the work anonymously (presumably because he was intending to pass off the Requiem as his own), hence the myth of the “dark stranger” associated with the work.

In costume: Elizabeth Berridge, left, and Christine Ebersole in costume for Salieri's The Chimney Sweep.
In costume: Elizabeth Berridge, left, and Christine Ebersole in costume for Salieri’s The Chimney Sweep. CREDIT:TAMARA DEAN

Rumours of his being poisoned, perhaps by Salieri, circulated but were never taken seriously. Indeed, Mozart’s widow Constanze remained on good terms with Salieri and sent their son, Franz Xaver Mozart, to him for music lessons. He lived on to the ripe old age of 75. He suffered from dementia in his later years and, according to contemporary reports, sometimes claimed responsibility for Mozart’s death, but always denied it in his lucid moments.

It was the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, who first took Mozart’s last days and turned them into a ripping yarn. In his A Little Tragedy Pushkin portrays Salieri slipping poison into Mozart’s wine as they dine together. In Amadeus, meanwhile, Peter Shaffer dramatises a rivalry between the two composers and makes Salieri into the “dark stranger” behind the Requiem commission, but ultimately draws no conclusions.

The real mystery is not Mozart’s death, but what happened next: Mozart’s operas are still performed, regularly, in opera houses all over the world. By contrast, the last fully-staged production of Salieri’s opera The Chimney Sweep, was in the 1790s. Why did Salieri fall so far out of favour? Was he really that bad a composer? Or did the myth of Mozart leave Salieri destined to be remembered as a homicidal also-ran?

Erin Helyard, co-artistic director of Pinchgut Opera and conductor for a new production of The Chimney Sweep, opening at the City Recital Hall next month, is determined to set the story straight.

“Salieri was extremely famous,” says Helyard. “He was an unstinting advocate for musician’s rights and he was an amazing pedagogue. He taught Liszt, Schubert and Moscheles. He was also a very famous vocal coach.”

“But in the 19th century his music fell out of favour. It didn’t strike a chord with the romantic sensibility.”

Part of the reason, Helyard thinks, is the stigma of success in an age when suffering for your art was far more fashionable. Salieri died a rich man; even after he stopped composing, in the early 1800s, he still had a prominent role in the musical life of Vienna, conducting premiere performances of Beethoven and Haydn. But the faces that stare down at us when we’re practising the piano, says Helyard, are the ones who died young, poor or deaf.

“My personal view is that he, Salieri, missed that stimulating rivalry in the ’90s when Mozart passed away.”

Another reason for Salieri’s decline in fame was, quite simply, that 18th-century audiences were obsessed with the new. “It was strange to play old music,” she says. “An 18th-century person would be astonished to see our culture nowadays.”

Helyard is confident that The Chimney Sweep will dispel any lingering doubts about the quality of Salieri’s craftsmanship. It is an “upstairs-downstairs” comedy, featuring a musical sweep who charms the ladies and dupes the gentlemen. The music is spectacular, according to Helyard, and the libretto is full of gags, spoken and sung in English.

The innovations of Salieri’s The Chimney Sweep changed opera and paved the way for Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which was written in the same style and with a prominent part for Salieri’s most famous singing pupil, Caterina Cavalieri. This may be its first staged performance in more than two centuries but, whatever subsequent generations thought, Mozart was clearly impressed.

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